CHARLOTTE, N.C. - The National Rifle Association, looking to expand its reach deeper into mainstream America, wants to set up shop in one of the United States' foremost addresses.
The group said Friday that it is planning to build a massive retail, dining and entertainment center in Times Square in New York.
The announcement, capping the opening day of the NRA's 129th annual convention, signals an effort by the group to recast and broaden its image - even as it faces an increasingly tumultuous battle over gun control.
The planned center - which drew immediate opposition from gun-control advocates who say it is not in keeping with Times Square's image as a tourist mecca - would be a shrine to sport shooting.
Called the NRA Sports Blast, it would include retail sales of shooting vests, ammunition cases and other gun paraphernalia, though not guns themselves; "virtual" shooting ranges; and a restaurant featuring roasted quail and other wild game delicacies.
NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre said sport shooting offers "fun for the entire family" and is more popular than tennis, golf and many other sports.
"It's about time the shooting sports took their rightful spot in the marketing center of America" in Times Square, he said. "It's probably about the safest activity an American can pick up as a hobby."
The choice of New York as a launching site for a retail plan, rather than in more gun-friendly rural confines, was seen by some New Yorkers as an affront.
"Times Square is the face New York shows the world, and frankly, the NRA is an embarrassment - not just in the United States, but all over the world," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
NRA officials refused to discuss details about the location or financing of the Times Square center, saying that they are still in private negotiations to secure a site.
At the group's convention, the nation's largest gun-maker, Smith & Wesson, drew a mixed reception in response to its deal with the government to put childproof locks on its pistols.
"I think it's important for the people of this country to stand by their Second Amendment rights," said Diane Peroutka, checking out a display with her three children at the Charlotte Convention Center.
She said she would avoid the Smith & Wesson exhibit, where more than 100 handguns were displayed.
Others said that although they disagreed with Smith & Wesson's action, they still would buy its guns.
The convention is expected to culminate in the election of Charleton Heston to a third term as president Monday.
"This will be the most important meetings in our history," Mr. Heston said in a taped message to those at the convention. "We are about to have the most important election in this organization's history."
As they entered the convention hall, visitors were encouraged to sign up to vote by signs reading, "Register to vote or register your gun." Workers were ready with voter registration forms for each of the 50 states - part of the NRA's get-out-the-vote effort.
At the Smith & Wesson exhibit, spokesman Ken Jorgenson said the Springfield, Mass., gun manufacturer expected to hear from NRA members about its agreement with the government in March.
The company announced it would install locks on its guns, introduce "smart guns" within three years and prohibit the sale of its weapons at gun shows without a background check.
In exchange, the Clinton administration and some states and municipalities have agreed to drop Smith & Wesson from gun lawsuits.
Municipalities participating in a Housing and Urban Development Department gun safety program are being encouraged to buy Smith & Wesson weapons for their law enforcement agencies.
Seven other gun makers and an industry group have challenged that arrangement with a federal lawsuit alleging an illegal conspiracy to retrain trade.
Targeted in bill
The deal was also under attack in the U.S. House, where gun-control opponents have amended a $310 billion defense-authorization bill, passed Thursday, to bar the Pentagon from giving the company preferential treatment.
Rep. John Hostettler, R-Ind., a lawmaker who favors gun rights and who wrote the provision, "does not want to compromise the lives and safety of our men and women in uniform simply for the sake of a political agreement," said his spokesman, Michael Jahr.