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NRA annual meeting convenes as gun-control debate rages

Johnny Hanson / AP

Barry Bailey and his wife Judy, of DeRidder, La., walk out hand-in-hand, after having their 1873 Winchester shotgun appraised at the NRA's Antiques Guns and Gold Showcase during the National Rifle Association's 142 Annual Meetings and Exhibits at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston. The 2013 NRA Annual Meetings and Exhibits runs from Friday through Sunday, with more than 70,000 people expected to attend.

HOUSTON – A thousand miles couldn’t keep them away.

Bob Kittredge, 73, and his wife drove from Port St. Lucie, Fla., this week to attend the National Rifle Association’s annual convention. They are just two of the more than 70,000 people expected at the event, which opens Friday and runs through Sunday.

“We meet a lot of people who think the same way we do,” Kittredge said.

It will be a nine-acre gun show in the middle of a national gun fight.

About 550 exhibitors have packed the sprawling George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston.

In the midst of a national fight over gun control laws, the National Rifle Association will hold its annual meeting in Houston this weekend, with Sarah Palin, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal and more scheduled to speak.

"NRA members vote and their friends vote,” said Drew Kelley, who said he’s been an NRA member for most of his life. “That is what's driving all this."

Kelley works for ProMag Industries, a firearm magazine manufacturer in the Los Angeles area that’s been in business for about 35 years and employs about 150 people.

Kelley said he values the Second Amendment – and that recent attempts at tighter gun control measures are misguided.

“The whole idea was to keep people who should not have guns from acquiring them,” he said. “But the people who they're talking about don't go through the normal commercial processes anyway.”

'Stand and Fight'

 After the mass shootings in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn., the NRA’s opponents seemed to have momentum. But two weeks ago, a bipartisan compromise on expanded background checks for commercial gun sales was shot down in the Senate.

“We don't mistake battles for wars,” outgoing NRA president David Keene told NBC News. “It was a victory in a battle, but the war continues.”

Keene’s two-year term concludes at the convention. Starting Monday, Keene will be replaced as president by Alabama attorney Jim Porter, although Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre will continue to be the organization’s main spokesman.

In his letter to convention attendees, LaPierre writes: “For months, our enemies have laid siege to the rights we cherish…But we are proving to be stronger than ever.”

This year’s convention slogan: “Stand and Fight.”

“My concern as an NRA member is that any legislation needs to be targeted towards criminals and not law-abiding people,” said Bill Dermody, who works for Savage Arms, the Massachusetts-based firearm manufacturer that is one of the largest in the country and one of the convention’s 550 exhibitors.

On Friday afternoon, scheduled speakers include Sarah Palin, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

The opposition

 Outside the convention hall, several gun control advocates are planning to protest. At least one relative of a Newtown victim will attend. Another group plans to set up across the street and read 4,000 names of victims of gun violence.

The NRA’s opponents are launching a coordinated effort ahead of the 2014 midterm elections. The groups claim they finally have the financial clout to challenge the NRA thanks to Super PACs backed by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

"We're simply losing too many loved ones to this epidemic and it's time for change," said Ladd Everitt, the spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “And if people won't do the right thing, then we are going to work tirelessly to make sure their political careers come to an end.”

Gun control advocates argue that the NRA’s leadership cares more about the gun industry – and profit – than the rights of gun owners.

“I think the NRA leadership is wildly out of step with their own members on the issue of expanding background checks,” Everitt said.