AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Fresh off a huge victory over President Barack Obama on gun control, the message from the National Rifle Association is clear: The fight has just begun.
The powerful gun rights lobby gathers in Houston this weekend for its annual convention and organizers anticipate a rollicking, Texas-sized party — both to celebrate the victory in Washington and recharge for more political struggles as gun control advocates tally their own successes in states around the country.
"If you are an NRA member, you deserve to be proud," Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's brash, no-compromises chief executive wrote last week to the organization's 5 million members, telling them they "exemplify everything that's good and right about America."
The NRA couldn't have picked a friendlier place to stage its annual event. More than 70,000 people are expected to attend the three-day "Stand and Fight"-themed convention, which includes a gun trade show, political rally and strategy meeting.
Texas, with its frontier image and fierce sense of independence, is one of the strongest gun rights states in the country. More than 500,000 people are licensed to carry concealed handguns, including Gov. Rick Perry, who once bragged about shooting a coyote during a morning jog.
Concealed handguns are allowed in the state Capitol, where simply showing a license allows armed visitors to bypass metal detectors.
Friday's big event is a political forum with speeches from several state and national conservative leaders, including Perry, former GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, former Pennsylvania senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum and Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican Texas firebrand who has become one of the top tea party voices in Washington since being elected last year. LaPierre speaks to the convention Saturday before the "Stand and Fight" rally at night.
NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam predicted the convention will draw the largest crowd in its history.
"The geography is helpful," Arulanandam said. "The current (political) climate helps."
For NRA member Mike Cox, a concealed handgun license instructor from rural Wimberley, the recent Senate vote showed not only the NRA's power, but demonstrated to its members the need to dig in and recruit.
"There's a lot of enthusiasm right now," Cox said. "This isn't over by any means."
Gun control advocates say they will have a presence around the convention, with plans for a vigil for victims of gun violence, a petition drive to support background checks and a Saturday demonstration outside the George R. Brown Convention Center.
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