HOUSTON (AP) — Former President Donald Trump is defending the rights of gun owners in remarks to the National Rifle Association’s annual convention in Houston, three days after a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers at an elementary school on the other side of the state.

With protesters shouting outside, Trump was set to call Friday for “drastically” changing the nation’s approach to mental health” and “a top-to-bottom security overhaul at schools across this country,” while dismissing calls to disarm gun owners, according to excerpts of his speech.

“The existence of evil in our world is not a reason to disarm law-abiding citizens — the existence of evil is one of the very best reasons to arm law-abiding citizens,” he says in prepared remarks.

Trump was among the Republican leaders lining up to speak at the event, where the gun rights lobbying group said attendees planned to “reflect on” — and deflect any blame for — the school shooting in Uvalde. Hundreds of protesters angry about gun violence demonstrated outside, including some holding crosses with photos of the shooting victims.

Wayne LaPierre, the group’s chief executive, began the event by saying that “every NRA member and I know every decent American is mourning right now. Twenty-one beautiful lives ruthlessly and indiscriminately extinguished by a criminal monster.”

Still, he said that “restricting the fundamental human rights of law-abiding Americans to defend themselves is not the answer. It never has been.”

The several hundred people in the auditorium stood and bowed their heads in a moment of silence for the victims of the Uvalde school shooting. There were many empty seats.

Among the protesters outside, Democrat Beto O’Rourke, who is challenging Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in the governor’s race, ticked off a list of previous school shootings and called on those attending the convention to “join us to make sure that this no longer happens in this country.”

“The time to have stopped Uvalde was right after Sandy Hook,” O’Rourke said. “The time for us to have stopped Uvalde was right after Parkland. The time for us to have stopped Uvalde was right after Santa Fe High School. The time for us to stop the next mass shooting in this country is right now, right here, today with every single one of us.”

Some scheduled speakers and performers backed out of the event, including several Texas lawmakers and “American Pie” singer Don McLean, who said “it would be disrespectful” to go ahead with his act after the country’s latest mass shooting. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said Friday morning that he had decided not to speak at an event breakfast after “prayerful consideration and discussion with NRA officials.”

The NRA said that people attending the gun show would “reflect on” the Uvalde school shooting, “pray for the victims, recognize our patriotic members and pledge to redouble our commitment to making our schools secure.”

The meeting is the first for the troubled organization since 2019, following a two-year hiatus because of the pandemic. The organization has been trying to regroup following a period of serious legal and financial turmoil that included a failed bankruptcy effort, a class action lawsuit and a fraud investigation by New York’s attorney general. Once among the most powerful political organizations in the country, the NRA has seen its influence wane following a significant drop in political spending.

While President Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress have renewed calls for stricter gun laws in the wake of the Uvalde shooting, NRA board members and others attending the conference dismissed talk of banning or limiting access to firearms.

Larry Miller, 56, from Huntington Beach, California, said he had no problem with the NRA meeting taking place so soon after the Uvalde shooting. He called the shooting “very sad and unfortunate” and said the gunman didn’t “have any respect for the people’s freedoms that we have here in this country.”

“We all share these rights, so to be respectful of other people’s rights is to respect other people’s lives, and I think with that kind of mentality, we should be here,” he said.

Samuel Thornburg, 43, a maintenance worker for Southwest Airlines in Houston who was attending the NRA meeting, said, “Guns are not evil. It’s the people that are committing the crime that are evil. Our schools need to be more locked. There need to be more guards.”

Inside the convention hall, thousands of people walked around, stopping at booths that featured displays of handguns, rifles, AR-style firearms, knives, clothing and gun racks. Outside, police set up metal barriers at a large park where hundreds of protesters and counterprotesters gathered in front of the downtown convention center.

“Murderers!” some yelled in Spanish. “Shame on you!” others shouted at attendees.

Among the protesters was singer Little Joe, of the popular Tejano band Little Joe y La Familia, who said in the more than 60 years he’s spent touring the world, no other country he’s been to has faced as many mass shootings as the U.S.

“Of course, this is the best country in the world,” he said. “But what good does it do us if we can’t protect lives, especially of our children?”

Texas has experienced a series of mass shootings in recent years. During that time, the Republican-led Legislature and governor have relaxed gun laws.

There is precedent for the NRA to gather during local mourning and controversy. The organization went ahead with a shortened version of its 1999 meeting in Denver roughly a week after the deadly shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado. Actor Charlton Heston, the NRA president at that time, told attendees that “horrible acts” shouldn’t become opportunities to limit constitutional rights and he denounced critics for casting NRA members as “villains.”

Country music singer Larry Gatlin, who pulled out of a planned appearance at this year’s convention, said he hoped “the NRA will rethink some of its outdated and ill-thought-out positions.”

“While I agree with most of the positions held by the NRA, I have come to believe that, while background checks would not stop every madman with a gun, it is at the very least a step in the right direction,” Gatlin said.

Country singers Lee Greenwood and Larry Stewart also withdrew, Variety reported.

Most U.S. adults think that mass shootings would occur less often if guns were harder to get and believe schools and other public places have become less safe than they were two decades ago, polling finds.

Many specific measures that would curb access to guns or ammunition also get majority support. A May AP-NORC poll found, for instance, that 51% of U.S. adults favor a nationwide ban on the sale of AR-15 rifles and similar semiautomatic weapons. But the numbers are highly partisan, with 75% percent of Democrats agreeing versus just 27% of Republicans.

In addition to Patrick, two Texas congressmen who had been scheduled speak Friday — U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw — were no longer attending because of what their staffs said were changes in their schedules. Abbott, who was to attend, was to address the convention by prerecorded video instead.

But others were going forward with their appearances, among them Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and Trump.

Though personal firearms are allowed at the convention, the NRA said guns would not be permitted during the session featuring Trump because of Secret Service security protocols.

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Colvin reported from New York. Associated Press writer David A. Lieb contributed from Jefferson City, Missouri.

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More on the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas: https://apnews.com/hub/school-shootings.