DALLAS, Texas – At the close of its 147th annual conference in Dallas this week, the National Rifle Association was poised to announce its new president for the coming year.
Oliver North will preside over the 148th annual conference in Indianapolis next April.
“I think it will be exciting,” said Troy Elmore who traveled from Johnson County to Dallas for this year’s event. “I think when the people come to Indianapolis next year they’re gonna see a lot of hospitality. Indianapolis is a great town. Great place to be, lot of entertainment, a lot of activities, restaurants, be probably a good draw.”
From a booth inside the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, Visit Indy, the Indianapolis’ convention bureau, helped NRA members book up every downtown hotel room eleven months before the 2019 conference.
“They are thrilled to be coming back,” said Joyce Russell of Visit Indy. “They had a great experience in 2014 so we’ve heard lots of comments about how great the hotels were connected to the convention center, the great restaurants and how clean and safe everything was.”
Four years ago, the NRA attracted 70,000 attendees who left behind an economic impact of $55 million.
Visit Indy expects those numbers to climb next year and again in 2023 when the NRA returns for an unprecedented third convention in 10 years.
“Economically it sends a signal that the NRA likes Indiana, they come here for a reason,” said State Representative Jim Lucas of Seymour, the foremost advocate for gun-friendly legislation at the Indiana Statehouse. “We’re very welcoming. Indiana has one of the highest percentages of adults with a license to carry. One of six Hoosier adults has a license to carry.”
In 2014, the last time the NRA was in Indianapolis, Mike Pence was the governor.
This year he was a keynote speaker along with President Trump in Dallas as he pledged enduring White House support for the NRA and its members’ constitutional rights to arm themselves.
“Last year President Trump spoke to this very gathering, the first president to do so in 34 years,” Pence reminded 10,000 cheering NRA members inside the convention center’s packed arena. “He told you then in his words that you have a true friend in the White House and I’m here today as his VP to tell you, ‘You have two friends in the White House!’”
With $70 million spent on the 2016 elections, and nearly half of that dedicated to the election of Donald Trump, the NRA is a well-financed high-powered political force that commands legislative support coast-to-coast and controls its own message through NRA TV, a 24/7 internet channel devoted to all things guns and Second Amendment related.
Lucas admits he takes his lead from NRA political advisors who have tested their legislation in other leading edge gun-friendly states such as Florida.
“I drafted all my own legislation because it makes sense,” he said. “Yes, I do lean on the NRA. They have excellent legal staff. I will run things through them and see if they’ve had other things that work in other states but this is all me.”
With Republican control of both chambers of the General Assembly and the Governor’s Office, Indiana NRA opponents feel steamrolled by the majority on gun issues.
“You’re getting the feeling that is this just from that particular legislator or are they getting some ideas from some organizations and this language is coming from another organization a national organization?” said Rep. Robyn Shackleford, a Democrat from Indianapolis’ east side which sports the highest murder rate in the state. “But there comes a time when we have to think about, how much access is too much access? Do we really need automatic weapons? Does everyone need to have access to automatic weapons?”
“I think that in the wrong hands those are dangerous,” admitted Sen. Jack Sandlin, a Republican and former IPD commander who represents Indianapolis’ south side. “Are you going to take them away from everybody for the few? I think we need to focus on identifying the few and then having an enforcement from that point.”
Longtime observers of the gun debate see an opportunity next year to engage the NRA and firearms rights supporters in the aftermath of recent mass killings across the United States.
“Their main job is to push guns, to help the gun manufacturers and gun sellers get more guns out there. They try to scare people into buying more guns,” said Paul Helmke, Director Indiana University’s Civic Leaders Center, former Fort Wayne mayor and past president and CEO of the Brady Center/Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “They’re doing that to help push the sales and it’s a losing battle. It’s a battle that is making our cities less safe, our states and our country less safe, and it’s really damaging all of us and it’s something we can deal with.”
In Dallas, opposition to the NRA was reduced to the mayor pro tem calling on the city to rescind its invitation to the conference and protests on the plaza at City Hall.
Indianapolis leaders have speculated that their city could organize community-wide responses to include town hall meetings, conferences and breakout sessions away from the Indiana Convention Center to host discussions and listening sessions to solicit varied opinions on whether Hoosiers feel safer while heavily armed.
“That’s a good idea and we ought to be thinking about venues and forums for people here in our city who have a wide variety of different viewpoints about gun control issues and I certainly would encourage those conversations to take place,” said Mayor Joe Hogsett. “This will give us an opportunity to maybe authentically and meaningfully talk about some of these things. I’d like to keep the animosity to a low level but if we can be reasoned, if we can be thoughtful, and if we’re willing to listen, then I think maybe we can make some progress.
“Hey, let some of these mothers that have lost loved ones through gun violence, let them sit down and have a conversation with some of the CEOs from the NRA and just let them have that conversation with them about the loss of their loved ones,” said Pastor Horatio Luster of Indianapolis Peacekeepers. “They need to meet, they need to begin conversations now, we need to sit down and have constructive productive conversations now. I think legislation needs to be at the table. I think our council people need to be at the table. I think our faith based leaders need to be at the table to have conversations with them to bring it to the forefront.”
In the halls of the Dallas convention center, far away from the leadership and its staunch stance in absolute adherence to its perception of the Second Amendment, NRA members said they would be willing to engage in such conversations.
“I think it’s a great opportunity,” said Nathan Blazer of Franklin. “I’d like to see everyone maybe even hold a town hall at the convention and invite people to come and talk and to listen and to try and get other people to see their views and vice versa. We can’t always assume we’re right and they shouldn’t do the same.”