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    Guns, pros and cons

    Gun owners, gun opponents and others push their views at the NRA's annual convention.

    By TOM ZUCCO, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 26, 2003

    [Times photo: Thomas M. Goethe ]
    Michael and Diana Crowe of Sebring check out a Smith & Wesson revolver Friday at the 132nd annual National Rifle Association Convention in Orlando.

    [Times photo: Thomas M. Goethe ]
    A popular exhibit at the convention was the NRA's Great American Whitetail Collection, a row of nearly 40 deer heads, each mounted at eye level.

    ORLANDO - "We just want people to know what's going on."

    Three people with different points of view - gun control advocate Phil Compton, National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre, and Orlando TV reporter Giovanna Drpic - said those words, with different meanings, as the 132nd annual NRA convention began Friday at the Orange County Convention Center.

    Know what's going on. If there was a tone, a mood, at the convention, that was it.

    Compton, representing the Florida Consumer Action Network, made his way through the dozens of exhibits with Susan Peschin of the Consumer Federation of America. They paid particular attention to the booths displaying assault weapons by Bushmaster, Colt and Hi Point. They are working to strengthen the 1994 assault weapons ban and plan to take part in gun control demonstrations at the center today.

    They're also NRA members. "It's the best way to know what's going on," Peschin said.

    Hours earlier, Drpic and a cameraman who work for the Orlando CBS affiliate were escorted out of the convention center by sheriff's deputies after NRA officials became upset over an interview the station did with former NRA president Marion Hammer.

    "The NRA revoked our credentials because they didn't like how Hammer was questioned by another of our reporters," Drpic said. "They as much as anyone else should know about the Bill of Rights."

    NRA officials later apologized and returned the credentials to the entire news crew. NRA officials said it was a misunderstanding.

    A few minutes later, LaPierre announced at a news conference that the NRA is launching a Web site that will provide news, product information and an interactive connection, such as a chat room for NRA members.

    With dozens of sources of news available to NRA members, LaPierre said, "Somebody's got to sift through all this information for them."

    Who will replace movie legend Charlton Heston, who is stepping down as president of the 4-million member NRA, was also on the minds of many at the convention.

    "You have to understand that the NRA relies on a designated spokesman," said NRA member and former board member Mike Baker of Micanopy, "because the media has been extremely antagonistic to the organization. And Charlton Heston was a tremendous asset to us. He was more than the president."

    Heston's successor is likely to be Kayne Robinson, former chairman of Iowa's Republican Party.

    If the hundreds of people who wandered the convention center floor are an indication, the NRA may need to appeal to a younger, more diverse audience if it hopes to grow. The vast majority of people were middle-aged and white.

    "We're trying to appeal to everyone," said NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam. "We're just as strong as ever," he said, but added that membership has dropped slightly since its peak of 4.4-million in 2000. That, he said, could be attributed to a president and a majority of the Congress who are gun supporters. "It's a double-edged sword," he said, "because people are not as focused when they don't feel threatened."

    Politics aside, the convention was a gun enthusiast's paradise. There were guns as small as a 7-ounce pistol that could hide inside a hamburger bun and as big as a .50-caliber semiautomatic rifle with a tripod.

    There were antler chandeliers, duck decoys, tree stands, knives and holsters, and a row devoted entirely to hunting guides. For $16,863, Great Adventures International will take its client on a 10-day safari to Africa to shoot bull elephants (the client gets to keep tusks, earskins, cape, feet, tail and skull, its flier says).

    But an exhibit that drew some of the most attention was the NRA's Great American Whitetail Collection, a row of nearly 40 deer heads, each mounted at eye level. Some of the deer had been shot, some hit by cars, and a few simply died of old age. But each had a rack of antlers among the largest found in North America in the past 100 years.

    "You won't see many big boys like this anymore," said NRA representative Matt Fleming. "These guys were between 8 and 11 years old when they died, but now, even though we have more deer than we did 200 years ago, most of them don't live past a year or two. Hunters and cars mostly."

    Ray Crowley, a contractor from Jacksonville, took a moment from deer watching to look down and pat his 9-year-old son on the shoulder. "Maybe he'll get one like that someday," he said.

    "You know," he added, "we're not nuts. I've been an NRA member for 22 years, and this organization is mostly about education, competition and having respect for firearms. Maybe my son won't want a gun when he's older. That's okay. As long as he knows how to use one.

    "All of us in here are patriotic Americans who support our president and obey the law," Crowley said. "I just wish more people would know that."


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