There are signs that the NRA is in decline
People look at semi-automatic guns at the Kalashnikov booth at the NRA's annual convention in Houston. (STRINGER AFP)

The National Rifle Association is the central and fiercest promoter of gun rights in America, and is again holding its annual convention days after a mass school shooting.

Just like the NRA's meeting after the 1999 Columbine attack, which defined an era of gun massacres in America's schools, the gathering opening Friday in Houston follows the killing of 19 children and two teachers in a Texas classroom.

The NRA has been weakened by scandal and turmoil, but remains the main force dedicated to advocating for the owners of the tens of millions of weapons that are readily obtainable across the country.

Here are some key points about the organization:

- Potent political force -

The 150-year-old NRA concentrated its focus on battling gun restrictions in the late 1970s and has become one of the most powerful lobbying groups in US history.

Its past influence on lawmakers has been far-reaching.

From 2000 to 2012, the NRA and its allies in the firearms industry combined to pour $80 million into US House of Representatives, Senate and presidential races, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.

In the 2016 presidential election, the NRA spent about $20 million for ads attacking Democrat Hillary Clinton and another $10 million for ads supporting Republican Donald Trump.

Since the 1990s, the NRA has been able to deliver a powerful punch against local and national politicians it views as a threat to gun rights, contributing to the defeat of numerous centrist candidates.

- Many guns, many deaths -

The NRA has been a key proponent for an industry that has produced more than 139 million guns for the commercial market over the two decades from 2000, including 11.3 million in 2020 alone, according to government data.

At the same time, America annually records a toll of tens of thousands of gun deaths, with US authorities saying killings underwent an "historic" increase in 2020.

The US racked up 19,350 firearm homicides in 2020, up nearly 35 percent over 2019, and 24,245 gun suicides, up 1.5 percent.

- The post-Columbine era -

In the April 20, 1999 shooting at Columbine high school in Littleton, Colorado, two students killed 12 of their classmates and a teacher, and signaled a new era of classroom killings in America.

The NRA's annual conference was scheduled to open less than two weeks later in Denver, a short drive from Littleton, prompting state and local politicians to criticize the planned meeting.

In the end, the NRA went ahead with a scaled-down gathering but voiced a defiant tone defending gun rights.

"Over the next two decades, this unapologetic message would come to define the NRA's tone in the wake of mass shootings at American schools," US broadcaster NPR wrote, after publishing recordings it said captured the group's debate over the response to Columbine.

- A troubled NRA -

The state of New York sued the group and its leader Wayne LaPierre in 2020 for financial fraud and misconduct, aiming to dissolve the powerful lobby.

Top NRA officials were accused of using dues and donations of members for years as a "personal piggy bank," spending tens of millions of dollars on themselves and their cronies in violation of laws governing non-profit organizations.

The group called it a baseless political attack, and in March a New York judge ruled that alleged self-dealing by the group's leader, if proven, would not warrant such a strong penalty as the disbanding of the association.

New York's lawsuit seeking to boot LaPierre from his post will, however, be allowed to proceed.

- Group in decline? -

NRA claims more than five million members, but there are signs that figure is on the wane, including a 2021 legal deposition from LaPierre in which he said numbers were "under 4.9 million."

US network CBS reported NRA's revenue declined 23 percent from roughly $367 million in 2016 to $282 million in 2020, the most recent year for which its tax filings are available.

It added that contributions and grants from members and corporations also have slipped 15 percent during that time.

Yet after an 18-year-old man opened fire this week at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, the group spoke up as the voice explaining why yet another mass shooting had happened.

"We recognize this was the act of a lone, deranged criminal," their statement said. "As we gather in Houston, we will reflect on these events... and pledge to redouble our commitment to making our schools secure."