Protesters took to the streets in March for the March for Our Lives demonstration in Washington to call for gun reform measures after the Parkland, Florida, shooting.
Protesters took to the streets in March for the March for Our Lives demonstration in Washington to call for gun reform measures after the Parkland, Florida, shooting.
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Protesters Plan Marches, Speeches and Artistic Demonstrations for NRA Convention

When the National Rifle Association's convention kicks off Friday, its leaders, supporters and President Donald Trump won't be the only people at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center talking about guns.

The gun lobby group's annual gathering will find protesters and marchers in Dallas from national groups such as #NoRA for a Better Life Now and local groups like the Next Generation Action Network. The advocacy groups hope to have their voices heard about the NRA's philosophy on gun ownership rights and its lobbying efforts. They also want to start a conversation about ways to prevent further gun violence.

"What the NRA has done so incredibly successfully is drill this idea that the lefties just want to take our guns away and we don't believe in the Second Amendment," says actress and activist Alyssa Milano, who co-founded the #NoRA movement with Ben Jackson and will speak at the group's rally Saturday at Belo Garden Park . "That couldn't be further from the truth. We don't believe in semiautomatic weapons that are designed for soldiers in the field being bought in less time than it takes to order a latte from Starbucks. We are trying to shift that narrative and chip away at that narrative because these false narratives not only hurt the American people, but it also hurts its members."

Next Generation president and founder Dominique Alexander says his group's rally Friday at Dallas City Hall with survivors of gun violence will include a march to the convention center.

"It's up to the people if they want to sit down and have a real discussion about this," Alexander says. "If the president and the actual leader of the NRA wanted to actually sit down and have a meaningful discussion, I'm open to that, but at the same time, we're standing our ground, and this organization must understand what they have been involved with and what they are standing in the way of. We're not going to stand idly by and allow our children to be in harm's way at school or at movie theaters or military bases. We will not tolerate it."

The demonstrations are taking different approaches to fostering discussions about guns during the convention. #NoRA's gatherings will feature speeches from people affected by gun violence, such as Democratic National Committee representative and gun reform advocate Khary Penebaker, who lost his mother to a self-inflicted gunshot wound when he was a baby, and Fred Guttenberg, who lost his 14-year-old daughter, Jaime, in the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in February in Parkland, Florida.

#NoRA's demonstration will also attempt to use artistic expression to spread its message and change the nature of the discussion surrounding guns and gun violence, Mliano says.

"We feel like what needs to happen is there needs to be a true culture hack, so we are using art to drive that message," Milano says. "And when I say culture hack, I mean it's simply a term we came up with because we all feel that everybody in the U.S. feels like everything is so partisan at this point, and our political views have become so calcified and fossilized in a way that is disruptive to any common ground. And I don't think there's a person in this country who doesn't think we don't have a gun problem. We've become so partisan that we don't know how to even meet halfway to fix that problem."

A celebration for survivors of gun violence will follow in the evening with poetry and visual art exhibits.

"It's about selling guns and knowing that the guns they sell are going to be killing people," Jackson says. "So our celebration is a chance for contrast and change for people to speak about gun violence in a new way and on a really positive note. Then it's onwards towards the elections, which is the next focus of what we're doing."

The Next Generation gathering Saturday will take a more traditional protest approach to deliver its message to its supporters and the NRA leadership. Both events have attracted thousands of RSVPs on their Facebook event pages.

"We've got more people coming to attend who want to be a part of this, but at the same time, we just want to continue to echo that enough is enough," Alexander says. "We've just got to keep on going."

Alexander says he and his group have serious concerns about the NRA's presence in Dallas.

"Dallas has a great history of racism and different things, and I think that it's definitely not conducive for us where we return to our past," Alexander says. "The NRA introduces some of the most hateful race-mongers that attend these events that are about to descend on our city, and that's just factual. The NRA has evolved into a platform where white nationalists and white supremacists feel like this gives them legitimacy."

News that Trump and Vice President Mike Pence will deliver keynote addresses during the convention is especially distressing to both advocacy groups.

"It's disgusting," Milano says. "It made me more angry. We're in such a state of this being a social, systemic epidemic, and we just had this gut-wrenching catastrophe, and the two of them who stood in front of the media and parents and other children and youth leaders and other members of Congress and how he said, 'You're all afraid of the NRA,' and that we should do something, and then he agreed to go speak on behalf of this gun lobby that has done nothing to protect people or save people's lives."

Jackson says Trump's and Pence's presence at the convention shows the level of influence the gun lobby group has on our nation's government.

"The NRA spent more than $30 million on his campaign for the White House, and now they're both there, and if there is a better illustration for their influence, then I don't know it," he says. "We need to have a government that can have a basic conversation. We're not saying we need to repeal the Second Amendment. We're saying we need our government to have a basic conversation about guns and gun violence. and the NRA's money is not making that happen."

Milano says she believes the catalyst for such change doesn't lie in the hands of any government entity or corporate influence. It lies in the hearts and hands of the people who exercise their constitutional rights to peacefully assemble and combat a national epidemic of violence.

"I think people change people's minds," she says. "I think we need to be able to listen better, and this is the same thing I dealt with during the #MeToo movement. We must keep the focus on the survivor. If we keep the focus on the survivor, people can be moved by those stories, and we can't lose. We will win."

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