Republicans Court NRA Conventioneers

An estimated 50,000 people attended the National Rifle Association's annual meeting over the weekend in Phoenix. Republican politicians and operatives stirred the party's base to fight gun control. President Obama has said he respects Second Amendment rights and favors "common sense" gun laws.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Phoenix this weekend, something like 50,000 people poured into the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association. It featured a lineup of leading Republicans who stirred the party's base to fight gun control and the president's expected Supreme Court nominees. Here's Republican Party chairman Michael Steele.

Mr. MICHAEL STEELE (Chairman, Republican National Committee): We all know what we fear from President Obama and his Supreme Court picks. I know for certain the president and the liberal Democrats in Congress have already begun the push of America to the left.

MONTAGNE: The NRA's chief lobbyist, Chris Cox, offered a bit of sarcasm.

Mr. CHRIS COX (Chief Lobbyist, National Rifle Association): Let's give credit where credit is due. In these tough times, the Obama administration deserves credit for the only part of the economy that's going strong: gun sales.

MONTAGNE: No better place to see that than the NRA exhibition hall, which was by far the biggest attraction this weekend. Four hundred exhibitors displayed every legal firearm or accoutrement that a gun owner could want. NPR's Ted Robbins reports.

TED ROBBINS: With more than three acres of all things gun related, there was no sign of recession at the Phoenix Convention Center.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

ROBBINS: From videos to demos…

Unidentified Woman: This system here is our hard-core hunter, so if you're a big hunting guy…

ROBBINS: …to hands-on display.

(Soundbite of gun clicking)

Unidentified Man #1: That is smooth, Mike. This is the nicest one I've seen so far.

ROBBINS: If you're looking for a robust U.S. industry, here it is.

Ms. LAURA GAGE(ph) (Marketing Director, Barrett Rifles): Yes, the plant is working at full capacity. We're working very hard.

ROBBINS: That's Laura Gage, marketing director for Barrett Rifles, a major manufacturer in one of the industry's hottest growth sectors.

Ms. GAGE: All the semi-autos - that's where our biggest demand is.

ROBBINS: Why do you think that?

Ms. GATES: I think that it's the fear factor. People are worried about the semi-autos going away.

ROBBINS: In other words, gun owners are worried that Congress will reinstate the federal assault weapons ban, which expired five years ago. Barrett, Beretta, Sturn Ruger, Smith & Wesson - they're all having great years.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

(Soundbite of commercial)

Unidentified Man #2: Match shooters finally have a choice in premium quality, factory-loaded ammunition for their competition rifles: the 6.5 Creedmoor.

ROBBINS: And ammunition makers, they can't keep bullets on the shelf. Steve Hornady owns Hornady Manufacturing.

Mr. STEVE HORNADY (Owner, Hornady Manufacturing): Our customers are the shooters of America, are absolutely concerned that this administration's attitude towards firearms and firearms owners is unfavorable.

ROBBINS: Kathleen Garvin is a life member of the NRA who belongs to a Phoenix-area rod and gun club.

Ms. KATHLEEN GARVIN: I'm concerned myself over availability of hunting, you know, bullets and guns for hunting.

ROBBINS: But there's been little evidence that gun control advocates have any traction in Washington. In February, with Democratic support, Congress barred the District of Columbia from restricting gun ownership. Just last week, the Senate passed a provision allowing loaded, concealed guns in national parks.

Josh Sugarmann heads the Violence Policy Center. He says the gun lobby is still in control.

Mr. JOSH SUGARMANN (Violence Policy Center): To be honest, on our side of the equation, we don't have an equally vocal, vociferous, active base to counter the pro-gun activists.

ROBBINS: Gun and ammo sales spike whenever a Democrat is elected or there's a national security threat: 1992, Bill Clinton; 1999, Y2K; 2001, September 11th. Gun control advocate Sugarmann and ammo maker Steve Hornady agree on one thing: It's a bubble, like any other.

Mr. HORNADY: Eventually, our consumers will not be concerned, and they will stop buying.

ROBBINS: It hasn't happened yet, and this year's attendance at the NRA Convention set a record.

Ted Robbins, NPR News.

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