AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The powerful U.S. gun lobby has spent much of the past year under siege, defending gun rights following mass shootings in Colorado and Connecticut and fighting mounting pressure for stricter laws across the country.
Now, after a major victory over President Barack Obama with the defeat of a gun control bill in the U.S. Senate, the National Rifle Association will gather in gun-friendly Texas this weekend for its annual convention.
"If you are an NRA member, you deserve to be proud," Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's brash chief executive wrote to the organization's 5 million members last week, telling them they "exemplify everything that's good and right about America."
Obama pushed for ambitious gun control measures after 20 young children and six adults were shot to death in December at a Connecticut school by a gunman with a legally purchased high-powered rifle. But lawmakers in Congress, under pressure from the NRA and its vocal members, kept the proposals from moving forward.
More than 70,000 people are expected to attend the NRA's three-day "Stand and Fight"-themed event, which includes a gun trade show, political rally and strategy meeting.
NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam predicted the convention will draw the largest crowd in its history.
"The geography is helpful," Arulanandam said. "The current (political) climate helps."
Texas, with its frontier image and fierce sense of independence, is one of the strongest gun rights states in the country. More than 500,000 people are licensed to carry concealed handguns, including Gov. Rick Perry, who once bragged about shooting a coyote on a morning jog. And concealed handguns are allowed the state Capitol.
Friday's big event is a political forum with speeches from several conservative leaders, including Perry, former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, former presidential candidate Rick Santorum and Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican who has become one of the top conservative voices in Washington since being elected last year. LaPierre speaks to the convention on Saturday.
For NRA member Mike Cox, a concealed handgun license instructor, the recent Senate vote showed not only the power of the NRA but demonstrated the need to recruit more members.
"There's a lot of enthusiasm right now," Cox said. "This isn't over by any means."
Gun control advocates say they will have a presence around the convention, with plans for a vigil for victims of gun violence, a petition drive to support background checks for gun purchases and a Saturday demonstration outside the convention center.
Sandy Phillips, whose daughter was killed in the Colorado theater shooting in July 2012, met privately with Cruz this week. She said Cruz refused to budge on expanding background checks on gun purchases and told her he considered it the first step toward government confiscation of guns.
"They're always good at saying the right thing, 'I'm so sorry for you loss and da da da da da,'" Phillips said. "If you're really sorry for my loss, do something about it."
In an interview Thursday with The Associated Press, Cruz called efforts by Obama and gun control advocates to push for expanded background checks an attempt to "undermine the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms." That's the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Despite polls that show most Americans favor some expansion of background checks, Ladd Everitt, spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said a big challenge is matching the NRA's grassroots organizing.
"The NRA knows this issue is very much in play. People were sickened by that Senate vote," Everitt said.
Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat who has supported gun rights in the past, has said he will re-introduce the bill to require criminal and mental health background checks for gun buyers at gun shows and online.
And despite their loss in Congress, gun control advocates have scored significant victories at the state level. Lawmakers in Colorado passed new restrictions on firearms, including required background checks for private and online gun sales and a ban on ammunition magazines that hold more than 15 rounds. Connecticut recently added more than 100 firearms to the state's assault weapons ban and now requires background checks for private gun sales. Maryland and New York have passed sweeping new gun laws.
"There have been significant victories (at the state level). We expect that to continue, and we're not giving up on the federal level," Everitt said.
John Ridlehuber, a gun dealer, said NRA members see no room for compromise on new gun restrictions.
"We have capitulated in far too many places. We should never give anything up again," Ridlehuber said. "We're not the bad guys. We're the good guys."
Associated Press writers Jim Vertuno in Austin, Texas, and Alan Fram in Washington contributed to this report.