INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- Top Republican hopefuls for the 2024 presidential race vowed Friday at the National Rifle Association's annual convention to defend the Second Amendment at all costs, suggesting that new firearms restrictions in the wake of mass shootings around the country would only hurt law-abiding gun owners.
The three-day gathering with thousands of the organization's most active members at Indianapolis' convention center came mere days after mass shootings at a school in Nashville and a bank in Louisville, Kentucky. Last year's NRA convention followed the massacre at a school in Uvalde, Texas.
That illustrated the stark reality that such shootings have become enough of the fabric of American life that the NRA can no longer schedule around them. Nor does it really want to: The convention also fell on the second anniversary of the mass shooting at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis that killed nine people.
None of that stopped top Republicans from flocking to the event, underscoring the political power of the NRA.
"Gun-hating politicians should never go to bed unafraid of what this association, and all of our millions of members, can do to their political careers," said NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre, suggesting that his group could play a dominant role in the 2024 election after turmoil in recent years over a failed bankruptcy effort, a class action lawsuit and a fraud investigation.
Instead of fewer guns, former Vice President Mike Pence called for federal funding for armed school officers and more institutions for the mentally ill, though mental illness is not the main driver of mass shootings. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said he had resisted implementing any gun restrictions in his state despite that stance being unpopular.
Former President Donald Trump crowned himself as "the most pro-gun, pro-Second Amendment president" in the nation's history. "I will be your loyal friend and fearless champion once again as the 47th president of the United States," he told the crowd, pledging to create a new tax credit to reimburse teachers "for the full cost of a concealed-carry firearm," as well as gun training "from highly-qualified experts."
Some of the Republican politicians speaking at the event said they were saddened by the recent shootings, but most spent more time criticizing Democrats, slamming COVID-19 restrictions and vaccines, and discussing security along the U.S.-Mexico border. That was fine with many attendees, who don't think gun restrictions are the answer to mass shootings.
"No one wants to see the violence you see in schools and stuff today," said Randy Conner, a pistol and rifle instructor for the NRA from Waynesburg, Pennsylvania. "But I don't think taking the guns away from ordinary citizens is going to change any of that at all."
Trump's appearance was his first public event since being arrested and arraigned in New York last week on felony charges stemming from a hush money payment to porn actor Stormy Daniels during his 2016 campaign. His Secret Service protection meant attendees couldn't carry guns at the convention.
The former president made a few references to the numerous investigations he's facing. Instead of the government going after hardened criminals, he complained, "The only one they want to prosecute is Donald Trump."
Friday's appearance was the first time he and Pence have addressed the same campaign event on the same day since their estrangement following the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Pence is considering his own 2024 bid.
A former Indiana governor, Pence drew scattered boos as he started speaking, despite it being his home turf. The former vice president had skipped a number of conservative gatherings in recent years after he was booed and heckled during their previous meetings.
Taking the stage later, Trump said sarcastically that he hoped the crowd had given his former vice president a warm introduction.
Pence noted the two recent mass shootings and said his heart and prayers were with the families of the victims, who included three 9-year-old students. But he said, "We don't need gun control. We need crime control."
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Trump critic who announced his 2024 campaign after news of the former president's indictment broke, drew at least one yelled obscenity from the Trump-friendly crowd after he suggested President Joe Biden was "praying" for a rematch with Trump in 2024 and declared, "We don't need a rerun of 2020."
Others offering video messages were former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who began her 2024 campaign in February, and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who announced a presidential exploratory committee this week. DeSantis, seen as a top rival to Trump even though he's yet to jump into the race, also spoke briefly in virtual remarks.
"I've resisted calls to take up gun control, even when such a stand is superficially unpopular," DeSantis said, a reference to calls for stricter Florida laws in the wake of the 2018 Parkland school shooting that killed 17 people.
Pain over the Louisville and Nashville shooting rampages has crossed party lines. Kentucky Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear talked about having a friend killed in the Louisville shooting, while Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said he had friends killed during the Nashville school attack.
Yet the NRA convention's tone was as defiant as last year, when the group held its convention in Houston just three days after the massacre of 19 students and two teachers at a Uvalde elementary school.
Further overlapping with recent tragedy, Pence and some of the other speakers were following up their NRA speeches by traveling to Nashville to meet with top GOP donors gathered there.
"Every significant national Republican, every Republican that's thrown their hat in the ring to run for president, is showing up this weekend to pledge their undying loyalty to the NRA and the gun lobby," said Democratic Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, who championed bipartisan legislation that passed last year and imposed some new federal gun restrictions after the Uvalde shooting. "Our kids are being hunted, and the NRA's business model is to give aid to the hunters."
Indeed, support for gun rights among Republican voters remains higher than for voters overall. Some 56% of voters in last fall's midterm elections said they want to see stricter nationwide gun laws, compared with just 28% of Republicans, according to AP VoteCast, a wide-ranging survey of the electorate. About half of Republicans said gun laws should be left as they are.
Trump, meanwhile, has a contradictory history on guns.
The NRA was a key backer of his 2016 campaign, spending some $30 million to support a candidate who sometimes mentioned carrying his own gun and vowed to eliminate gun-free zones in schools and on military bases. Trump also pledged to establish a national right to carry.
But, as the country reeled from a series of mass shootings, Trump's administration banned bump stocks, which were used in a 2017 attack on a Las Vegas country music concert that killed 60 people and injured hundreds more. After the Parkland school shooting in Florida the following year, Trump urged congressional Republicans to expand background checks and proposed seizing guns from mentally ill people.
He also suggested raising the minimum age to buy assault rifles from 18 to 21, and suggested he was open to a conversation about reviving assault weapons bans. After later meeting with the NRA, however, Trump abandoned his push.
Friday's convention largely belonged to Trump, who drew the loudest cheers from the crowd.
Donna Alberts, who traveled around 600 miles (965 kilometers) from Greenbriar, Arkansas, for the convention, said nothing could sway her vote for Trump in 2024.
"He's a good man," Alberts said, "and he does what he says he's going to do, and he loves this country."