CHARLTON Heston predicts re-election as NRA president

Sunday, May 20th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) _ Igniting a stomping, cheering ovation, Charlton Heston thrust a Revolutionary War musket above his head Saturday after predicting he would again be re-elected as president of the National Rifle Association.

Later, Interior Secretary Gale Norton called NRA members ``America's unsung conservation heroes'' and praised them as important partners in President Bush's plans to reduce gun violence.

Heston told NRA members at the 130th annual convention that he had intended to give his farewell speech this year, but was asked to serve an unprecedented fourth one-year term. The NRA's board of directors will elect a president Monday.

``Of course, we can't predict the outcome of the election, but chances are pretty good I'll postpone my farewell address another year,'' Heston said to the standing, cheering crowd.

Heston congratulated NRA members for helping elect Bush, the group's top political goal last year, and portrayed them as defenders of freedom.

``You are of the same lineage as the farmers who stood at Concord Bridge'' at the start of the Revolutionary War,'' he said.

Presented with a mint-condition musket from that war, Heston held it above his head and said, ``I have only five words for you: From my cold, dead hands.'' The crowd roared.

Norton, a former attorney general from Colorado, told an audience of 4,000 that the NRA and the president shared a common goal of reducing gun violence by enforcing existing laws.

``As a former prosecutor, the best way to end violent crime is to lock up the criminals who commit violent crime,'' Norton said, drawing a loud ovations.

She said the NRA and the Interior Department had a long history of working together to protect public lands and make sure they are available to everyone. She also drew applause talking about going skeet shooting with the president at Camp David.

``He's a pretty good shot,'' Norton said. ``I, on the other hand, am a work in progress.''

Michael D. Barnes, president of the Washington-based group Handgun Control Inc., criticized Norton's appearance, saying it was ``more proof that the NRA _ true to the NRA's boasting during the 2000 elections _ is, indeed, working out of the White House.''

The NRA has consistently landed on Fortune Magazine's list of most powerful lobbying groups in Washington. Eighty-six percent of the 10,000 candidates the NRA endorsed last year won their elections, according to Chuck Cunningham, the group's director of federal affairs.

Other speakers Saturday night took aim at the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill, which would limit political advertising by groups like the NRA within two months of an election.

NRA Executive Director Wayne LaPierre called McCain-Feingold an attack on the free-speech guarantees of the First Amendment, and thus a threat to the gun rights of the Second Amendment.

``If we have to, we'll launch the good ship NRA, and we'll drop anchor in international waters just off the coast, and we'll broadcast the truth from our own TV towers,'' LaPierre said.

LaPierre also criticized Sen. John McCain for sponsoring a bill requiring criminal background checks for gun show purchases. The bill is cosponsored by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and supported by a gun control group called Americans for Gun Safety.

``John, what're you doing hanging out with that crowd?'' LaPierre said.

Gun enthusiasts crowded an exhibit hall to get a look at gun- and hunting-related products, including offerings from Smith & Wesson, which raised the ire of many gun owners when it agreed with the federal government last year to install safety locks on its guns in exchange for being dropped from lawsuits against the industry.

Smith & Wesson sales fell by half, and the company was sold last week to Saf-T-Hammer, a small trigger-lock company.

James Baker, the NRA's chief lobbyist, signaled some forgiveness when he told members, ``Now that Smith & Wesson was purchased from its British holding company last week, we can also hope to restore its future.''

Gene Pelter of Fort Wayne, Ind., wasn't so sure. He made a point of walking by the Smith & Wesson booth without going in.

He said he won't buy a Smith & Wesson gun because of the agreement. He conceded he may reconsider ``five, 10 years down the road, if they have proven themselves.''

Outside the convention, more than 100 people gathered in support of gun control at a ``Rally for People Over Profits.''

Mary Wertsch, executive director of Missourians Against Handgun Violence, claimed a victory because the Missouri legislature adjourned Friday without loosening restrictions on permits to carry concealed handguns.

Barnes, of Handgun Control Inc, noted the new gun safety proposal Bush unveiled earlier this week focuses on enforcement and ignores prevention.

``While we fully support strong enforcement of our gun laws, we recognize that we must adopt a multi-faceted approach in order to win the fight to prevent gun violence,'' he said.