CHARLOTTE, N.C. – "No open or concealed carry weapons on Convention Center property," reads the sign outside the Charlotte home of what promises to be one of the biggest events to hit this city -- the 139th
annual meeting of the National Rifle Association. How big? From Friday through Sunday, up to 70,000 people are expected to listen to speakers, line up for book signings, and wander through the giant exhibit hall and gun displays. "It's Toys R Us for big boys," a visitor told me.
It's so big that Michael Phelps, in Charlotte for UltraSwim, had trouble finding a room. Any other weekend, he would be the draw. But, with all due respect to the gold medal winner, Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck will no doubt best him in the "enthusiastic applause" heat. Just like the Olympics, there will be lots of red, white and blue.
The theme for this year's NRA meeting is "A Celebration of American Values." While the NRA is nonpartisan, convention speakers do trend Republican, with few exceptions such as N.C. Blue Dog Democrat Rep. Heath Shuler. NRA spokeswoman Rachel Parsons said that when it comes to lawmakers, "if you support us, we support you 100 percent."
Palin, waiving her considerable appearance fee, is the headliner at Friday's "Celebration of American Values Leadership Forum," with support from a long list that includes Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, former ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, U.S. Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), Lt. Col. Oliver North and Chuck Norris. The last time I saw the action movie actor, he was jamming at Clemson University with Mike Huckabee during the South Carolina GOP presidential primary race; in Charlotte, he'll be signing copies of "Black Belt Patriotism: How to Reawaken America."
Beck shares a spotlight with Newt Gingrich at Saturday night's "2nd Annual Celebration of American Values Freedom Event," with musical entertainment by Charlie Daniels. Both events move to the larger Time Warner Cable Arena. Gingrich is going to be a busy man that day, also signing copies of "To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine" and speaking at a midday fundraiser for North Carolina GOP Rep. Sue Myrick.
With 4 million members, the NRA has grown because "people are concerned," Parsons said on Thursday as workers assembled booths labeled Winchester, Remington and Smith & Wesson. "People want to make sure their freedoms are protected." The NRA puts the number of gun owners at 80 million.
Parsons cited the 2008 landmark Supreme Court decision, District of Columbia v. Heller, that struck down a D.C. ban on handguns as a sign that passion for the rights guaranteed by the Second Amendment are strong. She's not so pleased by President Obama, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, or Attorney General Eric Holder, who have not done anything, "yet," she said, to curb gun rights. Obama's "had his hand full" with so many other things.
John Fasching, of Naples, Fla., like Parsons and other NRA members, has doubts about the president. In Fasching's view, Obama is "just waiting for the right time," to crack down on gun ownership. Fasching, who turns 55 in July, and his wife, Ann, have come to their first annual meeting to see the exhibits, hear the speakers -- especially Sarah Palin -- and spend time in a place "where everybody feels the same way you do," he said.
It's all mixed up, said Fasching, when people are more likely to "blame the gun than the person" for a crime. He owns "at least 15" guns; Ann has "a nice, pretty, little pink one" she said. They've bought their 12-year-old granddaughter a .22-caliber Beretta for shooting targets, and have already taught her how to take it apart and put it together.
Mel Morganstein, 70, is a retired Army design engineer who lives in Charlotte. A volunteer for the meeting, he was doing whatever he was asked to get ready for Friday's grand opening. We first met at a Wednesday night dress rehearsal for the North Carolina Dance Theatre, where he also volunteers as a photographer and in community outreach. The dance lover and gun owner is a poster child for the NRA's broad reach, and he hates to be pigeonholed, he told me. He's more of a libertarian, he said, than anything.
While I don't want to stereotype, I do believe a Venn diagram
of the NRA and the Tea Party movement would show substantial overlap. Both Morganstein and the Faschings are Tea Party members. My Creative Loafing story on the Charlotte Tea Party
this week shows the area is fertile ground for discontent with government regulation.
"It's anti-politics," said Morganstein, who this weekend wants to attend workshops by the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action, the group's lobbying arm. "It's about my grandbaby," he said, and showed me her picture, "and what kind of world she's going to have."
Ten years ago, at the 129th annual NRA meeting, also in Charlotte, its president, Charlton Heston, raised his gun in the air and shouted his famous, oft-repeated phrase -- "From my cold, dead hands!" -- to candidate Al Gore, in particular. The late actor's likeness is on a poster at this weekend's Charlotte gathering, not far from one with a slogan for a new decade: "Stop Obama's Gun Grab!"