HOUSTON – America's powerful National Rifle Association kicked off a major convention in Houston Friday, days after the horrific massacre of children at a Texas elementary school, but a string of high-profile no-shows underscored deep unease at the timing of the gun lobby event.
Former president Donald Trump was among the scheduled speakers at the annual convention, held around four hours drive from the small town of Uvalde, where a teenage gunman killed 19 students and two teachers on Tuesday with an AR-15 assault rifle.
Thousands of gun enthusiasts descended on the meeting, filling a vast convention hall packed with booths of gun and gear manufacturers, walls of semi-automatic rifles and hunting products.
"This is it, this is the mega," said a man in his 60s, as he handled a new Hellion rifle he was considering purchasing, as loud music blared from speakers nearby.
But with millions of Americans grieving and angry following the worst school shooting in a decade, "American Pie" singer Don McLean led a wave of country music dropouts from the three-day event, while the Republican state governor, Greg Abbott, said he would no longer appear in person.
McLean said it would be "disrespectful and hurtful" to perform at the "Grand Ole Night of Freedom" concert scheduled during the convention on Saturday. At least five other country music stars, including Lee Greenwood and Larry Gatlin, have also reportedly pulled out.
Abbott, who has brushed aside increasingly emotional calls for tougher gun laws in Texas, where attachment to the right to bear arms runs deep, is expected to make a pre-recorded video address instead. The governor's lieutenant Dan Patrick also canceled plans to speak at the event.
Facing mounting scrutiny, the gun manufacturer Daniel Defense, which made the assault rifle purchased by the Uvalde shooter Salvador Ramos shortly after his 18th birthday, also decided not to attend in light of the "horrifying tragedy."
The cancellations came as Texas police faced angry questioning over why it took an hour to neutralize the gunman, while video emerged of desperate parents begging officers to storm the school.
Daniel Myers and his wife Matilda, both local pastors, told AFP they saw parents growing frantic at the scene.
"One family member, he says: 'I was in the military, just give me a gun, I'll go in,'" said Daniel Myers, 72.
'DON'T FORGET THEM, PLEASE'
Facing rapid-fire questioning on the police response to the tragedy, Victor Escalon of the Texas Department of Public Safety said Thursday that investigators were still piecing together the timeline of events.
According to the accounts provided so far, Ramos first shot his grandmother, then drove and crashed her vehicle near the school, firing on bystanders before entering.
Officers went in minutes later, but were held back by gunfire and called for backup. About an hour later, a tactical team entered and killed the gunman.
In the interim, officers evacuated students and teachers and unsuccessfully tried to negotiate with Ramos, who kept firing while barricaded in a classroom.
The gunman's victims included 10-year-old Amerie Garza, a little girl who loved her classes, drawing, and playing with clay.
"She was an innocent little girl, loving school and looking forward to summer," her 63-year-old grandmother, Dora Mendoza, told reporters after paying respects at a makeshift memorial outside the school.
Mendoza pleaded for urgent action by authorities to prevent future shootings as the country plunges again into the deeply divisive debate over guns.
"They need to do something about it. They need to not forget us, the babies… Don't forget them, please," she said through tears.
The Uvalde shooting was the deadliest since 20 children and six staff were killed at the Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012.
Despite the scourge of mass shootings, efforts at nationwide gun control, from banning assault rifles to mandating mental health and criminal background checks on buyers, have repeatedly failed, although polls show support from a majority of Americans.
President Joe Biden will visit Uvalde on Sunday to once again make the case for gun control, as activists set about galvanizing voters on the issue in the run-up to November's midterm election.
And the March for Our Lives advocacy group, founded by survivors of the 2018 Parkland school shooting in Florida, has called for nationwide protests on June 11 to press the cause.