(Updates with comments, attendees)
By Arathy Somasekhar
HOUSTON, May 27 (Reuters) - Protesters holding signs and crosses with photos of victims from this week's Texas elementary school shooting, converged Friday outside the gun lobby National Rifle Association's annual convention in Houston.
About 500 protesters, some shouting "NRA go away," and "Shame, it could be your kids today," jeered as thousands of members of the nation's biggest gun lobby thronged the conventional center.
Tuesday's fatal shooting of 19 Uvalde, Texas, students and two teachers by an 18-year-old gunman equipped with an AR-15 style semiautomatic assault rife is expected to limit attendance at the group's first convention in three years.
Uvalde is about 280 miles (450 km) west of Houston.
Republican former President Donald Trump and U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, are scheduled to deliver addresses Friday afternoon. Two other Republican speakers, Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, dropped out of in-person remarks.
More than 90 minutes before Trump, Cruz and Republican South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem were scheduled to speak, people waited in line to pass through metal detectors and enter the auditorium.
Abbott plans to deliver a pre-recorded address and will travel to Uvalde later in the day. Patrick said he withdrew to not "bring any additional pain or grief to the families and all the suffering in Uvalde."
On the convention center's exhibit floor, attendees could handle rifles, handguns, hunting and assault rifles at dozens of booths, and browse Sierra Bullets and other firms' ammunition displays.
Some strolled the floor wearing cowboy hats and red Trump 2024 hats. One man waiting to get his badge called himself a lifetime NRA member, and jokingly asked if there were "afterlife" memberships available so he could always stay a member.
Tim Hickey, a Marine Corps veteran attending the event, dismissed the protests. “These people are puppets and sheep to the media. They are not changing anyone’s mind,” he said.
Outside, protestor Melinda Hamilton, 60, the founder of Fort Worth, Texas-based Mothers of Murdered Angels and who lost her daughter and grandson to gun violence, held a vigil on a park across the street from the convention.
“They have to change the laws and we have to fight to change these laws. It doesn’t make any sense that an 18-year-old can buy a gun," she said, referring to the ages of the Uvalde and Buffalo, N.Y., supermarket shooters.
Houston activist Johnny Mata called on the NRA to halt the convention and hold a memorial service for the victims.
“They have the audacity not to cancel in respect of these families, said Mata, who represented advocacy group Greater Houston Coalition for Justice. The NRA should "quit being a part of the assassination of children in American schools.”
The NRA's decision to proceed with its largest annual gathering is part of a decades-long strategy of standing up to pressure for gun control that dates to the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Colorado.
The weekend convention is the five million-member group's first annual get together after two prior cancellations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Posters celebrating its 150th anniversary
hung over the exhibit hall.
(Reporting by Arathy Somasekhar and Callaghan O'Hare; writing by Gary McWilliams Editing by Alistair Bell)