Coming out shooting

In the wake of the Littleton massacre, the NRA holds its convention in Denver, less than 20 miles away from Columbine High School.

Published May 2, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

It's no easy feat to be outclassed by Marilyn Manson. But no one ever said that the
National Rifle Association can't rise to a challenge.

Despite the fact that the bodies of the 15 Columbine High School victims are still warm -- and
regardless of the fact that several adolescent victims of the April 20
tragedy still languish in local hospitals' intensive care units -- the NRA
held its annual convention here Saturday, just miles from the deadliest high
school gun slaughter in American history.

Others, however, deferred to the raw nerves still frayed in the wake of the
slaughter. Colorado legislators opted to table two NRA-backed state
bills. Gothy apocalyptic singer Marilyn Manson canceled the final five shows of his tour, including his concert at nearby Red
Rocks. United Artists Theaters removed the teen horror spoof "Idle Hands"
from all of its Colorado theaters, and the local NBC affiliate has opted not
to broadcast "Atomic Train," which features trench coat-wearing killers brandishing sawed-off shotguns.

But NRA leaders decided that their show must go on just 15 miles from the scene of the shooting, despite repeated
requests from Denver Mayor Wellington Webb that they cancel their annual
meeting. Though it modified and shrunk the size and scope of its event,
the NRA's annual meeting of members occurred as scheduled, starting Saturday at 10 a.m.

But here in Denver, the presence of guns, or at least their effects, could be
felt long before NRA president Charlton Heston began his opening remarks.

Despair hangs in the air of this city like a haunting fog. There's the
weather, for one. While much of the country is enjoying sunshine, in Denver
Mother Nature has set an appropriate stage. The clouds are thick and dingy
and hover ominously close to the ground. The air is bone-chillingly
cold -- quite unusual for Denver in May.

Sorrow is everywhere you look or listen. Radio stations play messages from
mourning high school kids, replacing the normal Friday night shout-outs with
deeply heartfelt, often sobbing, condolences to their friends at Columbine
High School.

These emotions brought 3,000 men, women and children huddled together at
the Capitol Saturday morning to protest the NRA's presence. But there was
more than political protest on the agenda. This city is in pain. On Friday,
at a local park where an Illinois carpenter had erected 15 crucifixes in
honor of the dead, the father of slain student Daniel Rohrbough tore down
and chopped up the two crucifixes that stood in memory of killers Eric
Harris and Dylan Klebold.

"I don't think any thinking person in this country is going to disagree with me," said Brian Rohrbough. "We never ever honor a murderer in the same place as the memorial for his victims."

Here in Denver, citizens are angry and doleful and they feel helpless; they
are looking for comfort and reassurance and, yes, someone to blame.

By pressing on with its convention, the NRA has made itself an easy villain. The organization throws its considerable weight behind the defeat of every seemingly rational gun
control law, be it banning guns from school properties or requiring that
guns come with child safety locks. Just days before the Littleton disaster,
Colorado legislators were preparing to allow the state's citizens the right to carry
loaded concealed weapons. The NRA was also pushing forward a provision
denying cities and counties in Colorado the ability to enact their own
restrictions on guns if their citizens so desired.

The front steps of the Capitol swelled with protesters holding signs saying, "Shame on the NRA," "Hey NRA, this town ain't big enough for the two of
us -- why don't you leave?" and "Charlton Heston -- Bad wig, bad actor, bad ideas,
bad timing."

Rev. Lucia Guzman, executive director of the Colorado Council of
Churches, led the crowd in a rendition of the song "We Are a Gentle and
Angry People." Rabbi Steven Foster of Congregation Emanuel suggested that
the congruent timing of the slaughter with the NRA meeting may have been "a
divine coincidence. Maybe it's God's way of telling us that we need ... to move
forward and make this a more gentle place to live."

Speakers decried the NRA and its hold on the legislators who work in the
majestic gray building behind the podium, though the protest became a national call for more controls on guns.

Charles and Maryleigh Blek and their son Timothy made the trek from Southern California to mourn the loss of their son Matthew, who was shot in New York City on June 29, 1994. Charles
Blek argued that guns needed basic safety standards. "It's far better to
child-proof a gun then it is to bullet-proof a child," he observed. But, he
said, the NRA has made it so that teddy bears and toasters have more safety
standards than guns.

His wife was more forthright: "We love our children more than you love your
damn guns," she said to the NRA members three blocks away, hurt and anger echoing in her throat.

By far the most moving moment of the protest came when Tom Mauser walked
through the crowd and up onto the steps of the Capitol, clutching his sign,
which read: "Don't let my son Daniel's death be in vain. Reduce the
violence" on one side, and on the other, "My son Daniel died at Columbine. He'd expect me to be here today."

Friends of Mauser from his job at the Colorado Department of Transportation
weren't sure that he was going to attend. "He had a tough, tough day
yesterday," said one.

Mauser took a deep breath and thanked the community for its love and
support. "Those who say that I shouldn't be here because I'm being
exploited -- that this is part of what Sen. [Trent] Lott called a 'knee-jerk
reaction' -- I assure you, I am not being exploited ... If my son Daniel wasn't one
of the victims, he would want me to take him here today.

"Something is wrong in this country when a child can grab a gun so easily
and shoot a bullet into the middle of a child's face, as my son
experienced," Mauser said, pointing at the enlarged photograph of his son that he
had fastened to his sign. "The time has come to realize that a TEC-9
semiautomatic assault weapon with a 30-bullet magazine, like the one that
was used to kill my son, is not used to kill deer." After speaking, tears
trickled from his eyes and as he exhaled whatever remaining strength he had
in him seemed to float from his body.

Representatives of the Colorado Coalition Against Gun Violence, which
organized the rally, pointed out that they didn't contact Mauser or any
other Columbine community members in deference to their need to mourn.
Mauser contacted them and asked to participate in the rally, they said.

Mauser was followed by folk singer Cheryl Wheeler, who wrote a gun-control
anthem called "If It Were Up to Me" after the
Jonesboro, Ark., shootings.

At 10 a.m., the protesters observed a moment of silence in memory of the
victims. At that same moment, three blocks away at the Adam's Mark Hotel,
approximately 4,000 NRA members filed past a small sign advertising a hotel
service -- which read, "Here's Your Wake-Up Call" -- through phalanxes of cops and
into the Plaza Ballroom. As the NRA convened its annual meeting inside, the protesters marched to the hotel and formed a human chain around its perimeter.

Heston waved to the crowd from the dais with gritty determination and what
appeared to be a dead raccoon stapled to his head. He began his opening
remarks by addressing Mayor Webb's request that the NRA not "come here. We
don't want you here."

The crowd booed at the mention of Webb's name, and one attendee shouted out,
"Get out of our country, Wellington Webb!" much to the amusement of the

"They say, 'Don't come here,'" Heston said. "I guess what saddens me most is
how it suggests complicity. It implies that you and I and 80 million
honest gun owners are somehow to blame, that we don't care as much as they,
or that we don't deserve to be as shocked and horrified as every other soul
in American mourning for the people of Littleton. 'Don't come here.' That's
offensive. It's also absurd, because we live here. There are tens of
thousands of NRA members in Denver and tens upon tens of thousands in the
state of Colorado ... 'Don't come here?' We're already here."

After a moment of silence of their own for the people of Littleton, and a prayer, and
the pledge of allegiance, NRA members were officially welcomed to the
state by Vikki Buckley, Colorado's first African-American female secretary
of state. Buckley implicitly took a shot at Webb, saying that it was ironic
that some of those who would "run you out of town" wouldn't even be able to
vote were it not for those who fought for the Constitution's guarantee of
voting rights. Buckley was just the first of several speakers to argue that
the Second Amendment provides the right of every law-abiding American
citizen to own as many guns as he or she so desires, with no restrictions

No high court has ever ruled that the "well regulated Militia" guaranteed
the "right to keep and bear arms" in the Constitution applies to anything other
than a state's National Guard. Even the uber-conservative former Supreme Court Chief
Justice Warren Berger once called the NRA's Second Amendment interpretation
"a fraud on the American public."

NRA tradition has held that after the official welcome, the next order of
business is to welcome both the oldest and youngest NRA members present. But
this year, Heston said, "given the unusual circumstances" of the
meeting -- and, no doubt, the horrendous public relations disaster a video clip
of an 8-year-old with an NRA-sanctioned rifle would surely prove -- that
tradition was not honored at the convention.

The room was so packed, the fire marshal reportedly told NRA leadership that
overflow seating would have to be provided outside the ballroom. "To think
that a week ago, there were anxious murmurs that we might not have anyone
show up," Heston chuckled.

Then NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre strode to the lectern. LaPierre, the brains behind Heston's charisma, said that the NRA's positions "have become so widely
mischaracterized ... America can't keep in focus a clear understanding of what
our principles are." He then outlined a number of policies that the NRA
purportedly supports in an attempt to put a more moderate and reasonable face
on the demonized organization.

"First," LaPierre said, "we believe in absolutely gun-free, zero-tolerance,
totally safe schools. That means no guns in America's schools, period."

But Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., says that when she was assistant minority leader of the Colorado House, the NRA worked tirelessly for seven years straight to allow guns on school property. "They said [any gun ban on school property] would be inconvenient for rural children who wanted to go hunting
after school," DeGette says. "Then they have the nerve to stand up there
today and wear those blue and silver ribbons and say that schools should be

LaPierre outlined even more examples of his group's dedication to reason and
rationale. "The National Rifle Association believes in no unsupervised youth
access to guns, period," he said, despite his organization's opposition six
years ago to a proposal by then-Colorado Gov. Roy Romer to ban the
possession of handguns by kids under the age of 18 except in supervised
activities like hunting and target practice.

"We have always supported holding adults responsible for willfully and
recklessly allowing access to firearms," LaPierre said, despite the fact
that the NRA has consistently battled "child access prevention" laws holding
adults responsible if they improperly store their weapons so that a kid is
able to get his hands on it.

"We support and encourage the distribution, development and use of safety
locks, trigger locks, gun safes or any voluntary means," LaPierre said. In
1997, after a proposal by President Clinton that would have required gun
manufacturers to provide child safety locks with each handgun, one of the
NRA's top lobbyists said that the proposal would "mean no hunting, no
self-defense and no safety ... President Clinton's proposals for trigger
locks on all firearms encourage all Americans to abandon armed, lawful
self-defense in our homes, including federal law enforcement agents."

The main thrust of LaPierre's policy address was that individuals who commit
crimes with guns need to be more adequately prosecuted -- a tough argument to disagree with. But in the face of the Littleton tragedy, at a time when all Americans, especially those here in Denver, are trying to figure out how to prevent future Littletons, LaPierre's focus on prosecuting criminals
after they've already committed gun crimes seemed woefully irrelevant.

"We believe freedom should never be diminished for those who abide by the
law," he said. "Freedom should only be diminished for those who break the
law." Translated into English, this means that the NRA will continue to
fight against even the slightest legislative inconvenience for gun owners.
"There is no evidence waiting periods work," he added, "and if there is
authority to say one gun a month, there will eventually be authority to say

LaPierre even mentioned that his organization has been asked -- "incredibly,"
he says -- whether it would support conducting background checks for the
purchase of explosives. "We would not oppose such a background check," he
said, extending the NRA's version of an olive branch, "as long as it does not
include the traditional reloading powders used by millions of budget-minded

One of the more relevant federal legislative proposals floated since the Columbine
disaster would place new restrictions on firearms sold at gun shows, where background checks aren't currently required and dealers don't have to be federally licensed, the way retail gun stores do. Eastern
Colorado's premiere gun show, the Tanner Gun Show, is where one of
Rep. DeGette's staffers purchased a semiautomatic Norinco 7.62-by-39 mm rifle in June 1998 with no identification and nothing more than $450 cash on

It is also where 18-year-old Robyn Anderson is said to have purchased a
rifle and two shotguns on behalf of her prom date, Dylan Klebold, and his
friend Eric Harris.

But, apparently anticipating questions as to whether the NRA would
support greater regulations for guns sold at gun shows, LaPierre's blood
began to boil. "We will consider instant checks at gun shows when, and only
when, this administration stops demanding new gun taxes and stops illegally
compiling the records of millions of lawful gun buyers."

In other words, never.

After LaPierre finished his speech, Heston, the beloved crowd pleaser, took
to the stage to deliver his closing remarks. With his characteristically
enunciated gravelly basso, Heston decried the "savage vilification" he and
his fellow gun enthusiasts had been forced to contend with since the April
20 slaughter. "Why us?" he asked. "Because this story needs a villain. They
want us to play the heavy in their drama of packaged grief, to provide
riveting programming to run between commercials for cars and cat food." He
affirmed his organization's "steady beacon of support for the Second
Amendment, even if it has no other friend on this planet." With that, Heston and the NRA cleared out of the hotel to make room for Saturday's night's Ponderosa High School prom, also being held in the hotel.

Whatever public relations disaster the NRA seems to regard itself as suffering at the
hands of an evil media cabal, Heston, LaPierre & co. can take comfort in
winning over at least one new supporter as a result of the tragedy at
Columbine High.

"The slant the media's been giving the whole thing's been giving the NRA a
black eye," said 39-year-old cabinet finisher Isaac Badgerow, a convention
attendee, Denver resident and new convert to the church of Guns & Ammo.
"They're trying to take away people's rights." Badgerow says he looks
forward to joining the NRA, though he admits that his membership will be
more of a political statement than anything else.

He can never legally own a gun, you see. He's a convicted felon.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

MORE FROM Jake Tapper

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