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Even in the shadow of this week’s mass shooting at a Texas elementary school, former President Donald Trump went ahead with a speech at the National Rifle Association's annual meeting in Houston that kicked off Friday.
Hundreds of businesses did the same and also participated at the event.
The NRA lists over 600 companies as participating in the exhibitors' portion of this weekend's gathering. The vast exhibit hall will operate all weekend with the website touting "over 14 acres of the latest guns and gear from the most popular companies in the industry." Photos from the event on Friday showed a wide range of weapons on display, similar to previous NRA gatherings.
The large business presence comes amid a wave of attendee dropouts after 19 children and 2 adults were killed in Uvalde, Texas. “American Pie” singer Don McLean was one singer scheduled to perform but withdrew and told news outlets “it would be disrespectful” to proceed in the shooting's aftermath. Texas Governor Greg Abbott also backed out of plans for in-person remarks.
At least one business did pull out of the event. Daniel Defense, the manufacturer of the rifle used by the gunman in Uvalde, announced it would skip the event, adding on its website it's “deeply saddened by the tragic events in Texas this week.”
But Yahoo Finance reached out to dozens more businesses listed and none offered up plans to withdraw from the event after the shooting.
‘[N]ot an expression of political opinion’
Leica Sport Optics is one example. The company is best known for cameras but also makes scopes for guns and binoculars for hunting. The company responded in a statement to Yahoo Finance by saying it doesn't comment on politics. “Accordingly, participation in the NRA Show is not an expression of political opinion," the company said. "Our focus is solely on the visitors who are interested in our sport optics products.”
Target Sports USA, which specializes in selling bulk ammunition online, will also participate. Its CEO, Miodrag Delmic, acknowledged that the convention “will certainly emphasize the need to work on mechanisms of firearm abuse prevention and mitigation of gun violence.”
Other participants are larger publicly traded companies such as Ruger Firearms (RGR), Smith & Wesson (SWBI), and Vista Outdoor (VSTO). Plenty of booth-holders also sell AR-15-style rifles, the type used to carry out Tuesday's attack.
As in the aftermath of other tragedies, gun stocks have seen gains in recent days as investors expect consumers to buy up the weapons in anticipation of increased regulation.
The massive exhibit was also set to include companies that aren’t directly involved in the gun industry but cater to a conservative audience.
Newsmax, the conservative channel closely aligned with Trump supporters, was also listed as having a booth and appeared to be broadcasting from it during the day on Friday. In a statement, a spokesperson said “Newsmax will be covering the NRA national conference as a news event.”
The Black Rifle Coffee Company (BRCC) was also listed as a participant. The so-called "Starbucks of the right" didn’t respond to requests for comment this week, but CEO Evan Hafer previously told Yahoo Finance Live that his customers “are hungry to go out and really experience a coffee company that represents their values.” Hafer joined again in February when his company went public via a SPAC merger and, pressed on the brand’s politics, said, “I don't really pay attention to how others define my company.”
‘The interests of the gun industry and the gun manufacturers’
Meanwhile, gun control advocates have slammed the NRA for going ahead with the conference and protesters gathered on the streets outside the event.
From the White House podium on Thursday, Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said NRA leadership is “contributing to the problem of gun violence, not trying to solve it.”
“They represent the interests of the gun industry and the gun manufacturers who are marketing weapons of war to young adults,” she added.
Booths were reserved this weekend for companies of all sizes — including niche groups like the Scholastic Shooting Sports Foundation, which is involved in youth shooting programs, and Ragnarok Supply Co., which makes an exploding target called fruit nukes. Neither responded to multiple requests for comment.
In addition to Trump, other speakers, including Texas Senator Ted Cruz, appeared. Two other GOP lawmakers — Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Dan Crenshaw — withdrew from the event due to what their staffs said were scheduling issues.
Cruz traveled to Uvalde this week and went viral after being confronted by a British journalist questioning why school shootings only happen in America.
Abbott visited as well and said "it is intolerable and it is unacceptable for us to have in this state anyone who would kill little kids in our school” and was also confronted by Beto O'Rourke, his opponent in elections this fall, for his dismissal of calls for stronger gun laws in the wake of the tragedy.
In a statement about its decision to go ahead with the overall conference, the NRA said that “[a]s we gather in Houston, we will reflect on these events, pray for the victims, recognize our patriotic members, and pledge to redouble our commitment to making our schools secure.”
This post has been updated with additional context from the event on Friday
Ben Werschkul is a writer and producer for Yahoo Finance in Washington, DC.