Gun-bearing faithful not resting on laurels

Charlton Heston employs toothy grin – and a snarl of defiance – as weapon of choice before National Rifle Association meeting.

Charlton Heston raised an 1874 rifle over his head this weekend as if it were the staff he used to part the Red Sea in "The Ten Commandments." With his toothy grin and a snarl that sent thousands of fellow National Rifle Association (NRA) members into ecstacy, the four-term president of the group bellowed, "From my cold, dead hands!"

It was a dire rallying cry, designed to energize the members at a moment when life at the NRA is good and imminent danger of significant gun-control legislation is not particularly present. They now have a staunch ally in the White House, all but eight states offer some sort of permit allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons, and even some liberal Massachusetts colleges now host chapters of an organization called Second Amendment Sisters that wants guns to defend against rapists.

But an advocacy organization with weak or mismatched opponents could find itself without a pressing purpose, so there was Mr. Heston at the 131st annual convention of one of the world's most powerful lobbying organizations, issuing his unflinching statement.

Then there was Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, also working to whip up emotions by likening Monster.com entrepreneur Andrew McKelvey to Al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden. Mr. McKelvey started Americans for Gun Safety last year and has stated that he agrees with the NRA's basic point that the public has the right to bear arms. Nonetheless, Mr. LaPierre caricatured him, insisting he's a front for a "shadowy network of extremist social guerrillas" similar to the Taliban.

Making the most of the analogy, he asked the crowd to consider the bin Laden-McKelvey similarities: "A billionaire with an extremist political agenda, subverting honest diplomacy, using personal wealth to train and deploy activists, looking for vulnerabilities to attack, fomenting fear for political gain, funding an ongoing campaign to hijack your freedom and take a box-cutter to the Constitution."

Indeed, the organization anchored its conference with references to Sept. 11, which were omnipresent throughout the weekend. This was a red-white-and-blue celebration that included Lee Greenwood crooning "God Bless the USA" and a session offering standing ovations to a parade of Sept. 11 survivors who were both heroes that day and, coincidentally, NRA members.

"The connection between the NRA and 9/11 is that America has to remain strong, and the NRA is one of the strengths of America," Mr. Greenwood said, explaining his appearance at the convention. LaPierre furthered the theme, too, by calling for all pilots to be armed. While there can't be a federal air marshal on every flight, he said, "you can bet there'll be pilots."

The membership loved that sort of folksy witticism. About 40,000 attendees wandered the 200,000 square feet of convention space, some competing at simulating mallard duck sounds in the game-calling competition, and others checking out the latest in lightweight titanium handguns. Many left the session with LaPierre and Heston energized and politicized – including Debbie Davis of Reno, who said she didn't need to buy a flag after Sept. 11 because "I had 10 of them in the house already."

While Sept. 11 was a common catchphrase, little was said about two other news stories that broke over the weekend. At the other end of the state, a fight between rival motorcycle gangs left three dead in the worst-ever shooting inside a Nevada casino. And in Germany, a 19-year-old's shooting spree in a school left 18 people dead.

It's not the first time that shootings have coincided with the convention. In 1999, the Columbine High massacre transpired just days before the NRA's slated meeting – and the organization ended up cutting its convention down to almost nothing.

This time, one member was overheard remarking at a dinner that perhaps the teachers should be allowed to carry concealed weapons. Most of his table agreed.

The convention featured the usual naming of new enemies, but at the same time, the NRA made an effort to make new allies. After breaking from its own tradition in the late 1990s by giving money directly to the GOP, the group's most recent outreach efforts have been to the pro-gun Democrats that they say swung the 2000 election to George W. Bush.

Sen. John McCain, a Republican, was bashed mercilessly for his support of a bill to create waiting periods for gun-show purchases. That impressed ponytailed San Jose, Calif., attorney Don Kilmer, who said, "I take back what I said earlier about the NRA being blindly pro-Republican."

Mr. Kilmer must also have been pleased to see the veneration at the formal dinner Saturday night of Sen. Zell Miller, a Democrat who laid out a common NRA mantra about having "more guns than I need, but not as many as I want." Then he needled the predominantly GOP audience by quipping, "Now that may sound a bit confusing to some – a Democrat wanting more guns." The audience laughed.

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