Record crowds were expected at the National Rifle Assn.'s annual… (Justin Sullivan, Getty…)
HOUSTON — On the morning of the first day of the National Rifle Assn. convention, before the doors opened, scores of visitors lined up outside the convention center, part of what organizers expect will be a record crowd.
Among them was Tilman Hollifield, 63, a lifetime NRA member who drove 950 miles from Terre Haute, Ind., to support gun rights that he fears are more imperiled than ever since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
"There are so many people that are against guns," said Hollifield, who has worked in law enforcement, as an electrician and bricklayer. "I'm very concerned."
In a park across the street, a small group read aloud the names of those killed by guns at Sandy Hook, as well as in Aurora, Colo., and elsewhere — more than 3,300 names.
Joe Rogers, 42, a father of three from nearby Spring, Texas, joined the "No More Names" vigil because he was unnerved by Sandy Hook and wants expanded background checks for potential gun buyers.
"I own a gun. Guns are fine. But there's no reason for criminals to have easy access to guns," Rogers said. "Every day there are kids dying needlessly."
The convention center doors opened at 8 a.m. and Hollifield headed in with other conventioneers. Rogers read a few more names before heading to work, handing off the list to another volunteer.
Inside, under banners declaring "I am the NRA" and featuring images of NRA official Wayne LaPierre, basketball star Karl Malone and rocker Ted Nugent clutching rifles (Nugent's was, of course, zebra-striped), visitors browsed booths sponsored by major gun makers, including Colt, Remington and Bushmaster. There was the musty scent of "Gun Smoke" cologne samples. The hall reverberated with the metallic sound of trigger clicks and rifles racking.
"Can you ship ammo?" a couple asked a Remington staffer. He shook his head — ammunition shortages had many gun owners looking to stock up.
"We're making it as fast as we can," he said.
Nearby, Don Crosson, 57, a Democrat from Niceville, Fla., was comparing grips on Taurus revolvers beside Chris Meissner, 33, a libertarian lawyer from El Paso.
Meissner, who bought an assault rifle a few months ago, was looking for a new concealed firearm. Crosson wanted new scopes and binoculars and signed up for a course in home defense.
"I never owned a gun until five years ago, but things started changing in our country," said Crosson. "It's become much harder to occupy the middle ground. We have to be able to talk to each other about background checks and reach a happy medium. But it's not taking away our guns."
At the NRA store, there were caps featuring this year's convention theme, "Stand and Fight," and the message "Yeah, I shoot like a girl." Also for sale were NRA shot glasses, gun cabinets and hoodies with a hidden pocket for a concealed weapon.
Steve Haak, 55, of Rochester, N.Y., examined hoodies and bemoaned restrictive new gun laws in his state. "If I thought putting through more restrictive laws would prevent a Sandy Hook or an Aurora, I'd be the first to do it," he said.
When he and a friend walked back to their hotel in the afternoon, they passed the gun control advocates in the park, still reciting names.
Nearby, Erica Lafferty, 27, was preparing to join the vigil. Lafferty, who flew in from Connecticut, is the daughter of slain Sandy Hook principal Dawn Hochsprung.
Lafferty said she did not intend to go inside the convention. She came not to confront, she said, but to have conversations with NRA members about expanding background checks — a proposal that recently failed in the Senate.
"I feel like we've been made out to be a group of monsters who want to take people's guns away," she said. "I just want to make sure this never happens to anyone else."
Neil Heslin also came to Houston from Newtown, where his 6-year-old son, Jesse Lewis, died at Sandy Hook. He was hoping to talk to NRA members about supporting background check legislation together.
"I can't not try to make a change. I would feel I was letting my son down. It's not about the 2nd Amendment or taking people's guns — it's about common-sense changes and closing loopholes," he said.
Elvin Daniel, 56, of Johnsburg, Ill., an NRA member turned gun control advocate, spoke nearby about the fatal shooting of his sister by her estranged husband.
"Everybody is afraid to give a little," Daniel said as he headed into the convention, where a crowd gathered for the day's highlight: a panel headlined by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
There were cheers for Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) — who challenged Vice President Joe Biden to a debate over crime — and above all, LaPierre, whom many affectionately refer to as Wayne.
At one point, LaPierre asked different demographic groups to stand, one by one: police, nurses, teachers, ranchers, moms.
"I want you to see us for who we are," he said. "Americans just like us all over this country are standing for what we really are."
Palin, who wore a T-shirt emblazoned with pink stenciled antlers and the words "Women hunt," warned the audience, "This is a fight for freedom."
"We have these tragedies like Aurora, and immediately the question asked in Washington is 'What can we do to limit the freedom of the people?' It's the wrong question," she said, urging gun owners to "keep us reloading in this fight."
Outside, gun control protesters continued reading the names of the dead.