Keith Jehelen said the shooting at an elementary school in Texas made him “sick,” but “you can’t blame the gun” for killing 19 young children and two teachers.
“We’ve always had guns in this country,” said the 68-year-old retired U.S. Postal Service employee, who personally owns more than 50 firearms.
Jehelen lined up to watch former President Donald Trump deliver a speech at a National Rifle Association convention that was controversially held within hours of Uvalade, where the school massacre took place earlier in the week.
Reflecting on the shooting, he quipped: “It got sick in my stomach.”
The gun is not the problem, however, said Jehelen, who was wearing camouflage shorts and a Trump hat. He argued that the disaster could have unfolded differently if the school people had been armed.
“The killers are not afraid of the judge, they are not afraid of the police,” he said. “They should be afraid of the prey they are going after.”
The NRA event – which runs through Sunday – is being held at a huge downtown convention center where anti-gun protesters are gathering outside.
“You have blood on your hands,” said one protester. “Gun = death,” read another.
Trump gave a loud applause from the crowd as he addressed the convention later in the day. He quietly read out the names of those killed in the shootings and called on Americans to “find common ground” regardless of their political affiliation.
But even as he becomes political, gun owners explode “hateful” Democrats to villain “peaceful, law-abiding” NRA members.
– ‘This is not Australia’ –
Hundreds of firearms – which were defused by removing their firing pins – were on display in booth after booth at Cave Convention Hall, ranging from small handguns to AR-15s, the ubiquitous semi-automatic weapon used by gunmen in Uvalde.
Shared space with tactical gear, hunting equipment and clothing with gun accessories including high-power scope, suppressor and 60-round magazines.
Retired law enforcement officer Rick Gammon looked at a wall of black semi-automatic rifles at the convention, saying any attempt to get firearms from the Americans would fail.
“You never snatch a man’s gun. It’s not Australia,” said Gammon, 51, looking at the Helion rifle – a compact bullpap design that he mentioned would fit well in the back of his driver’s seat or with his gun. Safe at home.
Following the April 1996 massacre of 35 people in Port Arthur, Australia enacted strict new gun laws that included a general ban on the use of semi-automatic rifles, shotguns and pump-action shotguns except for specific purposes.
The United States – which has been plagued by frequent gun violence but has a constitutional right to bear arms – has repeatedly failed to act after mass shootings.
“I want to see a public background check,” Gammon said, referring to a long-awaited reform that has a majority in the United States. “But it’s not going to stop anyone from going to hell.”
– ‘Villainize a tool’ –
The conference is not just a gathering of gun enthusiasts, it is a place where they can test the “feeling” of the weapon they are considering buying.
“Oh, I like it,” Lissy V, 31, told a gun manufacturer’s representative when she checked the weight and balance of the 9-millimeter pistol.
“You put it in purple too, and it caught my eye,” added the military veteran, who is in the market for a new pistol that he can hide in a holster under his skirt, because “it’s too hot for pants in Texas.”
But when asked about Uvalde he turned thoughtful.
“Personally I think there should be more gun education,” he said, but since 18-year-olds are able to join the military, the veteran believes they should also be able to buy assault rifles.
“They can enlist, can’t they? If they enlist, they can shoot a weapon,” he said.
Jim Maynard, a gun owner and industry lawyer, says that while there is “a lot of uncertainty” in America today and people are mourning, he agrees with the decision not to suspend the NRA convention.
“Villainizing a tool doesn’t solve the problem we’re having,” he said.
People blaming guns for America’s crisis of violence were simply “hype” and should focus more on expanding their mental health programs.
Maynard added, “It eliminates outside protests to prevent further shootings – and it does not deter one person from violence,” Maynard added.
(Except for the title, this story was not edited by NDTV staff and was published from a syndicated feed.)