Gun enthusiasts unite at NRA convention
(CBS News) ST. LOUIS - Avid hunter Rob West drove from Chillicothe, Ohio, to St. Louis this week to join some 70,000 fellow National Rifle Association members at the organization's annual convention, where seven acres of guns and gear were on display and where politics was never far from anyone's mind.
For the NRA, which opposes any restrictions on gun ownership and President Barack Obama's re-election, the Second Amendment right to bear arms is sacrosanct.
"We don't want politicians or Supreme Court justices who are going to try to take that liberty away from us," West said in an interview under the Gateway Arch.
West and the NRA leadership cite the possibility that President might appoint more Supreme Court Justices in a second term as a prime reason to work for his defeat. It was a 5-4 vote by the current conservative court majority (Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Alito) in a 2008 case that solidified the right of individuals, outside of a militia, to own guns.
On the legislative front, the NRA's top priority for its 4 million members is to increase the portability of their guns. The organization is lobbying Congress to pass a new national law that would allow gun owners with "concealed carry" permits to bring their guns into every other state that allows qualified residents to carry concealed firearms.
"Whether in my home state or a state across the country," West explained, "I may be going to a hunting trip or a shooting range or just on a family trip, if I end up in the wrong part of town or broke down, I
have something to defend myself and my family."
NRA member John Jaffrey drove down to Missouri from Illinois, which is the only state in the country that doesn't allow any gun owners outside law enforcement to carry a concealed weapon.
The concealed carry reciprocity bill passed the House of Representatives last year. Senate sponsors are pushing for a vote in the coming weeks.
"Law-abiding citizens aren't gonna be the ones that are going to be causing a problems with this, and all the folks that say, 'Oh, if everyone has concealed carry, it's gonna be like the Wild West -- that's already been proven as not true," Jaffrey said.
To the contrary, a 2002 study by the Violence Policy Center found in the first five years after Texas allowed concealed weapons, between 1996 and 2001, such permit holders were arrested for 5,314 crimes.
A 2007 investigation by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel found more than 1,700 people with felony convictions, outstanding arrest warrants, and domestic violence injunctions were among those cleared for concealed weapon permits in Florida in the first half of 2006.
Richard Watkins, a competitive trap shooter from Indiana attending his first NRA convention with his wife, still believes a federal law on concealed carry is fair.
"I would like to see that mandated -- that we could go anywhere in the country and carry our gun, just like we drive our car," Watkins said. "Why should I have to dis-arm just because I'm crossing the state line and take a chance on a criminal coming after me?"
The NRA is sounding the alarm to its members that "all of the rights we've worked so hard to defend....could be lost if Barack Obama is re-elected." Signs posted at the convention said "Trigger The Vote." Buttons for the election fight said "All In!"
Only Republican presidential candidates -- Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Perry -- addressed the convention.
"We need a President who will enforce current laws, not create new one that only serve to burden lawful gun owners," Romney told the convention Friday. "We need a President who will stand up for the rights of hunters and sportsmen, and those seeking to protect their homes and their families. President Obama has not; I will."
Outside the convention hall, there were voices challenging NRA views, including three survivors of last year's mass shooting in Tucson that killed six people, including nine-year-old Christina Green, and wounded 13 others, including former U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords at her "Congress On Your Corner" event outside a supermarket.
Bill Badger, a Giffords constituent who helped stop that massacre by tackling alleged shooter Jared Loughner, is a Republican, Romney-supporting, gun owner.
"We would like to get NRA support to do the background checks on the individuals when they buy a gun and to not support laws where you shoot first and ask questions later," Badger said.
By "shoot first and ask questions later," Badger was referring to "stand your ground" self-defense laws in effect in half the states and under scrutiny due to the Trayvon Martin murder case in Florida.
"These laws have no place in American life. They encourage armed confrontation among our citizens -- confrontations that are best left to our police and law enforcement," said Joe Grace, a gun violence prevention advocate from Philadelphia who attended a sparse gun control demonstration in rainy St. Louis on Saturday.
Grace launched an Internet petition drive to repeal stand your ground laws that, he said, has obtained 215,000 signatories from around the country in the past three weeks.
"We want the NRA to stand down on Stand Your Ground. We think these laws are reckless," Grace said.
Patricia Maisch, a Giffords constituent who grabbed a bullet-filled magazine from Loughner before he could reload his semi-automatic handgun, said the NRA stands in the way of closing key loopholes on background checks for gun buyers.
About 40 percent of U.S. gun sales, such as at gun shows or between private individuals, escape the checks required of licensed gun dealers, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
"I don't think they care. I think that the NRA has gone from gun safety and gun training to being about selling guns and making money," Maisch said. "I think it's important that every gun sale have a background check."
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