Just days after the deadliest mass school shooting in Texas history, the National Rifle Association (NRA) – America’s leading gun lobbyist group – will meet a few hours away in Houston on Friday.
Ashton P Woods says they are not welcome in his hometown.
“These people are coming into our community. The city of Houston needs to kick them out,” said Woods, an activist and founder of Black Lives Matter Houston.
“We have to be just as tough about these things as they are.”
Woods is helping organise one of several protests planned just outside the George R Brown Convention Center, where NRA members will browse through exhibits of firearms and gun paraphernalia and hear speeches from key Republican leaders.
The goal of the Black Lives Matter protest, Woods said, is to “get loud” outside while powerful speakers – including Texas governor Greg Abbott, Texas senator Ted Cruz and former US president Donald Trump – take the podium inside. Woods said the issue of firearms is particularly important to the civil rights group that primarily tackles issues of police brutality in America.
“Whether it be death by suicide, death by cop, death by mass shooter, we need to control the access people have to deadly weapons,” Woods said. “These things are interconnected.”
The NRA is a powerful lobbying organisation in American politics, spending nearly $5m in 2021 to pressure lawmakers to oppose measures like universal background checks for gun sales and bans on powerful assault weapons.
About 55,000 NRA members are expected to attend the event in Houston. The annual meeting is often a draw for activists and counter-protests as members inside discuss firearms policy – often the need for expanding access to guns.
Outside the convention centre, multiple counter-demonstrations are expected in Houston – especially in light of a mass shooting that killed 19 children and two adults at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
Houston police are also expecting crowds at the convention centre. Jodi Silva, a police spokeswoman, said the department does not share details of its policing strategies, but that there would be a visible presence of officers.
“We always are aware of the demonstrations and-or counter-demonstrations and staff accordingly,” Silva said. “We staff accordingly to make sure that everyone can participate and be safe.”
Megan Hansen and the Rev Teresa Kim Pecinovsky watched the news updates from Uvalde on Tuesday in shock. When they found out the NRA would be in Houston Friday, they decided they also needed to take action.
“We live in a state full of people who love their guns more than they love the lives of the children in their community,” Pecinovsky said.
“I had to do something with that amount of rage and lament.” Hansen and Pecinovsky have organized an interfaith gathering that will include a silent march and a moment of reflection when organizers will read the names of those who died in Uvalde.
While Texas’s politics are staunchly conservative, the Houston area has become a bastion of progressivism. Harris county, which includes Houston, voted for President Joe Biden by 56% in 2020. Hansen said she wants others to know that the NRA’s message does not reflect that community.
“Houston is the most diverse city in the United States and we have people from all over the world who do not agree with the rhetoric of the NRA,” Hansen said.
“We want to just say, remember the people who we lost and how can we take this feeling and turn it into action?”
That action – specifically legislative measures to restrict access to high-powered firearms – is unlikely to come from Republican lawmakers in the state. Yet activists in Houston want the shooting in Uvalde and protests this weekend to spark more pressure on political leaders to prevent the next tragedy.
“I’m hopeful this will not just be something people attend and then leave,” Pecinovsky said. “It needs to be a catalyst for real and tangible change.”