By Arathy Somasekhar and Daniel Trotta
HOUSTON (Reuters) -National Rifle Association members overwhelmingly supported longtime leader Wayne LaPierre with a vote of confidence on Saturday, even as the gun rights group struggles with allegations that millions of dollars were misspent.
The NRA is holding its annual meeting in Houston, about 280 miles (450 km) east of the site of a mass shooting on Tuesday, when an 18-year-old man armed with an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle killed 19 children and two teachers at a Texas elementary school.
Even as the group’s leadership and rank-and-file members lament the tragedy of Uvalde, Texas, they have stood firm in their defense of gun rights under the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The vote of confidence came ahead of a vote by the NRA board on Monday on whether to renew LaPierre as executive vice president, which he is expected to win.
Meanwhile, about 100 protesters chanted “gun control now” outside the convention hall.
“The NRA family is in mourning with the people of Uvalde and Texas,” LaPierre, who is also the group’s chief executive, said in a statement. “I am grateful for the overwhelming support of our members, and join them in the call to protect our schools, improve mental health services, and preserve the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans.”
Should LaPierre survive Monday’s vote, as expected, he still could be unseated by New York Attorney General Letitia James, whose lawsuit against the NRA seeks to remove him from office.
James filed the lawsuit in 2020, alleging NRA leaders paid for family trips to the Bahamas, private jets and expensive meals and clothes that contributed to a $64 million reduction in the NRA’s balance sheet in three years, turning a surplus into a deficit.
In March, a New York judge rejected James’ petition to dissolve the NRA, but said she could go forward with other goals of the lawsuit, including the ouster of LaPierre.
The NRA says it has undergone a “course correction” by reinforcing oversight, promoting whistleblowers, and having LaPierre reimburse the group for spending on personal items.
In Saturday’s meeting, a resolution in support of LaPierre’s past, current and future leadership was overwhelmingly supported by a few hundred of the group’s 5 million members who gathered in Houston.
In a show of hands, nearly everyone in the room supported LaPierre. Only a handful voted against the resolution.
“I pray to God that you (LaPierre) remain in this job as long as humanly possible for you to do so,” Niger Innis, a life member of the NRA from Las Vegas, said during the debate.
A few people who spoke against the motion received both scattered applause and boos.
“In the last few years, you (LaPierre) have brought down questioning and shame down on the NRA,” said Robert Bryan of Arkansas.
Dwayne Bickham, another life member of the NRA, said he stopped being a benefactor out of concern his funds were being misused.
But Steve Erwin from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, said he continued to support the NRA as it gave him “the best bang for my buck,” and represented his views on gun rights.
(Reporting by Arathy Somasekhar in Houston and Daniel Trotta in Carlsbad, Calif.; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)