HOUSTON - The National Rifle Association kicked off its annual convention Friday with a warning to its members they are engaged in a "culture war" that stretches beyond gun rights, further ramping up emotions surrounding the gun control debate.
NRA First Vice President James Porter, a Birmingham, Ala., attorney who will assume the organization's presidency Monday, issued a full-throated challenge to President Barack Obama in the wake of a major victory regarding gun control and called on members to dig in for a long fight that will stretch into the 2014 elections.
More than 70,000 NRA members are expected to attend the three-day convention amid the backdrop of the national debate over gun control and the defeat of a U.S. Senate bill that would have expanded background checks for gun sales. It was introduced after December's mass shooting at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school. A small gathering of gun control supporters were outside of the convention in Houston.
NRA attendee, John Joseph of Sebastian, Fla., waits in line outside the George R. Brown Convention Center before the opening of the National Rifle Association's 142 Annual Meetings and Exhibits at the George R. Brown Convention Center Thursday, in Houston. The 2013 NRA Annual Meetings and Exhibits runs from Friday, May 3, through Sunday, May 5. More than 70,000 are expected to attend the event with more than 500 exhibitors represented. The convention will features training and education demos, the Antiques Guns and Gold Showcase, book signings, speakers including Glenn Beck, Ted Nugent and Sarah Palin as well as NRA Youth Day on Sunday.
Porter's remarks came in a short speech to about 300 people at a grass-roots organizing meeting and set the tone for a "Stand and Fight"-themed convention that is part gun trade show, political rally and strategy meeting.
"This is not a battle about gun rights," Porter said, calling it "a culture war."
"(You) here in this room are the fighters for freedom. We are the protectors," said Porter, whose father was NRA president from 1959-1960.
Rob Heagy, a former parole officer from San Francisco, agreed with Porter's description of a culture war.
"It is a cultural fight on those 10 guarantees," he said, referring to the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution. "Mr. Obama said he wasn't going after our guns. As soon as the Connecticut thing happened, he came after our guns."
That theme carried throughout the day and reached a crescendo in a 3 hour political rally punctuated by fiery speeches from state and national conservative leaders.
"You stood up when freedom was under assault and you stood in the gap, you made a difference," former U.S. senator and Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum told the cheering crowd of more than 3,500 at the rally. "This is a critical time in American history. Something big is happening in America," Santorum said. "Stand for America. Fight for America."
Texas Gov. Rick Perry criticized gun control supporters as opportunists who prey on the raw emotions of tragic events.
"You can almost set your watch for how long it takes for people who hate guns, who hate gun owners, to start a new campaign," after a mass shooting, Perry said.
Obama, who has pushed for gun control measures, was a prime target for criticism the entire day. NRA Executive Director Chris Cox bragged about the organization's political victory.
"It was great to see the president throw a temper tantrum in the Rose Garden," Cox said.