HOUSTON — House Majority Leader Tom DeLay returned Saturday to the embrace of his home turf and core supporters, capping a convention of the National Rifle Assn. by telling the organization's leaders that guns were a crucial instrument of keeping the peace and preserving the American way of life.
"It isn't just our homes and selves that need defending," he said Saturday night in the convention's keynote speech. "It is our freedom.... God gave it. The Constitution preserves it. And together we will defend it."
The NRA gave DeLay an antique-style, flintlock rifle. He held it above his head and echoed the words former NRA President Charlton Heston famously shouted when given his own commemorative gun: "From my cold, dead hands."
DeLay did not directly address the ethics and other controversies swirling around him.
The Texas Republican's appearance represented the high point of a convention where politicians and gun rights advocates pulled few punches, berating Democrats, gun control advocates, the United Nations and the media, among others.
President Bush delivered a message by videotape to NRA leaders as 3,000 people dined on steak with cognac sauce. He pledged to fight new gun control provisions and called on Congress to pass a measure that would grant gun manufacturers and dealers immunity from some lawsuits. The measure's backers say it would protect companies from frivolous lawsuits; critics say it would sacrifice public safety to reward the powerful gun lobby.
DeLay's appearance attracted about 200 protesters to a convention center in downtown Houston. They held signs that read: "Fight Corruption; Dump DeLay" and chanted: "This is what democracy looks like."
Several made it clear that they were not here to protest the NRA, but DeLay. One of his constituents, 51-year-old Jackie Rico't, a chemical company worker from Seabrook, Texas, held a sign that read: "2nd Amendment Yes; Tom DeLay No."
"I'm not against the NRA," Rico't said. "But DeLay is bankrupt -- morally and ethically. We need to take our district back."
In Texas, three political fundraisers with ties to DeLay were indicted on campaign-finance charges and his fundraising operation is under investigation. In Washington, he faces ethics charges regarding his relationship with lobbyists and questions about the relatives that are on his campaign payroll.
And he apologized amid criticism for saying that judges would "answer for their behavior" for not intervening in the Terri Schiavo case; some alleged that he could have incited violence against judges.
Inside the convention DeLay was received with a standing ovation.
"I hope the national media saw that," he said, the only allusion to the controversy.
DeLay has been one of the NRA's most stalwart supporters for more than 20 years, even fighting gun control legislation that has popular support, such as a program giving cities money to buy guns from residents. Though some have suggested that DeLay should resign his leadership post, many NRA members blamed his problems on Democrats.
"It's just another target the liberals have found," said David Adams of Richmond, Va. "They did it to [former House Speaker] Newt Gingrich. He's just their next target. It's much ado about nothing."
These are heady days for the NRA. The organization's membership, 4 million, and the number of gun owners in the United States, 80 million, are both at historic highs, the NRA says. The group has helped elect conservative lawmakers, who have tried to grant gun manufacturers and dealers immunity from some lawsuits and have ensured that an assault weapons ban died last fall.
The group has pushed concealed weapons measures onto the books or before lawmakers for consideration in several states. And in Florida this month, the GOP-led Legislature approved an NRA-backed measure allowing civilians to use deadly force against a perceived threat outside of their homes without first trying to retreat.
Critics said the measure would turn Florida into a trigger-happy and lawless place; Gov. Jeb Bush called it common sense.
A recent sign of the NRA's might was the silence after a Minnesota teen shot and killed five students, a security guard and a teacher before killing himself last month. Unlike after the Columbine shootings -- when the NRA was widely criticized -- there has been no major threat of new gun control provisions.
"Let the enemies of freedom take notice, we in this room have beaten you and beaten you and beaten you for 25 years," NRA Chief Executive Wayne LaPierre told the crowd at the convention's opening ceremony.
Musician Charlie Daniels, who served as emcee, launched the convention by calling the political left "silly and unrealistic, a cadre of save-the-whales and kill-the-babies pantywaists."