Keith Jehlen says the shooting at a Texas elementary school makes him “sick,” but that “you can’t blame the gun” used to murder 19 small children and two teachers.
“We’ve always had guns in this country,” the 68-year-old retired US Postal Service worker said, noting that he personally owns more than 50 firearms.
Jehlen was standing in line to see former president Donald Trump speak at a National Rifle Association convention that is controversially being held just hours from Uvalde, the town where the school massacre took place earlier in the week.
Reflecting on the shooting, he grimaced and said: “It made me sick to my stomach.”
But guns are not the problem, said Jehlen, who was dressed in camouflage shorts and a Trump hat. He argued that the disaster may well have unfolded differently if people at the school were armed.
“Killers aren’t afraid of the judge, they’re not afraid of the police,” he said. “They should be afraid of the victim they’re going after.”
The NRA event — which lasts through Sunday — is being held in a vast downtown convention center with anti-gun protesters gathering outside.
“Blood is on your hands,” one protester’s sign said. “Guns = death,” read another.
Trump drew loud applause from the crowd when he addressed the convention later in the day. He somberly read out the names of the Uvalde shooting victims, and urged Americans regardless of political affiliation to “find common ground.”
But he nevertheless turned political, blasting “repulsive” Democrats for villainizing “peaceful, law-abiding” NRA members who own guns.
– ‘This is not Australia’ –
In booth after booth in the cavernous convention hall, hundreds of firearms — all made inert with their firing pins removed — were on display, from small handguns to AR-15s, the ubiquitous semi-automatic weapon used by the gunman in Uvalde.
Tactical gear, hunting equipment and clothing shared space with gun accessories including high-power scopes, suppressors and 60-round magazines.
Retired law enforcement officer Rick Gammon eyed a wall of black semi-automatic rifles at the convention, saying any efforts to take firearms from Americans were doomed to fail.
“You’ll never take people’s guns away. This is not Australia,” 51-year-old Gammon said as he looked at the Hellion rifles — a compact bullpup design that he noted would fit well behind his driver’s seat or in his gun safe at home.
After the April 1996 Port Arthur massacre of 35 people, Australia enacted tougher new gun laws that included a general ban on the use of semi-automatic rifles, shotguns and pump-action shotguns except for specific purposes.
America — plagued by far more frequent gun violence, but with the right to bear arms enshrined in the Constitution — has repeatedly failed to take action after mass shootings.
“I’d love to see universal background checks,” said Gammon, referring to a long-sought reform that has majority support in the United States. “But it’s not going to stop someone hell-bent on crime.”
– ‘Villainizing a tool’ –
The convention is not just a gathering of gun enthusiasts, but also a place where they can test the “feel” of weapons they are considering buying.
“Oh I like this,” Lisy V, 31, told a gun manufacturer representative as she tested the weight and balance of a 9-millimeter pistol.
“You put it in purple too, and that got my attention,” added the military veteran, who is in the market for a new pistol that she can conceal in a holster under her skirt, because “it’s too hot for pants in Texas.”
But she turned contemplative when asked about Uvalde.
“Personally I feel like there should be more gun education,” she said, but with 18-year-olds able to join the military, the veteran believes they should be able to buy assault rifles as well.
“They can enlist, right? If they can enlist, they can shoot a weapon,” she said.
Jim Maynard, a gun owner and industry advocate, said that while there is “a lot of uncertainty” in America today, and people are grieving, he agreed with the decision to not postpone the NRA convention.
“Villainizing a tool doesn’t address the problem that we’re having,” he said.
People blaming guns for America’s violence crisis was just “hype,” and they should focus more on expanding mental health programs.
“The protest outside does zero for preventing the next shooting from happening — and it’s not going to stop a person from committing violence,” Maynard added.