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 U.S. Senate rejected a plan to expand background checks for gun buyers, but NRA officials said attendees would 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 shooting massacre in Newtown, Connecticut.
The vote was a sign of the influence of the gun rights 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 America's fourth most populous city, which runs from Friday to Sunday, is billed as a celebration of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution setting out the right to bear arms.
On Thursday, as thousands of NRA delegates were arriving for the conference, a man sparked a panic at a busy Houston airport terminal when he pulled out a gun and shot at the ceiling, then either shot himself or was killed by a security officer who confronted him.
The NRA event is expected to draw some 70,000 attendees who can stroll 400,000 square feet (37,000 square meters) 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.
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 gun-rights advocates, including former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, Texas Governor Rick Perry and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.
The event will also draw protesters who plan to demonstrate for more gun-control measures such as background checks.
Since last year's NRA annual meeting in St. Louis, a national debate about gun laws has been reignited by the December shooting at Newtown's Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 20 children and six adults were killed. States including Connecticut, Colorado, Maryland and New York have since passed gun-control laws, while Arkansas, Wyoming and South Dakota 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 Wayne LaPierre wrote in an opinion piece in the Houston Chronicle.
"NRA members exemplify everything that's good and right about America," he wrote.
On Wednesday, Perry, the Texas governor, celebrated the recent move to Texas from California of a company called Shield Tactical, which sells firearm-related gear and training services. Perry's office said the Republican governor had 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 88 percent of Americans supported background checks for all gun buyers and that 59 percent were 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, Edith Honan and Peter Cooney)