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NRA Aims for Times Square Store

Guns: At convention, organization announces plan for major retail-entertainment center devoted to sport shooting. Critics say idea won't fly in New York City.

May 20, 2000|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The National Rifle Assn., looking to expand its reach deeper into mainstream America, wants to set up shop in one of the country's marquee addresses.

The group that has become synonymous with the gun industry said Friday that it is planning to build a massive, multimedia retail, dining and entertainment center in Times Square in New York City.

The announcement, capping the opening day of the NRA's 129th annual convention here, signals an effort by the group to recast and broaden its image--even as it faces an increasingly tumultuous battle over the gun control issue.

With its fund-raising efforts and membership numbers swelling, analysts said, the 3.6 million-member NRA appears to be trying to shake its "bad boy" image.

"This is an effort to shed some of the baggage as an extreme-minded group and make themselves more family friendly, more mainstream--and maybe make some money at the same time," said Bill Carrick, a Democratic political and advertising consultant in Los Angeles.

The planned center--which triggered 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. It would include retail sales of shooting vests, ammunition cases and other gun paraphernalia; "virtual" shooting ranges; and a restaurant featuring roasted quail and other wild game delicacies.

And NRA officials said they hope to expand the idea--modeled after the popular "ESPN Zone" eating and entertainment centers--into other cities around the country, perhaps including Los Angeles.

"Rodeo Drive, baby!" said NRA spokesman Bill Powers with a laugh.

The gun industry estimates that there are 25 million to 30 million sport shooters in the United States, including more than 15 million hunters and 19 million target shooters. (Many do both.) More women have taken up sport shooting in recent years, the industry said, but overall the number of sport shooters is dwindling.

Even so, said NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, 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."

But the idea is likely to face opposition in New York City, which has some of the stiffest gun restrictions in the country. Indeed, the fact that the NRA is hoping to launch its retail plan there, rather than in more gun-friendly rural confines, was seen by some as an affront to New Yorkers.

"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 E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).

The plan, said Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, which favors tougher gun control, is "an amazing example of just how bizarrely out of sync the organization is with mainstream America."

"It will go down in history as one of the worst marketing decisions since New Coke," he predicted. "What will their sign say--'Over a million killed'?"

Schumer said the Times Square plan will face citywide opposition if the NRA tries to sell guns at the site.

NRA officials initially left open the possibility that they would try to get authorization for gun sales at the center, which would be known as "NRA Sports Blast."

Later, however, they said they would not want to sell guns there. "This is not a gun shop," Powers said.

NRA officials said the idea of branching out into for-profit, brand-name merchandising should bring the organization even greater exposure.

"We're already mainstream, and I think our image is already acceptable to the majority of Americans," Powers said. With a greater retail presence, he said, "the possibilities are just boundless."

NRA officials refused to discuss details concerning the location or financing of the Times Square center, saying that they are still in private negotiations to secure a site.

The group used the Times Square announcement to kick off a five-day convention in North Carolina that is expected to draw as many as 50,000 members.

With the November elections approaching, the NRA is pitching the convention as a critical opportunity to rally opposition to gun control measures. On Friday, leaders showed no sign of easing the harsh political rhetoric that has characterized the debate in recent months.

Indeed, one of the most popular items at the convention's opening was the premier issue of a new NRA magazine called America's First Freedom, with a cover image combining the features of President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.

"The face of gun hatred in America," reads the caption.

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