HOUSTON (AP) — The public face of the National Rifle Association implored members Saturday to never give up their weapons in the wake of recent gun control efforts in Congress that he said will "destroy us and every ounce of our freedom."
"We will never surrender our guns, never," Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre told several thousand people during the organization's annual member meeting, which is part of the yearly NRA convention being held this weekend in Houston.
A defiant LaPierre said the "political and media elites" have tried to use December's mass shooting at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school and other recent ones "to blame us, to shame us, to compromise our freedom for their agenda."
LaPierre directed much of his criticism at President Barack Obama and his efforts to pass legislation in Congress that would have expanded background checks for gun sales. That bill failed to pass in the Senate last month.
LaPierre said the bill "got the defeat that it deserved."
"The bill wouldn't have prevented Newtown or Aurora," he said, also referencing last year's shooting at a Colorado theater. "It won't prevent the next tragedy. None of it has anything to do with keeping our children safer in any school anywhere."
Gun control supporters have promised to keep pressing the issue and have made significant strides at the state level, including passing new restrictions on firearms in Colorado and Connecticut.
LaPierre implored lawmakers to direct their efforts not at new gun control legislation but to enforcing current federal gun laws and sending to prison violent criminals who break these laws and rebuilding "our broken mental health system."
"And for God sakes leave the rest of us alone in this country," he said to loud applause.
More than 70,000 NRA members are expected to attend the three-day convention, which began Friday. Acres of displays of rifles, pistols, swords and hunting gear could be found inside the convention hall.
Friday's highlight was a 3 ½-hour political rally filled with fiery speeches from state and national conservative leaders, among them Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. They warned attendees that new gun laws are an effort to take away their rights under the Second Amendment.
The presence of protestors has been minimal during the convention. Across the street, the No More Names vigil read the names of gun violence victims since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut. By Saturday afternoon, about 20 protesters were present.
"It's time to move toward global thinking and global peace and solutions that don't require guns," said Tim Campbell, 73, from Houston, who held up a sign that read "No To Arms. No To Force."