DALLAS - Membership in the National Rifle Association is higher than ever, the organization says, and its 147th annual convention wrapped Sunday with one newly christened lifetime member repeatedly celebrated as a hero.
Former NRA firearms instructor Stephen Willeford lives near the church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, where Devin Patrick Kelley burst in on Nov. 5, 2017 and shot 26 people to death. The massacre could have been even more horrific but for Willeford , who rushed to his safe to gather up his firearm and ammunition.
“He had an AR-15, but so did I,” said Willeford , who returned fire after Kelley started shooting at him. “I hit him in the body armor and that’s when he realized it was serious. The man was a coward. When I hit him, he stopped shooting at me and started running. He got in his vehicle.”
Willeford flagged down Johnnie Langendorff , who dialed 911 as they sped off after Kelley. By the time they and law enforcement got to the spot where Kelley had crashed, the gunman was dead.
“He had killed himself and that’s OK with me,” said Willeford, right . “I don’t have to say that I killed a man. He’s big, bad and brave when he’s shooting people in a church that are defenseless. As soon as he started catching return fire he wanted out.”
Kelley was court- martialed in 2012 for assault while serving in the U.S. Air Force, which did not submit Kelley’s criminal history to a federal database. The error meant Kelley’s criminal history did not appear on background checks, and he was able to legally purchase weapons including the one used in the church shooting even after his court martial and dishonorable discharge. The Air Force pledged a full investigation.
Willeford 's heroics surfaced numerous times during the convention. He spoke during the Leadership Forum just ahead of Vice President Mike Pence and President Donald Trump, later from the exhibit hall floor and was recognized again from the stage during another round of speeches. Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA Institute for Legislative Action, made Willeford an NRA member for life
“His quick action saved countless lives. Stephen is the very definition of a good guy with a gun,” he said. “The NRA members are the best of the best. We don’t just believe in individual freedom and responsibility, we live it every single day. If a deranged monster comes into your church and starts murdering innocent people, your best bet is an NRA member.”
Organizers estimated 80,000 people attended the four-day event officially called the National Rifle Association Meetings and Exhibits. In his closing day remarks, executive vice president Wayne LaPierre touted record membership levels (the official site claims "nearly 5 million") before dinging media and political "elites" who he says think the country revolves around New York, Washington and Hollywood.
"They never get around to talk to real people in the heartland of our massive country," he said. "They don't want to hear from you."
The NRA's press office accommodated a throng of reporters. Outlets were asked to provide a headcount before Friday's Leadership Forum due to an "overwhelming number of requests for access" and a long line of reporters and photographers queued up for credentials hours ahead of time.
Activists protesting the NRA's political clout held a rally in a park around the corner from the convention, headquartered at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, and someone spent the weekend driving around the site with mobile billboards depicting LaPierre and Russian president Vladimir Putin in conversation, complete with Cyrillic script. Dallas law enforcement officers, out in force, kept the peace between opposing sides.
One guy in a “Hillary for Prison” T-shirt used a bullhorn to yell at protesters (and maybe reporters too), “Y’all ain’t from Texas. Go away!” Cops ignored him, but when a couple of hecklers made their way to the stage at the " NoRA " rally, a clutch of officers moved in and helped them find the exit.
For the most part, conventioneers seemed oblivious to protest groups as they enjoyed camaraderie amid the enormous sea of merchandise billed as "15 acres of guns."
Cordie Foster and her husband, Bob, attended with a group of friends from central California.
“We live in a rural area with a lot of wildlife,” she said. “I don’t want to get in between a mountain lion and my house, especially when my grandkids are there.”
Vendors including Daniel Defense of Black Creek, just outside Savannah, reported huge crowds.
"Getting to interact with our customers is huge for us," public relations specialist Layne Newman said.
The show was a also success for Glock, whose U.S. headquarters is in Cobb County.
"It's been steady. We've had phenomenal traffic," said communications manager Brandie Collins. "Everything's bigger in Texas."