NRA Looks To Build On Tea Party Movement

The National Rifle Association held its annual meeting in Charlotte, N.C., over the weekend with a pledge to be more aggressive and more organized heading into this year's midterm elections.

The main theme was protecting Americans' right to own firearms, but the tone of many of the speeches would have been familiar to anyone listening in on Tea Party rallies held across the country over the past year.

The NRA annual meeting is a lot of things — but first it's big. Organizers put attendance at around 70,000, with the big attraction being the massive display of firearms on the convention floor.

Driving into town, billboards boast acres of guns and gear. It's a promise kept.

The annual meeting also is a big-time political rally, designed to fire up the faithful and send them home to volunteer for NRA endorsed candidates — and to defeat those the NRA sees as the enemy.

That was the message from Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and TV tough guy Chuck Norris. He spoke during an arena-sized rally, saying, "We're going to the polls on Election Day together and take our government back."

Remember the MTV campaign to get young people to the polls called "Rock the Vote"? Norris is the honorary chairman of a new NRA ad campaign called "Trigger the Vote."

"I hope you won't be missing in action on Election Day," he says in the ad. "Register to vote. I'm Chuck Norris and I approve this message. For more information go to Triggerthevote.org."

This year's convention also demonstrated the NRA's interest in new technology. It includes all the usual methods: Facebook, Twitter, texting and so on.

The challenge is to get the organization's huge membership to begin using such tools. The official NRA page on Facebook has more than 164,000 fans. That's a large number but just a fraction of its nearly 4 million members.

Another trend emerged over the weekend — a sense that the NRA, which has long been fighting political and legislative battles, has found a new ally this year in the Tea Party movement.

NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre spoke to a group of about 100 who attended a side meeting on the 2010 elections.

"I'm out there every week listening to people, and I've never seen people as disgusted and upset as they are right now, wherever you go in this country," LaPierre said.

To be sure, the highly centralized NRA and the various, sometimes disjointed, Tea Party organizations are different structurally.

The NRA views every issue through the prism of the Second Amendment, while Tea Party groups offer a broader variety of complaints about big government. But there is a lot of overlap as well.

"I was at a Tea Party rally in Washington, D.C., on Tax Day," said Bob Culver, 64, of Laurel, Md., who attended the NRA weekend meeting. "There were a lot of people that I recognized from the gun rights side of the issue, and there were a lot of people I didn't know. So there is a cross-pollenization, if you want to put it that way."

Don't look for active collaboration among the different groups. Sharing at least some goals with the Tea Party movement seems to be enough for NRA leaders right now.

They are happy to encourage any group that is anti-incumbent, and whose anti-government anger and energy can provide a boost to the NRA's cause as well.

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