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Gathering loaded with activities

Tony LaRussa
| Sunday, April 11, 2004

Next weekend's National Rifle Association convention in Pittsburgh will be the largest annual gathering of members in the organization's 133-year history -- and the biggest convention the city has ever hosted.

Between 50,000 and 60,000 people are expected to attend the April 16-18 conference, dubbed "Freedom's Steel," at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, said Wayne LaPierre, NRA executive vice president. This is the first time Pittsburgh has hosted an NRA convention.

The major focus of the convention and trade show will be providing education and entertainment for members. The organization's leadership also is expected to work on a strategy to prevent the extension -- or expansion -- of the federal ban on so-called assault weapons.

The ban, which is set to expire on Sept. 13, was enacted as part of an omnibus crime bill signed into law by President Clinton in 1994.

LaPierre characterized the gun ban as "cosmetic nonsense" because the weapons are not true automatic military-style guns.

Officials of the Fairfax, Va.-based NRA declined to disclose a breakdown of its 4 million members by state or region. Pennsylvania is home to a large concentration of members.

"Pennsylvania is a great state for hunting and firearm ownership, and it appears that our membership will be coming out in force to celebrate," LaPierre said.

Loaded weekend

Nearly 50,000 NRA members already have registered for the three days of exhibits, activities and meetings, said NRA spokeswoman Kelly Hobbs.

Last year's NRA convention at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando drew nearly 43,000 people.

"I think we'll have record attendance because Pittsburgh is so close to strong hunting and gun ownership states such as West Virginia, Ohio and New York and Maryland," Hobbs said. "It's a great location for the convention because a lot of our people will be able to drive into Pittsburgh to attend."

Tickets for Saturday's members banquet -- the event at which the keynote speech is delivered -- already are sold out. Discounted tickets are being sold to a second room where the program will be simulcast.

Vice President Dick Cheney is expected to be the keynote speaker, although LaPierre could not confirm that. Last year's address was delivered by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

The entertainment for this year's convention will be provided by country artists The Oak Ridge Boys and Lee "God Bless the USA" Greenwood. Rocker Ted Nugent, a longtime supporter of the NRA, will present a program titled "God, Guns & Rock 'n' Roll."

Educational seminars will be conducted on topics such as firearm laws, and a game-calling competition will be held. Visitors also will be able to use an air rifle range to sharpen their shooting skills.

NRA members won't be charged to enter the convention center. Others will be charged $10 and will get associate memberships in the NRA.

Bringing in business

The convention is expected generate more than $6.3 million in revenue for the region, according to Bob Imperata, executive vice president of the Greater Pittsburgh Convention & Visitors Bureau.

In addition, hosting such a large event in Pittsburgh should help attract other big conventions and trade shows by demonstrating the city is capable of handling the large influx of people.

"We certainly will be able to use this as a reference point and as a testimonial to our future clients," Imperata said.

Following the conclusion of the general convention Sunday, the NRA's board of directors will meet for two days to conduct general business, which likely will include development of strategies to keep the 1994 gun ban from being extended.

Seven local organizations announced recently that they are mobilizing to oppose the NRA convention. The "Confluence Against Gun Violence" will include activities ranging from a teach-in and candlelight vigil to remember victims of gun violence to a rally and concert along Penn Avenue opposing the NRA. Organizers say there are no plans to disrupt the convention.

Nathaniel Glosser, president of the Rosenberg Institute for Peace & Justice, said during a news conference that the June 2003 accidental fatal shooting of mail carrier Clayton J. Smith is an example of the need for stiff penalties against adults who act irresponsibly.

Smith was shot at the Crafton-Ingram Shopping Center by a 9-year-old boy who found his mother's gun.

LaPierre said more laws are not the answer. "Any reasonable adult knows the danger of leaving a loaded gun where a child can get it," he said. "It's pretty hard to legislate responsibility."

LaPierre said educating children about gun safety through programs such as NRA's Eddie Eagle Child Safety Program is a more effective approach to preventing gun-related accidents.

Convention events

Following is the tentative schedule for the National Rifle Association's annual convention at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center April 16-18:

Friday

8 a.m. Continental breakfast for clubs, associations and grassroots organizations; air gun range open through 6 p.m.

9 a.m. Workshops: firearms law seminar (limited seating, registration required); 5th annual Great American Hunters' Game Calling Challenge

10 a.m. Member registration, information, services and sales until 6 p.m.; exhibit hall open until 6 p.m.

1 p.m. Opening celebration

5 p.m. NRA Foundation reception (invitation only).

6 p.m. Friends of NRA dinner (tickets required).

Saturday

7 a.m. Prayer breakfast (tickets required).

8 a.m. Member registration, information, services and sales until 6 p.m.; air gun range open through 6 p.m.

9 a.m. Great American Hunters' Game Calling Challenge

10 a.m. Annual meeting of members; member registration, information, services and sales until 6 p.m.; exhibit hall open until 6 p.m.

6 p.m. Heritage Society reception (invitation only).

7 p.m. NRA members banquet and reception. Vice President Dick Cheney is expected to be the keynote speaker.

8 p.m. 133rd NRA members banquet (tickets required)

Sunday

8 a.m. Registration, information, services and sales until 5 p.m.; air gun range open until 5 p.m.

9 a.m. Great American Hunters' Game Calling Challenge

9:30 a.m. Special sessions: National gun collecting awards presentations; women's wear and wilderness gear

10 a.m. Exhibit hall open until 5 p.m.

11 a.m. Special sessions: Should You Hunt in Africa?; Methods of conceal carry

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