Grief and rage have consumed the nation in the wake of the horrific massacre in Uvalde, the small suburb of San Antonio, Texas, where 18-year-old Salvador Ramos walked into a fourth-grade classroom at Robb Elementary School with an AR-style rifle and stole the lives of 19 students and two teachers. Outside of the town of Uvalde itself—where the grieving community shouted for President Joe Biden to “do something” during his visit this Sunday—the intensity of these emotions can be most palpably felt at protests like the one held outside the National Rifle Association convention this weekend in Houston.
On Friday, thousands gathered at the Discovery Green park in downtown Houston to send a message to the NRA convention goers and organizers. The convention took place across the street at the George R. Brown Convention Center. I arrived at the convention center ready to report on the weekend’s proceedings, like I’ve done in the past at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump rallies, the QAnon believers gathering in Dallas last year, and so on. I had hoped to seek out some of the elected officials and gun manufacturers in attendance and ask them a few hard questions. But I never got the chance to.
After some “prayerful consideration,” several major politicians backed out of attending the convention at the last minute, including Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and Sen. John Cornyn. Daniel Defense, the manufacturer of the guns used in the Uvalde massacre—guns that, no joke, the company advertised with a photo of a child just weeks before the shooting—also dropped out. They all gave their varying reasons, but the underlying motivation for all of them appeared clear to this reporter: shame. For his part, Gov. Abbott provided a pre-taped speech that aired at the NRA convention at the exact same time he spoke live at a press conference in Uvalde. While Abbott told the grieving people of Uvalde that “all options are on the table,” his pre-taped speech suggested that gun reform was not, in fact, on the table.
I also ended up backing out of the convention, albeit not by my own choice. Despite completing an application for a press pass prior to the online form being closed, I was told my request had been rejected because they were “at capacity” for journalists when I arrived at the press office. When I asked what “capacity” meant, they told me that the number of journalists allowed inside was “proprietary information,” and then requested a police officer escort me off the premises for raising further questions. As I was escorted out, I saw a banner advertising gun magazines that stated “More Capacity, No Compromises.”
At the NRA convention, it turns out, the First Amendment comes after the Second.
Another journalist—John Mone, from Newsy—also had trouble accessing the convention on Friday, despite having been explicitly approved for a press pass.
“The NRA told Newsy it would be granted credentials when the organization asked one of the chief communications officers for access,” Mone told The Real News. “We were told the crew would be allowed in with floor passes. But when this reporter attempted to obtain credentials at 10AM Friday morning a phalanx of middle aged security had erected a perimeter fence around George R. Brown and were asking to see NRA memberships or proof you bought passes for the convention. The guards denied the reporter access and was told he needed an email from NRA PR. The NRA PR team was unresponsive when the reporter tried to contact them repeatedly. The fence went up and the posture changed in anticipation of Trump’s attendance.”
Mone’s team was eventually granted access the following day.
I, on the other hand, did not anticipate having much luck convincing them to let me into the convention. My time in Houston was limited, anyway, and I didn’t want to waste any of it. So I turned my attention instead to the protest across the street, where an estimated 4,000 people chanted, cheered, and listened intently to fiery speeches delivered by a number of pro-gun control organizers, politicians, and victims of gun violence.
Short notice and sweltering temperatures did little to dampen the energy of the crowd, which remained engaged and organized throughout the demonstration. When someone fainted from the heat and a medic had to be called to the stage, the crowd was able to quickly clear a path for a doctor who was in attendance. “We’re not like those people across the street; we can organize,” a volunteer said over the loudspeakers.
Speakers and attendees alike were on fire with a deep, bitter passion. Within minutes of reaching the stage, I witnessed a right-wing provocateur known for trolling progressive events in north Texas attempt to disrupt the event with a megaphone. He was quickly ejected by members of the crowd, including several volunteers with the gun control advocacy organization Moms Demand Action, who had no patience for disrespect during this time of immense grief.
Activists, organizers, and politicians from the national, state, and local levels, as well as Texans of all ages, races, and creeds were represented at the protest. Children stood on stage wearing photos of the 19 students who were shot in Uvalde. Gun control advocates stood side by side with former NRA members who had grown disillusioned with the direction of the organization.
“The NRA used to be more about gun safety in gun training programs,” former NRA member Delia Justice told Newsy. “And then I watched them become more of a domestic terrorist cult.”
Several of the speakers laid the burden of the massacres squarely on the shoulders of the NRA and Republican lawmakers, who they say have promoted greed and easy access to guns over the safety of their own citizens. Candidate for attorney general Rochelle Garza tore into Governor Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton for receiving tens of thousands of dollars in donations from the gun lobby.
“These lives weren’t lost. They were taken,” said Chas Moore, founder of the Austin Justice Coalition, during his speech to the crowd. “Governor Abbott and Lt. Governor whatever-his-name-is have blood on their hands. But so do we until we vote them out.”
Other speakers went on to insist that voting would not be enough, and that people will have to do more to realize the progress they want to see.
“You can’t just vote people into office and expect them to do everything,” Moore told TRNN. “You have to stay actively engaged. I’m not saying you have to become so staunch that you don’t have a personal life. But just like people often go to work every day at a job they fucking hate, you can get involved in politics the same way. Don’t be like the people who come and take pictures and say they went to a rally and then go home and do nothing.”
Some organizers at the rally embodied that persistence, even if their years of effort also serve as a grim reminder of the many lives lost in that same time.
“This is the same sign we were holding after Sandy Hook outside of the NRA convention,” said an organizer with Moms Demand Action.
The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, where 20-year-old Adam Lanza, armed with an AR-15, two semi-automatic pistols, a shotgun, and several hundred rounds of ammunition, shot and killed 20 children and six school staff, happened nearly a decade ago. In the immediate wake of that unspeakable tragedy, the refrain echoing throughout the country was “never again.” Since then, the United States has seen more than 3,500 mass shootings. Ours stands out among all nations in the world as the only one where mass shootings and gun violence occur with such shocking regularity.
In 2020, gun violence became the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 19—a grim statistic that underscores the fact that the discourse around gun violence in the United States has been effectively dominated by what amounts to a death cult. The grip of that death cult may be withering in the face of blistering public pressure, but if the repeated slaughter of children isn’t enough to hush its most vocal defenders, nothing will. Case in point: A contingent of Proud Boys, the fascistic street gang known for provoking violence, was spotted trying to instigate a confrontation with protesters outside the NRA convention on Saturday.
This death cult tightened its grip on the public mind over a long period of time, particularly through decades of organizing and influencing by the gun lobby, and will require active and persistent effort to defeat. This was a key theme of several speeches at Friday’s rally, including those delivered by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, Democratic candidate for governor Beto O’Rourke, and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo.
Grief and mourning for the lives lost at the hand of a lone gunman were also central messages, and, for many, are the driving force behind their desire to see meaningful change on the issue of gun violence in America.
“The time to stop Uvalde was after Columbine… and after Sandy Hook… The time to stop another mass shooting is now,” O’Rourke said to the crowd.
The groundswell in Houston, though anecdotal, gave this reporter a sense that something may be shifting. I have not sensed this level of public anger and urgency since I reported on the George Floyd protests two years ago. Only time will tell whether the intensity and immediacy of this outcry will translate into long-term political change. But if the past two years are any indicator, there is reason to have hope that change may come, even if only incrementally.
The calls for action are most urgent in Uvalde, where answers are still being sought by a grieving community. Multiple official narratives regarding law enforcement’s response to the shooting quickly unraveled under the scrutiny of dogged journalists. A number of claims by law enforcement and elected officials have been walked back in the face of contradictory evidence, spurring widespread criticism from across the political spectrum.
Authorities claimed, for instance, that a door was propped open by a teacher, allowing the shooter to enter the school. The door was unlocked, it turns out, but not propped open. Authorities claimed the shooter was confronted by police before he entered the school. He was not, it turns out. Changes to the official accounts of events originally given by law enforcement only get more disturbing from there. What’s worse, as of this writing, Ulvalde police have stopped cooperating with the Texas Department of Public Safety’s investigation into the shooting and law enforcement’s response.
As of this writing, the journalistic consensus on the timeline of events displays a shocking failure to follow state protocol by local law enforcement, with catastrophic consequences. While law enforcement officers from multiple agencies refused to neutralize the gunman and instead waited in a hallway for reasons that are still unclear, panicked parents who demanded action and sought to enter the school to save their kids were maced and handcuffed by police officers. One parent told the Wall Street Journal that she freed herself from handcuffs, entered the school, and saved her child while officers prevented other parents from doing the same.
In response to this mess, the Department of Justice has announced its own investigation into law enforcement’s response to the shooting at the behest of Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin—the same man who called O’Rourke a “sick son of a bitch” for criticizing Gov. Abbott’s inaction during a press conference in Uvalde. Whether the investigation or Biden’s coinciding visit will result in any meaningful follow-up action is unclear.
Uvalde has provided such a shocking example of law enforcement incompetence—and brazenness in their subsequent attempts to cover up for their mistakes—that, for many citizens, it has broken the mental grip of copaganda and caused caused some to finally reconsider how they handle verification of information provided by official sources in situations like these.
“After the George Floyd protests in 2020, many US news outlets finally acknowledged that police and law enforcement officials should not automatically be considered the most credible source, especially when they’re contradicted by eyewitnesses or video evidence,” said NYU Journalism Professor Mohamad Bazzi in a Twitter post. “But news outlets need to go further: they must assume that law enforcement officials will lie and obfuscate to hide their mistakes. Verification is the essence of journalism. Just because a government or an official says something doesn’t automatically make it reliable or true.”
Uvalde also shredded what is left of the arguments that more police with more weapons—more “good guys with guns”—means more lives saved. Photos of heavily armed Uvalde officers standing outside while a murderer executed schoolchildren did little to convince horrified onlookers that militarized police forces are the guardians of public safety they are routinely portrayed as (eventually, an entirely separate agency, Customs and Border Patrol, put an end to the shooter’s rampage). For those whose eyes were not opened to the falseness of these narratives when George Floyd was murdered, Uvalde may, at the very least, serve to wake them up.
This sense of being let down by the powers that be was also felt back at the protest in Houston, where Angelica Halphen shared the story of losing her 18-year-old son, Harrison Schmidt, to gun violence. When she finished, she made her message clear.
“We have to protect our children,” Halphen said to the crowd. “Because we know the government isn’t. So now, it’s up to us.”