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NRA's Annual Convention Kicks Off In Dallas, As Gun-Control Advocates Plan Protests


About 80,000 gun owners are expected at the National Rifle Association's annual meeting, which begins this evening in Dallas and goes until Sunday. They'll be inside the city's big convention center. On the outside, gun control activists - they're planning protests and speeches. Throw into the mix President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. They're scheduled to speak to NRA members tomorrow.

NPR's Wade Goodwyn is in Dallas and will be covering the convention. And, Wade, this is a convention you have covered in the past. Is there any sign that this one will be different?

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: Well, I don't think the NRA has changed any way, but the political climate has. And I think that's due to the students across the country that have been organizing, walking out of schools, marching on Washington. It's forced the NRA to react to a degree it really hasn't had to in the past. I mean, you know, it's not like there haven't been devastating school shootings leading up to the NRA convention before. But I think the Florida students and their growing army of allies have moved the needle a bit.

Now, to put that in context, the NRA enjoyed record fundraising success after the Florida shooting. And that speaks to the millions of devoted members whose guns are vital to their way of life and a major part of the way they see themselves. And in that vein, here's Frank Corbin (ph) at the convention center. He took the train into Dallas from Arizona.

FRANK CORBIN: Just talking with other guys and gals about guns and hunting, fishing, everything. Just being here, it's a good time. It's my only trip that I'm going to make this year away from home. And I'm glad to be here. And I'll be here until Monday, when I'll go back home on the train.

GOODWYN: And here's Dwayne Gates (ph) of nearby Rowlett, who loves the NRA even though he wishes the leadership was more diplomatic.

DWAYNE GATES: I think the NRA has the right message. I don't know that they always present the right message because they get a lot of criticism for not saying when they should be and then sometimes saying things maybe they shouldn't.

GOODWYN: So, you know, there's some political nuance inside the hall.

CORNISH: Tell us more what it's like inside the hall. What's the exhibition floor like?

GOODWYN: It's a little like Vegas. It's very bright, very glitzy, and it goes on and on for acres. I mean, just one pass around the hall will wear you out. I'm a big boating guy, and it reminds me of a big boat show - endless toys for boys. Now, that's a generalization, I know. Of course weapons aren't toys. But you get my drift. There's a level of excitement in the exhibition hall. The majority are men, but the NRA is actively trying to recruit women. And in fact there are two sessions this weekend aimed at women gun owners in particular.

But, you know, the real challenge for the NRA going forward is this generational divide that's escalated since the Parkland shooting. I mean, there are hundreds of thousands if not millions of high school students around the country that are newly woke, if you will. Not only do they favor background checks and assault weapons bans, but they're politically hostile to the NRA.

CORNISH: Can you talk more about that? I know in the introduction we mentioned the idea of demonstrators and the protests that are planned throughout the weekend.

GOODWYN: So there's been no lack of recent atrocities to motivate gun control activists here in Texas. You remember the massacre at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs down near San Antonio - 27 dead there. This weekend, a die-in is planned. There's advocacy training. They're signing up people to vote. And Manuel Oliver, the father of 17-year-old Joaquin who was gunned down at Stoneman Douglas High School (ph), he's creating a mural in honor of his son on Saturday, and a big event is planned around that.

But you have to remember it's a little like being a Division II school playing their first football game at the University of Nebraska. Yeah, you brought couple of thousand enthusiastic supporters. But the NRA is expecting north of 70,000 attendees, and they're just as passionate. So it's a test of courage and resolve because the protesters are going to be seriously outnumbered.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Wade Goodwyn. Wade, thank you.

GOODWYN: It's my pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF FUTURE SONG, "NO BASIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Wade Goodwyn is an NPR National Desk Correspondent covering Texas and the surrounding states.
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