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Heston Chosen to Lead NRA Back to Mainstream

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Vowing to push the National Rifle Assn. “back into the mainstream” of American political life, actor Charlton Heston on Monday was elected president of the 2.8 million-member organization. He promised to “do what I do best,” and to help refurbish the group’s national image.

“There are 20,000 gun laws on the books but they don’t do any good unless we prosecute the ones who bust them,” the 73-year-old conservative activist said. “And [our task is] to restore the image the NRA has enjoyed for 120-odd years.”

Heston’s comments cheered delegates to the group’s 127th national meeting, which was held in Philadelphia, and the NRA definitely needed a pep talk: The well-funded lobbying organization that once seemed politically invincible has been stung by reverses in recent years--including enactment of the Brady handgun control bill as well as federal legislation banning the import and sale of certain assault-style weapons. Meanwhile, the group’s overall membership has declined from 3.4 million three years ago.

While it is not clear how Heston’s election will affect future gun control legislation, friends and enemies alike believe his strong, mediagenic presence is likely to boost the NRA’s visibility and give it a more compelling profile.

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“The NRA has been demonized by the media and this is a way to say, ‘Hey, Moses is on our side,’ ” said Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s executive vice president, referring to Heston’s portrayal of the biblical leader in “The Ten Commandments.”

NRA officials also pointed to Heston’s background as an effective leader, noting his past presidencies of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Film Institute.

“We acknowledge that he [Heston] could turn out to be a strong spokesman . . . and the most important change may be the spin he puts on Sunday morning talk shows,” said Naomi Paiss, spokeswoman for Handgun Control Inc.

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“If you hire an actor to read your script, the name recognition and the persona of that actor will change the way the product is perceived to a certain extent.” But, she cautioned, “This is not Michael Jordan selling Nikes.”

During the three-day NRA convention, about 50,000 members inspected hundreds of gun and hunting exhibits, demonstrated new products and heard speeches from politicians, including Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.). Lott delivered a strong defense of NRA objectives, saying he was tired of being on the defensive about Americans’ rights to own guns.

Earlier, the convention was roused by the appearance of Jacob Ryker, the 17-year-old high school student who was shot May 21 just before he tackled a teenage gunman suspected of killing two students and wounding 23 others at an Oregon high school.

Ryker--hailed as a hero--was introduced along with his brother and parents, all of whom are NRA members. It was a key example of the way the group hopes to reverse negative images, in this case teenagers’ easy access to deadly weapons.

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In Oregon, NRA officials said, Kipland P. Kinkel, the 15-year-old suspected shooter, was known to be violent and unstable, yet authorities did not crack down on him until it was too late. Sounding an old theme, speakers said criminals kill people, not guns, and that the media have maligned the NRA over the years.

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“There’s been a great deal of anti-gun coverage,” Heston said in an interview after his election. “And I think my prime utility, aside from my passionate admiration of those wise old dead white guys who created the Bill of Rights . . . is to give the group a strong public face,” he added. “I can do it better than most people, I’d venture to suggest.”

Some critics, however, scoffed at Heston’s election, predicting it would actually worsen the NRA’s image.

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“When you look at Heston’s speeches beyond gun control, he’s even more wildly out of the mainstream than the current NRA leadership,” said Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center in Washington. As an example, the group circulated a 1997 speech Heston gave to the Free Congress Foundation.

In it, Heston looked back nostalgically on an America where people could “be white without feeling guilty,” and added:

“Heaven help the God-fearing, law-abiding, Caucasian, middle-class, Protestant or--even worse--Evangelical Christian, Midwest or Southern, or--even worse--admittedly heterosexual, gun-owning or--even worse--NRA-card-carrying, average working stiff, or--even worse--male working stiff, because not only don’t you count, you’re a downright obstacle to social progress.”

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Heston stood by his remarks Monday, saying: “I don’t see how that demeans minorities.”

Pledging to broaden the NRA’s membership, he noted that women are the fastest-growing group of consumers who buy guns. And many of them are African American women who are raising children by themselves and need guns to protect them, he said. “I was demonstrating for Dr. [Martin Luther] King in 1961. . . . I led the [Hollywood] arts contingent in the 1963 March on Washington,” Heston noted. “And it is one of my goals as president to increase our minority membership.”

Heston, who succeeds Marion Hammer of Florida, the group’s first woman president, also promised to scale back his harsh rhetoric about President Clinton, if the federal government designated one large city as a test zone, where laws would be strictly enforced. As a result, he said, the NRA could show that violence stems from weak enforcement of existing laws.

Earlier in the convention, Heston had attacked Clinton personally, saying: "[W]e don’t trust you with our 21-year-old daughters. We sure Lord don’t trust you with our guns.”

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