Erica Lafferty is in a place she never thought she’d be: the National Rifle Association’s annual conference in Houston.
As the nation’s biggest gun lobby gathers inside a convention center to celebrate the defeat of a federal push to expand background checks, the 27-year-old Connecticut resident is at a park across the street. Protesters, some with wavering voices, are quietly reading the names of victims of gun violence, including the 26 killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14.
Sandy Hook’s principal was her mother: “Dawn Hochsprung. Female. Age 47. Newtown,” is the brief summation of her life and death.
“Just knowing that we are here, that’s saying something,” Lafferty said in an interview. “I see some heads turn when they walk by. That’s enough for me.”
Lafferty and others who have lost loved ones add an emotional edge to what is otherwise a pep rally for 70,000 NRA members and hundreds of firearms and sporting-goods vendors. Gun enthusiasts are bracing for a renewed effort in Congress to revive legislation aimed at expanding the background-check requirement to include sales at gun shows and on the Internet, and improve mental-health data in the system. It was defeated April 17 by the Senate 54-46, with 60 votes needed for passage.
Todd Rathner, an NRA board member from Tucson, Arizona, stopped by the name reading to “see what it was all about.” Organizer Aaron Black, from New York City, and others asked him why the group doesn’t support expanding background checks.
Rathner said that in his view the legislation reaches too far into the lives of private individuals. Afterward, he said it was worth five minutes of his time “to show that gun owners are human beings.”
At its height, the vigil attracted about two dozen pro- background check volunteers and NRA passersby, some of whom engaged in testy exchanges.
Lafferty was joined outside by a father who lost his 6- year-old son at Sandy Hook, a woman who wrestled ammunition from the gunman who shot former Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords in 2011, and an NRA member from Illinois whose sister was killed by a man who didn’t need a background check to buy a gun.
There were sad stories inside the convention hall, too.
The widow of Chris Kyle, a former Navy Seal sharpshooter who was gunned down by a fellow veteran at a Texas range this year, thanked the NRA for protecting the Second Amendment.
“Evil shouldn’t take away our freedoms,” Taya Kyle said, addressing NRA members who’d gathered yesterday to listen to several top Republicans considering U.S. presidential bids. “Long before guns, people have tragically hurt and killed one another.”
Kyle’s voice caught as photographs of her husband rolled by on a computer at her podium and on giant screens behind her.
All the while, outside, the names kept coming, for nearly 72 uninterrupted hours, about 4,000 of those that belonged to people killed by gunfire since and including Newtown.
Some NRA members paused at the small gray podium set up in the park. They said that just as they take advantage of the Second Amendment, which protects individual gun ownership, people are free to exercise the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, which provides for free speech.
“My only thing is, what about the veterans who used guns and died protecting the very freedoms they’re now out here enjoying?” said Ken Printz of Montana. He and his brother stopped to look at the sheet of names on the podium. “Where are the names of those veterans? I take real offense to that.”
Added Jay Printz, one of the 76 members on the NRA’s board of directors, “Life is full of tragic things that happen. Car accidents. Medical mishaps. They’re not going to change any minds out here, because they have no solutions. It’s all for show.”
Some of the name readers have partnered with political groups such as Mayors Against Illegal Guns to draw attention to the debate in Congress over regulating firearms and gun purchases.
The mayors group is led by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP. A group called Occupy the NRA, an outgrowth of Occupy Wall Street, organized the reading and solicited volunteers.
Lafferty is still raw with grief from the death of her mother. “Mommy” is tattooed in black script just above her thumb, where she can see it easily when she glances down at her right hand.
She’s getting married in July. Her fiance, Chris Smegielski, sends her text messages saying, “I’m so proud of you” and “Your mom would be so proud.”
The NRA’s leadership has a different view of what’s going on outside. “Where we see tragedy, Barack Obama and Michael Bloomberg see opportunity,” top NRA lobbyist Chris Cox said yesterday, addressing convention-goers from the same stage where Chris Kyle’s widow would share her views.
Lafferty said she is “doing this for my mom.”
“She raised free-thinking, rational kids,” she said, referring also to her sister, now 28. “I don’t need the president or anyone else to tell me how to think.”
She regrets not getting involved sooner, the way a few others did right after Newtown.
Most of the first few weeks after the shooting are a blur to her. One clear memory: Obama sitting down with her family, taking her young niece into his arms, telling Lafferty and her sister, “Your mom was really a hero.”
Lafferty stayed mostly private until last month, when Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, and other senators vowed to filibuster gun legislation. The NRA members gave Cruz a standing ovation yesterday, chanting his name and whistling when he mentioned the filibuster.
The former mobile phone company employee started going to Washington, appearing on TV news programs and speaking out. And this week, Lafferty confronted Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire.
“You had mentioned that day the burden on owners of gun stores that the expanded background checks would harm,” Lafferty said to Ayotte. “I am just wondering why the burden of my mother being gunned down in the halls of her elementary school isn’t more important than that.”
Here in Houston, Lafferty has company.
Neil Heslin’s first-grade son, Jesse, was shot to death at Sandy Hook. The 51-year-old construction worker broke down when he testified in February at a Senate military-style weapons ban hearing in Washington.
Yesterday, his eyes were sad and his voice steady and quiet as he talked about why he came to the NRA convention.
“I’m not looking to see anyone lose their rights, but my 6-year-old boy lost his right to live,” he said in an interview.
Patricia Maisch, 64, has been to three NRA conventions now, and she made headlines when she shouted, “Shame on you,” from the Senate galley after the lawmakers rejected the proposal to expand background checks.
She was at Representative Giffords’ public appearance in January 2011 in Tucson when a gunman opened fire, killing six and injuring the congresswoman. She grabbed a clip of ammunition from the shooter.
A few months later, she was in Pittsburgh, extending her hand to the NRA to create an unlikely partnership.
“My motto that year was, ‘We don’t want your guns, we want your help,’” she said in an interview. “Same with the next year in St. Louis.” She said both times she tried to meet with NRA officials, and no one responded.
“This year is a little different,” she said, standing outside the Houston convention center. “Now it’s, ‘We’re going on without you.’”
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