Former President Donald Trump will deliver a headline speech in support of gun rights at a National Rifle Association event in Houston on Friday, days after a shooting massacre at a Texas elementary school stoked a fervent push to strengthen firearm laws.
An 18-year-old gunman – wielding an AR-15-style long rifle that he had purchased legally – opened fire at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday, killing 19 children and two adults, officials said. The massacre marked the deadliest school shooting in Texas history.
Trump confirmed on social media on Wednesday afternoon that he would not cancel his appearance at the NRA’s annual “Leadership Forum” in light of the shooting. He suggested that he would offer “real solutions and real leadership” in his address at the NRA’s self-described “celebration of Second Amendment rights.”
Other leading Republicans including Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem are set to join Trump at the event, which starts at 2 pm CT, according to the NRA.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who had been slated to appear alongside Trump on Friday afternoon, will instead make a return trip to Uvalde and hold a press conference, his office said Thursday. Abbott will record a video message to be played at the Houston convention center, a less-than-five-hour drive from the site of the massacre.
Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick of Texas announced Friday morning that he would cancel a planned speaking appearance at an NRA breakfast event “after prayerful consideration and discussion with NRA officials.”
“While a strong supporter of the Second Amendment and an NRA member, I would not want my appearance today to bring any additional pain or grief to the families and all those suffering in Uvalde,” Patrick said in a statement. “This is a time to focus on the families, first and foremost.”
A spokesperson for Cruz did not respond to CNBC’s requests to confirm his attendance at the meeting.
Two other Texas Republicans, Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Dan Crenshaw, told CNBC earlier this week that they had backed out of the conference prior to the Uvalde shooting.
Cornyn had an “unexpected change in his schedule” and “has to be in DC for personal reasons on Friday,” Cornyn spokeswoman Natalie Yezbick said in an email Wednesday.
Justin Discigil, Crenshaw’s chief of staff, said that the congressman is unable to make it back from Kyiv, Ukraine, in time to attend the event.
Noem will speak at the forum, a spokesman for the governor confirmed to CNBC. North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson is also scheduled to speak at the event.
Noem, in a promotional video shared on the NRA’s social media over the weekend, paraphrased a quote from Charlton Heston, the late actor and former NRA leader: “Joe Biden, I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold dead hands. “
President Joe Biden, who criticized the “gun lobby” in a somber speech Tuesday night, will travel to Uvalde on Sunday with first lady Jill Biden to “grieve with the community,” the White House said.
An NRA spokeswoman did not immediately confirm who would speak at Friday’s event.
In a statement Wednesday, the NRA gave its “deepest sympathies” to the victims and families affected by the “horrific and evil crime.” The group said it would “pledge to redouble our commitment to making our schools secure.”
The most powerful gun-rights organization in the country, the NRA has opposed most efforts to restrict firearm access – including by expanding background checks on gun purchases, a plan that most Democrats and gun-control activists support. Multiple bills to strengthen background checks passed the Democrat-led House in 2019, but were halted in the Senate.
Bipartisan talks on potential gun legislation – which appear to focus on more stringent background checks and so-called red flag laws – restarted in the Senate this week. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Gave Cornyn the green light to negotiate with Democrats on proposals that the Texas senator believes would have helped prevent the shooting in his state.
The NRA and some Republican lawmakers have instead suggested the US should strengthen security in public spaces and focus on mental health, among other proposals to address gun violence without restricting gun ownership. Cruz, for instance, this week floated the idea that schools buildings should have just one entrance that is guarded by an armed officer.
Their critics say those arguments ignore the root of the issue. They often point out that mass shootings are far more common in the US than in other nations where guns are much less prevalent.
Those critics have gone on the offensive after the massacre in Uvalde, which came 10 days after an 18-year-old white man shot and killed 10 people in a racially motivated attack at a supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo, New York.
Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in Texas, crashed Abbott’s press conference Wednesday and berated the governor over his handling of the mass shooting. After O’Rourke was escorted from the room, Abbott called for Americans “to not focus on ourselves and our agendas” but instead focus on healing.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., on Thursday morning called Abbott “an absolute fraud” for those “empty platitudes,” while noting that the governor was set to speak at the NRA conference two days later.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, a Democrat, said Thursday that his city could not cancel the NRA convention, which is scheduled to last the entire weekend, because it would “leave the city subject to a number of legal issues.”
“The greater question is why are elected officials speaking there, and what message does that send,” Turner said. “You can not pray and send condolences on one day and go and champion guns on the next.”