The National Rifle Association is not known as a home for academics, but on the opening day of the NRA’s 142nd Annual Meetings and Exhibitions, the day’s brightest political star walked the stage like a constitutional law professor. Before he was elected as the junior senator from Texas last November, Ted Cruz was, in fact, a law professor at the University of Texas from 2004 to 2009. Cruz received a hometown hero’s welcome in Houston on Friday from a crowd of several thousand at the political event hosted each year by the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action (ILA), the organization’s political lobby.
There is nothing nonpolitical about the NRA-ILA, and the Leadership Forum functions as much as a rally for NRA members as a beauty pageant for politicians looking to curry favor with one of Washington’s most feared, loathed, and powerful political organizations. Within minutes of the hushed harmony of roughly 5,000 patriotic Americans pledging allegiance to their flag, NRA President David Keene said he knew the crowd had followed “everything that happened in the Senate last month.” Keene then introduced the ILA’s executive director, Chris Cox, as the man instrumental in defeating the background-check bill that failed to pass the Senate on April 17.
As the rally emcee, Cox articulated a series of arguments that speakers including NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, and Sarah Palin repeated throughout the day. Namely, that the NRA is an organization that is funded by and in the service of law-abiding gun owners, and that they are an innocent bystander in the fight over gun control.
“The national media and their billionaire supporters attack us, ridicule us, and worst of all, blame us for the acts of violent criminals and madmen,” Cox said. “We’ve fought harder than anyone to keep guns out of the hands of violent criminals and the mentally ill. But still they blame us,” he continued to applause and hoots of support.
The last 12 months have seen a series of mass-casualty shootings that drew unprecedented national attention—12 dead and 70 shot in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater and six adults and 20 first graders killed at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school—and reignited a political debate over gun control. But Cox reassured his flock that no new laws have passed, no gun measures will pass, and that all NRA members can rest with clean consciences and know that they are on the side of the law, American liberty, and even moral righteousness.
“That’s because where we see tragedy, Barack Obama and Michael Bloomberg, they see opportunity,” Cox said. “While we pray for God to comfort those suffering unimaginable pain, they rush to microphones and cameras, gather in war rooms on Capitol Hill and scheme about how to use that suffering to push their political agenda…That’s who they are and what they believe,” Cox said. “They use tragedy to restrict freedom.”
Cruz presented the issue as matter of ironclad historical rights “When the Constitution says the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed, it means that right shall not be infringed,” he said.
In the four months he has served in the U.S. Senate, the Princeton- and Harvard Law-educated attorney has become a conservative sensation for his willingness to take on Democrats, as well as ranking members of his own party, with combative confidence and fiery debate. The Tea Party standard-bearer with a Hispanic background is already being touted in some circles as presidential material.
“The Constitution matters,” Cruz told the NRA members. “All of the Constitution. It’s not pick and choose. It’s not take the parts you like and get rid of the parts you don’t like.” He then offered an alternative answer to gun violence, by way of a conservative stance on law and order. “We must do everything we can to stop violent crime… If you are a violent criminal, we should come down on you like a ton of bricks. And at the same time, we should safeguard the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens.”
Like other speakers in Houston, Cruz also accused President Obama of manipulating the issue of gun control on emotional terms. Palin, who arrived on stage in tight black jeans and a form-fitting black T-shirt that said “women hunt” in bright pink letters, said that politicians and the mainstream press too often use people’s emotions to skew the issue. The media, one of Palin’s favorite targets since her failed vice-presidential candidacy in 2008, has become a “reliable, poodle-skirted cheerleader for a president who writes the book on exploiting tragedy.”
Palin spoke for just 12 minutes, one of the shortest speeches of the day. She was chatty and casual, and expressed her abstract concern that American democracy is on a cannibalistic downward slide. When Hollywood glorifies violence in movies and videogames, she said, this is an example of “freedom destroying itself.”