Thousands gathered Friday afternoon to hear from a slate of presidential hopefuls and National Rifle Association top brass during the NRA’s annual leadership forum in Indianapolis.
High-profile GOP politicians, including former President Donald Trump and former Vice President and former Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, blamed mental illness and liberal policies for the country’s gun violence epidemic. They criticized “woke” ideology and asserted that it has infiltrated the country’s criminal justice, education and banking systems.
The event is the third time the gun rights advocacy group has held its annual convention in Indianapolis. And it’s the first convention since a permitless carry law took effect in the state.
“You know, if I ever write a book about my experiences with the NRA, I think I’ll call it ‘if you fight like hell for freedom, you’ll get more of it’,” NRA Executive Vice President and CEO Wayne LaPierre told the crowd. “That’s how it really works.”
In addition to Trump and Pence, the forum featured about a dozen speakers, many of whom have announced presidential runs or are currently considering runs – including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina governor Niki Haley.
Mike Pompeo, who was Trump's secretary of state, appeared in a video at the forum. Hours later he announced he would not run for president.
Pence received a mixed reception from the NRA members in attendance. As he took the stage, he was met with a smattering of cheers and a fair amount of boos.
One person in the crowd shouted “we love you, Mike.”
“I love you, too,” Pence responded.
But the crowd warmed to Pence as he offered solutions to gun violence that he framed as “real solutions” relative to the “radical left agenda.”
“I think the time has come for leaders in our nation’s capital to give every community in the country the funds to place armed resource officers in every public and private school in America,” he said.
In what sounded like a presidential campaign stump speech, Pence ran through a laundry list of policy points, including advocating for institutionalizing people with mental illness and instituting a federal death penalty that expedites the appeal process for mass shooters.
Pence criticized Democrats for advocating for gun control measures, a sentiment that was echoed by other speakers.
When he took the podium, Trump pointed the finger at mental health.
“This is not a gun problem,” he said, repeating themes from his presidency. “This is a mental health problem, this is a social problem, this is a cultural problem, this is a spiritual problem.”
Trump’s speech flowed to a variety of topics, but he lost no time returning to his reelection bid in 2024.
“I promise you this: with me at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, no one will lay a finger on your firearms, just as took place for four years when I was your president,” he told the crowd.
There were minimal protests outside the event Friday - with the exception of at least two trucks from Everytown, a nonprofit promoting gun safety, that circled the convention center with large signs calling for protests of NRA leadership.
Demonstrations are scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, including one by Indiana Moms Demand Action.
It’s also almost exactly the two-year anniversary of a mass shooting at an Indianapolis FedEx distribution center that left eight dead in 2021.
But inside the event, speakers focused on the safety brought about by gun ownership.
Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb was introduced by the NRA’s LaPierre who thanked the governor for his work passing Indiana’s so-called constitutional carry law last year.
In his speech, Holcomb underlined that his wife, Janet, is a hunter and NRA-certified pistol instructor – part of what makes him a strong supporter of the Second Amendment.
“I’m guessing you’re thinking what I learned long ago – since we don’t argue, I sleep better than anyone on planet Earth,” Holcomb joked.
Earlier this week Indiana Republicans passed a resolution in the Statehouse honoring the NRA. It’s a move that has garnered criticism - especially from state Democrats, who say Republican leadership is over-involved with the NRA event.
There are still two days of the NRA convention planned, largely centered around an exhibition hall featuring firearms for sale. Various seminars will also be offered, ranging from “Lessons Learned From Analyzing 40,000+ Real Gunfights” and “Refuse to Be a Victim: Crime Prevention Strategies.”
The NRA last held its convention in Indianapolis in 2019 and 2014.