Big-Gun Stars Draw the Big Shots : NRA Woos Wealthy Supporters With Celebrity Competition
Across Trabuco Canyon, hawks sailed on breezes that carried the faint odor of gunpowder. In the valley, the loud pop of bullets hitting clay targets echoed off the hills, and flies and bees began to ravage an extensive buffet set out amidst the desert scenery.
The setting was an all-day celebrity shooting competition sponsored by the National Rifle Assn., which lured about 50 wealthy supporters from around the country to a desert community/resort called Coto de Caza on Saturday on the promise of shmoozing with the stars: host Charlton Heston, Jameson Parker of “Simon and Simon,” John James of “Dynasty,” Lee Purcell (who stars in the video “A Woman’s Guide to Firearms,” produced by husband Gary Lowe), James Stacy, Martin Kove of “Cagney and Lacey,” Ken Osmond (best known as Eddie Haskell on “Leave It to Beaver,” now a police officer), Bo Hopkins, John Russell (TV’s “The Lawman”) and others.
There was an air of down-home informality to the day, despite the fact that many of the guests were millionaire businessmen and women. Thanks to a large contingent of Texans and Southerners, women were referred to as “little ladies,” men wore cowboy hats and almost everyone had on cowboy boots--broken in, of course.
All were awed to see reel life spilling over into real life as their TV and movie heroes proved as handy with a gun off-screen as on.
But after all, that was what they had paid for. The weekend (which also included a cocktail party Friday night and a Saturday night dinner and awards ceremony) was a fund-raiser for the Institute for Legislative Action, the lobbying arm of the NRA, which started a new program, called “Madison’s Eagles” to woo large donors to the cause. For $1,000, members can participate in events such as this, plus meet in Washington with congressmen, senators and presidential hopefuls who are also NRA supporters. There are 200 spaces in Madison’s Eagles for 1987; so far 152 have been filled.
Popular Among Peers
The celebrities at the shoot were, for the most part, gung-ho. Heston has been an NRA backer for years. In 1982 he worked diligently to defeat Prop. 15, which would have required registration of all handguns while limiting the number of handguns brought into the state. Parker and Gerald McRaney (his co-star on “Simon and Simon”) have done “I’m the NRA” ads. To hear the actors tell it, shooting sports and using guns for self-protection are popular among their peers.
“Back in the ‘30s,” Parker said, “shooting had almost an elitist connotation. People belonged to gun clubs that cost lots of money; people like Clark Gable, Gary Cooper. . . .” Parker, who has been shooting for seven years, also keeps a gun on his bedside table and said his wife has had to protect herself with it twice in their Los Angeles-area home. “I know more people keep a gun for protection than don’t,” he said. “It’s the tenor of the times.”
Heston arrived at the Orange County canyon with his co-host, Sen. Phil Gramm (D-Texas), in the grand style that befits his celebrity status. At 11:45 a helicopter touched down near the hunting lodge and deposited them on the grass. Heston, dressed in bleached jeans, a “Fraser Clan” T-shirt and cowboy boots, spent a short time talking to the crowd, but did not stay long enough to shoot. He too spoke of gun popularity.
“I can’t speak for the whole Hollywood community,” he said, “but I know a lot of people use guns. There is a larger constituency than (most people) would imagine. On my ridge alone there are two households, and probably 20 firearms of various kinds between my neighbor and me. Within a couple of miles there must be 500;--that’s an uninformed guess.”
What of the juxtaposition of this event with the recent spate of freeway shootings? “Almost beyond question, the overwhelming majority of the freeway shootings have certainly been done with illegal weapons,” Heston said. “Not only are they illegally obtained, but also probably the people (using them) have alcohol problems, maybe drug problems. They’re a long way from the kind of Americans who are members of the NRA.”
NRA on Freeway Shootings
The freeway shootings were brought up again at Friday’s cocktail party, where a female guest quizzed an NRA spokeswoman on the organization’s position on the subject. “There are already laws prohibiting the carrying of guns in cars in California,” she said, a line frequently heard from other NRA members throughout the weekend.
“Dynasty’s” John James grew up in Connecticut where he learned to trap shoot at a neighbor’s house. “It reminds me of fall,” he said, “of feeling chilled; it’s a nice country sport. I’m not a big handgun enthusiast. I do have one for self-defense, but I enjoy trap shooting more.”
James Stacy was flexing his hand after a round of pistol competition, his first try at target shooting. “Usually when we shoot guns (in movies), we use blanks. But I think I’m going to (continue to) do it,” he said. “I think it’s a sport I’d like.”
The actor, who lost a leg and and arm in a 1983 traffic accident, said his first attempt “was not too bad. But I have to get used to the whole process--before I actually shot, I wondered, should I do it with my hat on or off, with my glasses on or the safety glasses on? In the chair or standing up using the crutch? In the end I stood up.”
“So many times events can be cattle calls,” said Brad O’Leary, whose Washington public affairs firm counts the ILA as one of its clients. (O’Leary, who helped organize the event, estimated the ILA’s total cost for the weekend at $10,000.) “This way people have a chance to talk to Charlton Heston and, over a period of time, have a connection to the organization.”
Added Jim Reinke, president of the NRA’s board of directors, “This is one of the best programs the association has put together. It gives some recognition (to the donors) above and beyond a thank-you. Most laymen don’t get a chance to see celebrities every day.”
Some guests stared in wide-eyed amazement at being close to real stars (“John James is so much better looking in person,” one woman exclaimed) and they had no reservations asking for autographs or snapshots, as the celebs willingly complied.
According to O’Leary, some celebrities who wanted to attend bowed out because of prior commitments, among them Roy Rogers, Robert Stack and Gerald McRaney. But at least one star whose name appeared on a list sent out to the media wanted nothing to do with the NRA.
Actress Michelle Phillips, formerly of the Mamas and Papas, said she was “the least likely person in the whole world to be going to anything supported by the NRA. I am a very strong supporter of gun control and I think the NRA does immeasurable damage to our society in its support of arming the country.”
As it turned out, Phillips was invited by Stacy, who failed to tell her exactly what the event was for, but the NRA put her name on the list anyway. Subsequently, Phillips was contacted by The Times and filled in on the details; she was horrified. Said Stacy, laughing, “I didn’t know she hated guns so much.”
At one of the trap shooting ranges, Jameson Parker, who is an avid hunter, had just finished his round with his team. Someone noted that he was the only one at the event wearing a tie. “There’s a reason for it,” explained the blond, tanned actor. “Most of the time when you see hunters they’re slobs--redneck drunken yahoos. They shouldn’t even be allowed to own a gun. So I try to wear a tie when I’m out shooting like this, so people get a different view.”