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In Dallas, NRA supporters and critics converge as national gun debate boils

While President Trump spoke to National Rifle Association members inside a convention center, both sides of America's ongoing conversation about firearms staked their positions in the public square.

National Rifle Association members attend the NRA Leadership Forum and Expo in Dallas on May 4, 2018.

DALLAS — Eric Pace owns six or seven rifles and three or four pistols, guns that the engineer from Bluff Dale mainly uses for hunting and target practice.

He hasn’t used them much since his two young children were born. But as he and his wife strolled around the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center with their children in tow Friday, the couple stopped and looked at gun safes on display among 650,000 square feet of exhibit space at the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting.

Pace, like the tens of thousands of gun owners descending on North Texas this weekend, is an avid supporter of the Second Amendment.

“It provides an offset to government power,” he said. “It’s the only country in the world that has that built into the laws.”

Outside, a handful of protesters held signs calling for more laws restricting the kinds of guns Americans can buy. Hours earlier, gun control advocates stood in front of nearby Dallas City Hall and argued that lawmakers should do more to prevent the growing number of mass shootings that continue ending the lives of students, church congregants and concertgoers.

“Gun violence is not extraordinary,” said Victoria Coy, a program director for Amnesty International. “We have mass shootings every weekend.”

America’s continued tension between constitutional rights and preventing death will play out here all weekend — protests are planned later Friday and on Saturday to coincide with the NRA’s three-day convention, highlighted Friday by President Donald Trump's speech to the group.

And the national debate will play out in a city whose distant and recent history have been marred by gun violence.

“Anything about guns right now, I’m just not real excited about,” said Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, whose police department two days ago buried an officer who was fatally shot at a Home Depot. “But that’s emotionally. That’s not intellectually.”

This weekend’s gun rights meetings and gun control rallies also follow a series of mass shootings that set new Texas and U.S. records for their numbers of fatalities — and a Florida high school massacre that has galvanized young Americans vowing to hold public officials accountable for the ongoing gun deaths.

“We are the last generation of young people you will traumatize by allowing us to watch our peers be shot,” said Julia Heilrayne, an Austin High School student who spoke outside city hall early Friday.

Two views of the NRA

In many ways, the philosophical conflicts over guns playing out in Dallas hinge on disagreements about whether the NRA is an all-powerful lobbying machine whose sway over lawmakers enables gun violence or is instead a grassroots organization of Americans who simply like to exercise the rights their nation’s founding document affords them.

“It’s important to remember this organization is full of people who appreciate and want to protect constitutional freedoms,” said NRA spokesman Jason Brown.

But many gun control advocates don’t buy that. They say that the organization’s lobbying arm leverages its campaign contributions and political muscle to block any attempts to limit the kinds of weapons, ammunition and accessories that can quickly turn large crowds into mass shooting crime scenes.

“It obviously goes back to the money, like everything in the country,” said Sofia Conde, a Frisco high school student who is part of the Dallas-area group StudentsMarch.org, which spun off from this year’s nationwide student marches in response to the Parkland, Florida, school shooting on Valentine's Day.

Her group is pushing for a federal law that would require criminal background checks before someone could purchase a gun. For her, it’s a common-sense step that would limit gun-related deaths.

But NRA officials and members fear gun-control advocates want to slowly pass legislation that erodes the Second Amendment and eventually prohibit gun ownership.

“They want to limit — if not outright restrict — Americans’ rights to own firearms,” Brown said. “That is something the NRA is not going to bend to.”

Different views on gun laws

Michael Saucedo and Lyndsi Falcon stood in the rain outside city hall on Friday morning and held up a photo of their nephew Joe Perez Jr., one of four people shot and killed at a Waffle House in Tennessee last month.

Perez had just moved from Kyle to the Nashville area two months before he was killed. Saucedo said he supported gun control long before his nephew’s death — but he doesn’t believe in repealing the Second Amendment or taking guns away from responsible gun owners.

“We want to stop this from happening to another family,” he said.

Conde, the Frisco student, said her group is focusing solely on background checks because they recognize the gun-friendly nature of the Texas Legislature and its congressional delegation. She denies any suggestion that background checks are one step in a long-term plan to eventually rid America of guns.

“That’s just ridiculous,” she said.

There are some gun control measures that Pace, the Bluff Dale engineer, said he doesn’t have a problem with.

For instance, he wouldn’t take issue with people having to obtain a license — and be trained on gun safety and usage — before being allowed to buy a gun.

“I don’t see it as unreasonable,” he said.

Still, he said that restricting gun purchases isn’t going to end violence in America.

“There’s a black market,” he said. “If you take away a gun, they will kill you with a knife. If you take away a knife, they will kill you with a brick.”

"We have open wounds right now"  

Alice Tripp is an NRA member and the legislative director of the Texas State Rifle Association.

She and many other NRA members say the national group is unfairly blamed for enabling murder every time there is a mass shooting.

“You don’t pick on one group ... and assign blame for a random act of violence unless you’re tying it to some partisan political issue,” Tripp said.

On Friday, plenty of big-name speakers at the convention rallied the crowd by painting gun-control advocates as liberal-leaning Americans whose political agenda is to strip gun owners of their rights.

The speeches and protests played out in a city that many people still associate with President John F. Kennedy's 1963 assassination. Rawlings was mayor for the 50th anniversary of JFK's death and had to guide the city through the trauma of seeing five police officers shot to death during a downtown protest in 2016. Last week, another officer was downed by a gunman.

“We have open wounds right now that are still needing salve and that are trying to heal,” he said.

Rawlings said he attempted to organize a panel about gun rights and gun control Thursday night. But he said he couldn't get prominent figures on either side of the debate to attend.

He thinks advocates sometimes focus more on vilifying their opponents rather than finding common ground.

“It’s a big media game that’s being played,” he said.

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