By Jim Vertuno/The Associated Press
HOUSTON — National Rifle Association members are fighting a “culture war” that stretches beyond gun rights, the organization’s incoming president said Friday.
First Vice President James Porter will take over the top job Monday. On Friday, he gave short speech to a grassroots organizing meeting at the powerful gun lobby’s national convention in Houston.
“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, according to the organization’s website.
The NRA is fresh off a huge victory over President Barack Obama on gun control, defeating a U.S. Senate vote on a major gun control bill that was introduced after December’s mass shooting at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school.
Organizers anticipated a rollicking, Texas-sized party — both to celebrate the victory in Washington and recharge for more political struggles as gun control advocates tally their own successes in states around the country. More than 70,000 people are expected to attend the three-day “Stand and Fight”-themed convention, which includes a gun trade show, political rally and strategy meeting.
Rob Heagy, a former parole officer from San Francisco, is one of them and was in lockstep with Porter.
“It is a cultural fight on those ten guarantees,” referencing 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.”
NRA Executive Director Chris Cox bragged about the organization’s efforts to defeat the gun control bill.
“It was great to see the president throw a temper tantrum in the Rose Garden,” Cox said.
Debbie and Daniel Ferris of Gun Barrel City, Texas, also agreed with Porter’s assessment.
“It’s about fighting tyranny,” said Debbie Ferris, who has been an NRA member for five years. Her 35-year-old husband is a lifetime member.
Texas is one of the strongest gun rights states in the country, and more than 500,000 people are licensed to carry concealed handguns, including Gov. Rick Perry, who once bragged about shooting a coyote during a morning jog. Concealed handguns are allowed in the state Capitol, where simply showing a license allows armed visitors to bypass metal detectors.
Later Friday, the convention will have a political forum with speeches from several state and national conservative leaders, including Perry, former GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, former Pennsylvania senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum and Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican Texas firebrand who has become one of the top tea party voices in Washington since being elected last year.
Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s brash, no-compromises chief executive, speaks to the convention Saturday before the “Stand and Fight” rally at night.
Gun control advocates say they will have a presence around the convention, with plans for a vigil for victims of gun violence, a petition drive to support background checks and a Saturday demonstration outside the George R. Brown Convention Center.
Sandy Phillips, whose daughter Jessica Ghawi was killed in the Colorado theater shooting last July, met privately with Cruz in San Antonio this week. Phillips said Cruz refused to budge on expanding background checks and told her he considered it the first step toward government confiscation of guns.
“They’re always good at saying the right thing, ‘I’m so sorry for you loss and da da da da da,’” Phillips said. “If you’re really sorry for my loss, do something about it.”
Despite polls that show most Americans favor some background checks expansion, Ladd Everitt, spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said a big challenge facing gun control advocates is matching the NRA’s grassroots organizing, or as he called it “closing the passion gap.”
“The NRA knows this issue is very much in play. People were sickened by that Senate vote,” Everitt said.
Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, has said he will re-introduce the bill to require criminal and mental health background checks for gun buyers at shows and online. And despite their loss on the federal level, gun control advocates have scored some significant victories at the state level.
Colorado lawmakers passed new restrictions on firearms, including required background checks for private and online gun sales and a ban on ammunition magazines that hold more than 15 rounds. Connecticut recently added more than 100 firearms to the state’s assault weapons ban and now requires background checks for private gun sales.
Maryland and New York have passed sweeping new guns laws, and in Washington state, supporters of universal background checks recently announced a statewide campaign to collect 300,000 signatures to put the issue straight to voters.
“There have been significant victories (at the state level). We expect that to continue and we’re not giving up on the federal level,” Everitt said.
Associated Press writer Alan Fram in Washington contributed to this report.