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NRA Foundation events help keep local gun enthusiasts active

| Saturday, Jan. 7, 2017, 11:00 p.m.

They've proven more successful than perhaps anyone might have expected — and in more ways than one.

In 1992, the National Rifle Association Foundation, the gun rights group's nonpolitical arm, held its first fundraising banquet. The “Friends of NRA” event, as it since has come to be known, was held in Indiana. The second was in Pennsylvania.

They adopted a now-familiar script that continues to this day, as the events are heading into their 25th year.

Attendees get a meal and throughout the night play games, take part in raffles and prize drawings, bid in live and silent auctions and more. Rifles, pistols, shotguns, accessories and other sporting gear are up for grabs.

“What did we say back in the early days? There would be food, fun and firearms,” said Tom Baldrige, the NRA's senior field representative for Western Pennsylvania.

They still do today and have proven a hit with free-spending gun owners, from hunters to shooters.

NRA spokesman Jason Brown said there have been more than 20,300 banquets held across the country. They've attracted more than 3.7 million people and raised more than $740 million.

Half of that money went to support national shooting programs, he said. The other half stayed in the states where it was raised.

Once a year, regional committees made up of NRA staff and volunteers meets to review grant applications from sportsmen's clubs, 4-H groups, Scout organizations and others seeking money. It's able to support many of those requests because of the banquets, Baldrige said.

Last year, for example, in the western third of Pennsylvania alone, banquets made it possible to hand out roughly $450,000, he said.

The money bought ammunition for high school shooting teams, supported hunter education training and funded shooting range improvements, youth field days and Eddie Eagle firearms training programs, among other things.

Not every request for money can be granted fully, Baldrige said. Requests typically total close to $1.5 million annually.

“But we try to give everybody who asks at least something,” he said.

Youth programs and those aimed at getting first-time shooters started are a point of emphasis and always have been, Brown added. He said at least 50 percent — and oftentimes more — of the money spent locally by committees goes back into communities that way.

That's what makes the time and effort of hosting a banquet worthwhile, said Dale Emerick of North Huntingdon, who's served as chairman of the PA's First Friends of the NRA banquet for the last 22 of its 24 years.

“The future of our shooting sports, and our outdoor sports, are our youths. If we don't get them the training that they need and get them involved and get them started right, we're going to lose them,” he said.

Western Pennsylvania in particular is a hot bed of support for Friends banquets.

That's partly because of the large number of NRA members locally, Baldrige said. There are more than 250,000 in Pennsylvania — enough to rank it at or near the top in state membership — with many of them in this region.

Allegheny County, for example, has more NRA members than any county in the United States, Baldrige said.

It's not just members who support the banquets, though, he added. In fact, only about 30 percent of attendees in any given year are members.

“The rest are just people who believe in what we're doing,” he said.

They certainly spend. The PA's First Friends of NRA event, held each February in North Huntingdon, raises nearly $200,000 annually. That was enough to rank it second in the nation last year among more than 1,100 banquets.

It's finished first four or five times previously, Emerick said.

“I've heard people say that they're got their sights on us, to beat us. To me, that's a good thing,” he said. “That means lot of people are working hard to raise money for shooting.”

Beyond all that, the banquets have succeeded on another front, Baldrige said.

The NRA long has been demonized in some corners, he said. But Friends banquets, he said, have helped change perceptions.

“When people see that Joe the baker and Harriet the hairdresser and Frank the barber are involved with our events and our programs, they stop and say, ‘Wait a minute. They're my neighbors. They're respectable people. They're upstanding members of the community. They don't seem crazy,' ” Baldrige said.

“We have changed hometown America's view of what the NRA is and does.”

It's something the 20 people who serve on his committee believe deeply in, Emerick said. That's why they've worked as hard as they have for years, he said, and will continue to do so into the future.

“I think people, and kids in particular, need to learn to use firearms responsibly. That's what we're about,” he said.

Bob Frye is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at bfrye@tribweb.com or via @bobfryeoutdoors.

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