Inside Texas Gun Meet where an excited 17th birthday boy chooses an assault rifle


Austin Whitehead, 17, attends the National Rifle Association conference to select an AK21 assault rifle to receive as his next birthday present – while 19 children and two teachers lie dead in a town 300 miles away

Austin Whitehead visits the NRA to choose his birthday present
Austin Whitehead visits the NRA to choose his birthday present

In a Texas convention center teeming with gun enthusiasts, an excited 17-year-old chooses his next birthday present – ​​an AK21 assault rifle.

Austin Whitehead is here at the National Rifle Association Annual Convention in Houston, although he is too young to buy the products on display.

But guns have been around his whole life, so he doesn’t bat an eyelid when people with Kalashnikovs pose for photos and put bullets in plastic bags.

Later, Austin will be among the crowd that climaxes as the convention’s keynote speaker, Donald Trump, yells, “The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

Meanwhile, in a town 300 miles away, 19 children and two teachers lie dead, massacred by a teenager with an assault rifle given to him for his 18th birthday.

Ghost guns are soon to be banned from the conference


Phillip Harris)

Austin senses the comparison. He has an eight-year-old brother, the same age as some of the victims in Uvalde.

But he says the tragedy has only made him more determined to get his hands on his birthday present. “I’m a gun enthusiast,” he explains.

“My father is in the military. What you do with a gun depends on the person. They can be used to protect people or kill them.

“I want that choice. I have two little brothers and I want to protect them.”

The Uvalde atrocity made no difference to the NRA. Despite pressure to cancel the show, the three-day gun show is going on, although guests like American Pie singer Don McLean withdrew out of respect.

Daniel Defense, the company that made the gun used by murderer Salvador Ramos, hastily withdrew its sponsorship.

The NRA is trumpeting the event as “14 Morning Guns and Equipment.” At one stand, I’m invited to try a 400-pound M&P Sport Series rifle, which appears to be good for beginners.

Mirror reporter Geraldine Mckelvie with a gun


Phillip Harris)

Another gave me a free baseball cap and told me if I liked the company’s Facebook page I could win a gun.

Most shocking is a stand touting “ghost guns” — untraceable firearms that you assemble yourself and can be purchased without a background check.

Later this year, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will begin regulating them.

A sign reads, “Biden and ATF changed the law effective August 2022. Ghost guns will be illegal… get yours now.”

South Carolina gun store owners Henry and Diana Orr tell us they made the 14-hour journey here to defend their second amendment right to bear arms.

Henry, 61, says: “We must defend our Second Amendment rights and the NRA is our best supporter. ”

Demonstrators in front of the conference center


Phillip Harris)

Diana, 60, firmly believes the Uvalde tragedy would have been prevented if the two teachers who were murdered – Irma Garcia, 48, and Eva Mireles, 44 – had been armed while they were teaching.

“The children had no protection,” she says. “The teachers must be armed. Of their own free will – they have to feel it in their hearts.”

There’s only one politician Diana truly trusts to make sure gun laws don’t get tightened. “Oh my god, I love Trump,” she says. “If he runs in 2024, he will win,” adds Henry.

Her views are shared by Virgil Patterson, 79, a former Houston home builder. We meet him while we wait for the ex-president’s speech. Virgil wears a Trump 2024 hat with the slogan “Take America Back.”

Some customers have traveled for hours to attend


Phillip Harris)

Pick ‘n’ Mix bullets for sale


Phillip Harris)

He says: “Trump is not a politician. The man takes care of his country.” Virgil has 30 guns at home and taught a granddaughter to shoot when she was 10.

“The second change is important to me,” he says. “It’s a question of freedom. In England you don’t have that right – it’s been taken from you. I had to use my gun a couple of times, but I didn’t have to fire it.

“People tried to take something from me, but then they saw my gun.”

Accountant Melinda Teitelbaum, 67, of Fort Worth, near Dallas, adds, “I love guns. It’s really unfortunate what happened a few days ago, but the problem isn’t the weapons, it’s the character of the person. All these horrific events – none have ever been performed by an NRA member.

“It’s an illness. It doesn’t matter how many laws you have, you can’t control mental illness. I would absolutely arm teachers.”

In the Trump queue, most of the people we speak to express their horror at the Uvalde tragedy and say they would only use their guns in self-defense.

Then a man walks by wearing a “Kill a Commie for Mommy” t-shirt.

Donald Trump will speak at the event


Phillip Harris)

We take our seats for the series of warm-up speakers. Texas Senator Ted Cruz blamed everything from single-parent families to video games for Tuesday’s tragic events.

A middle-aged woman in the row behind me begins pacing in agreement. “Exactly!” She screams.

Trump is led onto the stage to the sounds of the Republican anthem “God Bless the USA” and everyone joins in the standing ovation.

No one mentions that country icon Lee Greenwood, who wrote the song, canceled his performance out of respect for the Uvalde families.

Trump reads the names of the Uvalde dead to the sound of a tinkling bell.

In his speech he says that security in schools must be strengthened.

“There is no more inviting sign for a mass murderer than one that declares a gun-free zone,” he says to thunderous applause. And if it runs in 2024?

“I would fight violent crime like never before,” he swears.

“Four more years!” the old man in front of me yells, waving his walking stick. An hour later, it ends with a promise to “take back the great, beautiful White House that we love.”

Outside, as we leave, not everyone is feeling so inspired. Protesters are gathered with signs reading “No guns!” and “go home!” Among them is teacher Nathaniel Gomez, 35.

He blinks back tears as he says, “I teach 10-year-olds. I cried when I heard it. It’s just so messed up. If you honk, you could be killed. There are so many idiots with guns.”

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