Former President Donald Trump spoke at the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association on Friday in Houston, about 300 miles from Uvalde, Texas, where a gunman massacred 21 people, including 19 children, in an elementary school.
With the country reeling from the latest mass shooting, the NRA gathering proved too fraught for some Republicans and entertainers to attend. Lee Greenwood, the musician who penned Trump’s entrance song, “God Bless the U.S.A.” pulled out of the event, saying that showing up would be seen as an endorsement of the AR-15 rifle that had been used only days before to gun down children at Robb Elementary School.
Trump saw no such risk, and walked defiantly on stage to Greenwood’s anthem.
“And unlike some, I didn’t disappoint you by not showing up,” Trump said early in his remarks, a reference to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, as well as Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Dan Crenshaw, also of Texas, all of whom had pulled out of speaking live at the event.
Trump read aloud the names of the victims, the recorded sound of a mission bell punctuating each name.
“And while those he slaughtered are now with God in heaven, he will be eternally damned to burn in the fires of hell,” Trump said of the 18-year-old killer, who purchased his weapons legally.
As have other Republicans, Trump depicted the assailant as an “out-control-lunatic” who had been corrupted by alienating cultural forces, while seeking to minimize the role of lax gun laws in what was the nation’s 214th mass shooting of the year.
The former president branded as “grotesque” and “repulsive” efforts for stricter gun control in the wake of the latest tragedy, which followed a racist massacre of 10 people in Buffalo earlier this month. Those horrific crimes have spurred a bipartisan group of senators to spend this week working on a bipartisanship bill that would expand scrutiny of people trying to buy guns.
Although Trump has routinely styled himself a political maverick not beholden to special interests, in Houston he hued closely to the organization’s talking points, as did the other speakers, regardless of the thousands of protesters who had gathered outside the venue.
It was time to “harden our schools,” Trump said, reprising what Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas had said from the convention floor only minutes before.
“Our schools should be the single-hardest target in our country,” Trump said, adding that teachers should be armed, a line that received hearty applause from the less-than-capacity crowd. The NRA pushed for the arming of teachers after the 2012 massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in which 20 children and six adults were murdered by a gunman.
“No one should ever be allowed to get near a classroom until they have been checked, scanned, screened and approved,” Trump added.
And he appealed to the same nativist strain that helped him win the 2016 presidential election. “If the United States has $40 billion dollars to send to Ukraine, we should be able to do whatever it takes to keep our children safe at home,” the former president said, alluding to growing resistance among congressional Republicans to aid the Eastern European nation that has thus far successfully repelled a Russian invasion with the help of a Western alliance helmed by the United States.
Republicans have sought to turn the discourse about guns into a referendum on Democratic policies in cities like Chicago, where gun violence has persisted at alarmingly high levels despite strict gun laws. Defenders of gun control point to the fact that weak gun laws in neighboring states effectively frustrate any efforts on Chicago’s part.
“That’s a war zone,” he said of Chicago, a perennial target of Republican attacks on gun control.
Though he enacted a significant criminal justice reform measure while in office, Trump returned on Friday to his roots as a booster of big city law-and-order policing, which in 1989 infamously saw him call for the death penalty for five young men of color wrongly accused of raping a nighttime jogger in Central Park.
“You really wonder,” Trump mused, “do the Democrats even care?” He depicted the Democratic Party as beholden to the “Defund the Police” slogan from the summer of 2020, which many liberals did support at the time but most have since renounced.
His speech also served as a freewheeling campaign stump speech that included false claims about the 2020 presidential election.
At one point, he reminisced about having received the NRA’s endorsement when seeking the presidency in 2016. As did abortion opponents, gun advocates looked past Trump’s own record as a liberal New Yorker, correctly predicting that he would appoint conservative judges if elected.
“It was like getting into a great college,” Trump said of the endorsement. “You say, ‘Boy, that feels good.’”