PITTSBURGH - When the National Rifle Association gathers for its annual convention in Pittsburgh, gun control advocates will try to make sure Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is on people's minds, even if she's hundreds of miles away watching the space shuttle launch in Florida.
The meeting of the nation's largest gun rights group "will be a great celebration of freedom" in a city where 1 million of the NRA's 3.5 million members live within a four-hour radius, said spokesman Andrew Arulanandam.
The NRA expects about 70,000 members to gather Thursday through Sunday, while Giffords will appear Friday at Cape Canaveral, Fla., to see her husband, Capt. Mark Kelly, pilot a space shuttle launch.
Outside the convention, the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence plans to demonstrate with several people connected to shootings, including Patricia Maisch, a 62-year-old Arizona woman who wrestled away an ammunition clip from a gunman as he attempted to reload during the Jan. 8 shooting that killed six people and wounded 13, including Giffords.
The group plans to take out local newspaper ads and hire a billboard truck to drive around during the convention to "invite" NRA executive director and CEO Wayne LaPierre to discuss a loophole the group says lets private gun sellers bypass the federal background check system that licensed gun dealers must use to screen customers.
Maisch said details of her appearance Saturday in Pittsburgh were still being worked out, but she's hopeful the attention Giffords receives the day before helps her own efforts bear more fruit.
"I would hope that they would have the fortitude to try to find common ground. I'm not at odds with the NRA," said Maisch, who doesn't own guns but said she supports individuals' rights to own them. "It's very discouraging that we have as many guns on the street that we do in the hands of people who shouldn't have them."
Arulanandam said it's unfair to link Giffords' appearance more than 800 miles away to the NRA event, in part because the NRA has lobbied for the national background check system, which he contends would have stopped Arizona shooting suspect Jared Lee Loughner from buying weapons had authorities only acted on information they had about his substance abuse and mental health history.
"The issue there was with the fact that Jared Loughner had so many warning signs that went unheeded," Arulanandam said.
The NRA had no comment on Maisch's appearance, Arulanandam said.
LaPierre said that elections have shown that the NRA's message resonates with most Americans, noting that former President Bill Clinton has written that Al Gore lost the 2004 presidential election by abandoning his previous pro-NRA position.
"In the heartland of the country ... it was bad politics to be on the wrong side of the gun issue," LaPierre said.
That's one reason that Rick Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, will speak at the convention Friday on his Second Amendment record, and why other Republican heavy hitters, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and freshman U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey will also appear that day. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a past Republican presidential candidate, will be the keynote speaker Saturday night.
But anti-gun groups contend the NRA's political invincibility is a myth that flies in the face of at least one new survey by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, which found gun ownership has dropped from 54 percent of U.S. households in 1977 to 32 percent last year.
Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Violence Policy Center, said Democrats have bought into the "myth about the insurmountable power of the National Rifle Association" to keep from asking tough questions about why they have lost key races to Republicans in recent decades.
"The NRA will tell you they're about freedom, heritage, family - no," Sugarmann said. "It's about selling guns to the last buyer."
Paul Helmke, a former Republican mayor of Fort Wayne, Ind., who is president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said the NRA tries to convince people they're "in danger of losing their guns if the wrong people get elected" in order to ratchet up fundraising support, and to bolster gun sales. Helmke said most NRA members are more moderate than the group itself because "if the NRA is seen as sitting down (with opponents), they're going to be losing their extremist members and they're not going to be able to sell as many guns."
LaPierre dismisses such talk.
"The NRA's clout decade in and decade out always stands on where the American public stands on the Second Amendment," he said.
"They wanted to be free 200 years ago; they want to be free now."