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May 03. 2013 10:14PM

NRA official to gun owners: 'Our freedom is under attack'

HOUSTON - It is time to stop demonizing all law-abiding gun owners because of violent acts committed by a few criminals, National Rifle Association leaders and political allies said on Friday at its first convention since the Connecticut school massacre.

"Our freedom is under attack like never before," Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA Institute for Legislative Action, said during a leadership forum. "When a deranged criminal murders innocent children, they blame us."

The NRA is the nation's leading advocate for gun ownership. It works assiduously to defend the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution setting out the right to bear arms.

Organizers expect some 70,000 attendees at the 142nd NRA Annual Meetings & Exhibits in Houston, which began on Friday and continues through Sunday. Since last year's meeting, a national debate about gun laws sprang up after the December shooting at Newtown, Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 20 children and six adults were killed.

The incident was the third mass shooting in a year: last April, a man opened fire in a Colorado movie theater, killing 12 people and injuring dozens more, and in August a Wisconsin man attacked a Sikh Temple, killing six people.

The NRA scored a major victory in Congress last month when it beat back a proposal supported by President Barack Obama to expand background checks for gun buyers.

At the leadership forum, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, thanked those who fought against the background checks proposal and other efforts to tighten gun control.

"That's your victory," Cruz said. "It's the victory of the American people."

But Cruz and other speakers, including former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, cautioned that the fight is not over. Supporters of the proposal, which is a key part of Obama's gun-control effort sparked by the Newtown shooting, have vowed to revive it.

Cruz challenged one of those supporters - Vice President Joe Biden - to engage in a debate about how to stop crime.

"If he believes the answer to violent crime is not prosecuting felons and fugitives, not prosecuting gun crimes, but going after the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens," Cruz said, "I would like to invite the vice president to engage in an hour-long conversation and debate."

Texas Governor Rick Perry burst onto stage after a video was shown showing him shooting a gun.

"Someone clearly impaired, filled with hate, commits a horrific crime," he said. "In the wake of these tragedies, you can almost set your watch by how long it takes for people who hate guns, hate gun owners to begin another campaign to add a new set of federal gun laws on the books."

Such laws do nothing except make it more difficult for law-abiding Americans to own guns, Perry said.

No one likes gun violence - especially NRA members, said the governor, who has been working to convince gun manufacturers in states considering tighter gun control to move to Texas.

NRA members are working to make people safer by proposing solutions such as enforcing existing laws, fixing the mental health system and protecting schools, said NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre. They are teachers, firefighters, volunteers, moms and taxpayers, he said.

"The media and political elites can lie about us and demonize us all they want, but that won't stop us," LaPierre said. "We are Americans, we are proud of it and we are going to defend our freedom."

In the exhibit hall, more than 550 vendors showed off everything from rifles and targets to offers of hunting safaris.

Seminars offered on Friday included a personal safety workshop called "Refuse to be a Victim" and a chef-taught class on cooking wild game.

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