By Corrie MacLaggan
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of National Rifle Association members gather in Houston this weekend for the first time since the Senate rejected a plan last month to expand background checks for gun buyers, but officials say attendees will not sit back to celebrate victory.
"We view it as an opening battle in what will be a multi-year war," said Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the NRA, which lobbied against the proposal. "We're definitely not resting on our laurels."
Polls show more than 80 percent of Americans support expanded background checks, but the proposal to extend background checks for sales made online and at gun shows fell six votes shy on April 17 of the 60 votes needed to clear a procedural hurdle in the Senate.
The proposal, which supporters have vowed to revive, is a key part of President Barack Obama's gun-control effort sparked by the school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut.
The vote was a sign of the influence of the gun lobby, particularly the NRA, which spent $18.6 million in the 2012 campaign cycle, according to the Sunlight Foundation. The NRA has more than 4 million members.
The NRA gathering in the nation's fourth-largest city, which starts Friday and continues through Sunday, is billed as a celebration of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution setting out the right to bear arms.
The event is expected to draw some 70,000 attendees who can stroll 400,000 square feet of displays to see the latest products from firearm manufacturers and hunting outfitters, check out wildlife art and shooting accessories, or sign up for hunting trips around the world. It will also draw protesters who plan to demonstrate for more gun-control measures such as background checks.
There will also be a Stand and Fight Rally with political commentator Glenn Beck, a country music jam featuring the Eli Young Band, and remarks from leading gun rights advocates including former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, Texas Governor Rick Perry and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.
Since last year's NRA Annual Meetings & Exhibits in St. Louis, Missouri, a national debate about gun laws sprang up after the December shooting at Newtown's Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 20 children and six adults were killed. In the months that followed, states including Connecticut, Colorado, Maryland and New York have passed gun-control laws, while states such as Arkansas, Wyoming and South Dakota have loosened gun restrictions.
"Almost from the moment of the tragedy in Newtown, it became apparent that the ensuing push for a wide variety of new anti-gun laws had a lot less to do with school safety than it did with a decades-long crusade to destroy the Second Amendment," NRA chief executive officer Wayne LaPierre wrote in an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle published in advance of the national gathering.
NRA members proposed solutions such as fixing the mental health system, putting armed guards into schools and enforcing existing federal laws against drug dealers and gang members with guns, LaPierre wrote.
"NRA members exemplify everything that's good and right about America," he wrote.
Those members will be warmly welcomed by leaders in Texas, including Perry and U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, both Republicans.
On Wednesday, Perry celebrated the recent move from California to Texas of a company called Shield Tactical, which sells firearm-related gear and training services. Perry's office said the governor has reached out to more than 30 firearms manufacturers in states that are considering curbing guns sales or manufacturing, urging them to move to Texas.
The NRA's opponents are also gearing up for the Houston event. The local chapter of a group called Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America plans to demonstrate in support of background-check legislation. Military veterans who disagree with NRA positions on guns plan an "Occupy the NRA" event.
"The NRA leadership actively worked to block background checks for gun sales, spreading lies about the Senate bill," Lauren Weiner, a spokeswoman for the advocacy group Americans United for Change, told reporters on Thursday. "The reality is that the majority of gun owners do, in fact, support these common-sense reforms."
An online Reuters/Ipsos poll released in January showed that 86 percent of Americans surveyed favored expanded background checks of all gun buyers. A CBS News/New York Times poll released on Wednesday showed that 88 percent of Americans support background checks for all gun buyers and that 59 percent are disappointed or angry about the recent Senate vote on gun legislation.
State Representative Garnet Coleman, a Houston Democrat whose district includes the convention center hosting the NRA meeting, will not be among the Texas politicians at the event.
"Clearly, the sales and promotion of firearms is big business," Coleman said. "This is business with politics as the cloak."
(Reporting By Corrie MacLaggan; Editing by David Gregorio)