By Lisa Maria Garza
DALLAS (Reuters) – Protesters on both sides of the U.S. gun debate took to the streets on Saturday outside the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting in Dallas after the latest in a long series of mass shootings put the issue back in the spotlight.
Across the street from the convention center where President Donald Trump addressed NRA members on Friday, a “Rally4Reform” drew about 200 demonstrators demanding tighter restrictions on firearms sales. Many were dressed in the orange that has become the color of the gun control movement.
They watched as Manuel Oliver, whose 17-year-old son, Joaquin, was killed in the Feb. 14 massacre of 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida, spray painted a mural of kids running and a backpack-wearing student in a rifle’s crosshairs.
Many flinched and some sobbed as he hit the wall with a hammer to simulate the sound of gunfire.
“You were in the wrong room yesterday,” Oliver said of Trump, who enthusiastically embraced the NRA on Friday. “You should be talking to the people we are now.”
Two hours later, about 150 people attended a counterprotest at the same site in support of the NRA, many of them carrying sidearms and with rifles slung over their shoulders.
One of the organizers, Open Carry Texas President C.J. Grisham, said he has criticized the NRA in the past but wanted to show his support for fellow gun owners who have been vilified during gun control protests.
“When you’ve got groups who have no idea what they’re talking about, going after the largest organization dedicated to preserving liberty, then I feel like we have a duty to stand up,” Grisham said.
Carrying a “Don’t Tread On Me” flag, a rifle at her side and a pistol holstered on her hip, Texas resident Teri Horne, 55, engaged in a debate with two male gun control activists. After 20 minutes of spirited discussion, everyone shook hands and went their separate ways.
Horne said she supports the NRA, with a few recent exceptions.
“The bump stocks gave me pause because that’s an open door, a slippery slope, to way more infringements,” she said, referring to the NRA’s support for restrictions on the devices, which let semiautomatic rifles fire almost like an automatic weapon.
“They do great work, and I support them but sometimes there’s just things we don’t agree on,” Horne said.
An estimated 80,000 people were expected in Dallas for the NRA’s three-day meeting, which began on Friday.
The debate over access to guns took center stage after a 19-year-old former student used a semiautomatic rifle to gun down 17 students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, a suburb of Fort Lauderdale.
Students who survived became national figures, demanding tighter firearms controls and a check on the power of the NRA.
Gun rights advocates cite the right to bear arms guaranteed by the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
About 100 protesters gathered at a second gun-control demonstration across town on Saturday, wearing orange ribbons and carrying signs that said “Shame on you NRA!” One NRA member dressed in a suit and black cowboy hat briefly scuffled with protesters as the rally began, but was quickly escorted away by police.
Actress Alyssa Milano said she created the organization NoRA, which organized the second rally, to combat the influence that the gun lobby wields with U.S. politicians.
“It debilitates our lawmakers from implementing common-sense gun reform,” Milano said in an interview.
(Reporting by Lisa Maria Garza; writing by Daniel Wallis; editing by Jonathan Oatis)