|By Jim Morrill, The Charlotte Observer,
N.C.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
May 12, 2010 --The last time the National Rifle Association came to Charlotte, then-NRA president Charlton Heston thrust a musket in the air and shouted what would become a signature slogan: "From my cold, dead hands!"
Now the NRA is back.
The city's largest-ever convention opens Thursday at the uptown Charlotte Convention Center. Organizers expect up to 70,000 visitors to pump at least $20 million into the local economy. So packed are hotels that even Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps had a hard time finding a room for this weekend's UltraSwim.
"It's bigger than anything we've had," said Moira Quinn of Charlotte Center City Partners.
Some 400 firearms manufacturers, collectors and other vendors will occupy 300,000 square feet of exhibit space.
Speakers include former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, broadcaster Glenn Beck and actor Chuck Norris.
Based on an NRA survey, 4 out of 5 of the convention visitors will be men.
More than 3 out of every 4 go shooting at least six times a year.
Almost 60 percent will travel at least 200 miles to get here.
Held in high esteem
Since its last visit a decade ago, the NRA has been riding high as American attitudes about guns have changed.
Last fall, a Gallup Poll found American support for tighter controls on gun sales at an all-time low of 44 percent, down 34 points since 1990. A February poll by the liberal-leaning Democracy Corps-Third Way found the NRA held in higher esteem than the president, Congress or either major political party.
A 2008 landmark Supreme Court decision struck down a District of Columbia ban on handguns and affirmed an individual's right to own a gun.
Brady law impact
"The Second Amendment, the freedom of Americans to own firearms, is probably in the best shape it's been," NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said Tuesday. "There's almost been a sea change since the 2000 election."
In 2000, Heston aimed his "dead hands" remark squarely at the Democratic presidential candidate.
"I want to say those fighting words for everyone within the sound of my voice to hear and to heed," he said, "and especially for you, Mr. (Al) Gore."
LaPierre credits the Second Amendment's "historic restoration" in part to overreaching by Democrats during the Clinton administration.
Clinton signed both the Brady law establishing a waiting period for handgun purchases and an assault weapons ban. Gore was seen as a champion of gun control in 2000.
The stands helped mobilize NRA members as gun control has since become almost a third rail for candidates.
Frank Newport, Gallup's editor-in-chief, said polls on gun control and the NRA reflect a wider trend.
"We've seen a conservative mood on quite a few social attitudes," he said, "so this may be part of that general tide."
Since President Barack Obama was elected, the NRA has seen membership jump from 3 million to 4 million. Gun and ammo sales spiked.
Gallup found that 55 percent of gun owners believed that Obama, backed by a Democratic Congress, would ultimately ban gun sales.
"I tell people, 'Stay ready because there are storm clouds on the horizon,'" LaPierre said.
While LaPierre says the NRA is nonpartisan, most of the candidates visiting the convention are Republicans.
Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr will speak. U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler of North Carolina's 11th District is one of the few Democrats.
Palin, who normally commands a hefty speaking fee, is doing the convention for free.
Police say they know of no planned protests. On Saturday the Baptist Peace Fellowship will hold a forum on ending gun violence at St. Peter Catholic Church.
No guns can be carried into the convention center or sold at the gun show. But if visitors see something they like, they can order it there and pick it up at a local licensed dealer.
That explains in part why Larry Hyatt will run free shuttles to the convention from his gun store on Wilkinson Boulevard.
"We are really excited to have it here," he said. "It's great for Charlotte. It's great for our business. Great for our customers.
"It's just a win, win, win as far as the gun industry."
'Celebration of American Values'
On the schedule:
Friday afternoon: Sarah Palin, Chuck Norris, U.S. Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., and Lt. Col. Oliver North headline the Leadership Forum at Time-Warner Cable Arena.
Saturday night: Glenn Beck and Newt Gingrich speak at the "Celebration of American Values Freedom Experience" at the arena. Charlie Daniels will perform.
Tickets to events start at $35. Entry to exhibits alone is $10.
Jim Morrill: 704-358-5058
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