PHILADELPHIA -- Making the rounds of acres of weaponry displays, 11-year-old Matt Bodine stopped to admire a big black gun built for police to shoot, and stop, a car. He peered through the Squad M1A rifle's scope. He touched its jet-black, fiberglass stock.
And he offered his approval in the language of the pre-teen: "That was pretty cool."
Against the backdrop of a string of fatal shootings in U.S. schools, members of the National Rifle Association began gathering in Philadelphia yesterday for their annual convention.
And though the NRA members who brought their children to the convention center's exhibit hall lamented the tragedy of the school shootings, their loyalty to the organization's creed remains unshaken.
NRA members might debate the merits of a Ruger vs. a Colt, might split on whether Charlton Heston, expected to be elected NRA president Monday, is qualified to speak for them. But they agree that America needs "criminal control," not gun control.
That includes Matt's father, Ken Bodine, visiting from South Carolina.
His son's attraction to the exotic weapon concerns him, leading him to wonder about the children who might not realize the gun's capabilities. His schoolteacher wife taught a second-grader who threatened to bring a gun to school and shoot a teacher.
Still, gun safety "has to start in the family and the community, and not with banning guns," he said. Passing on the lore of shooting and hunting is, to the Bodines, a family rite. Ken Bodine was at Matt's side when the boy bagged his first white-tail deer last fall.
Anti-gun groups have stepped up their efforts in the wake of the school shootings. They are describing the NRA as an organization out of step with Americans. But the NRA, with 2.7 million members, remains defiantly sure of its stance and its prescription to curb violent gunplay.
"Leave the Second Amendment freedoms of the law-abiding alone. But let's do something different, which is enforce the laws on the books against people who violate them," said Wayne La-Pierre, the NRA's executive vice president.
"Everybody yawns when I say that and the eyes glaze over, but it's the truth."
Some 50,000 members are meeting on what might be called enemy turf. They are in Philadelphia, where the mayor talks of suing the firearms industry to recover costs related to shootings. Unlike many large cities, Philadelphia has not seen a drop in violent crime in recent years.
One of the three dozen demonstrators outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center yesterday held a sign reading, "Save Our Sons From Guns." Chris Citino held a poster with the Time magazine cover showing the young suspect in the Jonesboro, Ark., school shooting dressed in hunting fatigues.
"I'm tired of watching little kids gunned down by other little kids," Citino said. "I'm tired of the guns, and I don't want the NRA in my city."
LaPierre said the NRA welcomed the opportunity to make its case in what he called "one of the hostile media centers, like Philadelphia."
He made this statement on conservative commentator Oliver L. North's radio show yesterday, broadcasting before a crowd of approving NRA members in the exhibit hall.
As he spoke, thousands of gun enthusiasts wandered the vast hall, inspecting handguns and rifles and every manner of firearm and hunting accessory. One booth featured a semi-automatic tommy gun in a violin case. Another booth allowed NRA members to shoot a human silhouette target with a laser beam as part of a marksmanship training system with the motto,
"Because your first shot counts."
Youth involvement decried
Before the hall opened yesterday, NRA members were lined up in a makeshift store to buy books, videotapes and an array of merchandise sporting the NRA logo. The store included a "kids' corner," where baby bibs with NRA spelled out in alphabet blocks were for sale. At the next table were stuffed dolls in the likeness of Eddie Eagle, the NRA child safety mascot.
NRA officials say Eddie Eagle is a simple but valuable program that teaches very young children to leave guns alone. But critics, such as the Violence Policy Center, call Eddie Eagle "Joe Camel with feathers."
Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, said the NRA's recent efforts to attract a young membership show that the organization is desperate to supply future customers to the gun industry.
Critics also say the school shootings in Mississippi, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Oregon, along with internal squabbles over whether Heston is a tough enough leader, might leave the traditionally powerful organization vulnerable.
"They recognize they've got a very big problem," Sugarmann said. "The NRA as we know it might not exist in five years."
Nancy Hwa, spokeswoman for Handgun Control Inc., said the NRA should call on its membership to restrict children from having to access to guns and otherwise "take a second look at what they are doing."