N.Y. calls NRA's plan a misfire


Aim: After replacing pornography with Disney in Times Square, many people don't want guns glorified with a restaurant.

June 28, 2000|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK - The National Rifle Association wants to open a sports merchandise store, virtual skeet-shooting gallery and wild game grill in Times Square. New Yorkers seem to have one word for the idea: "Fuhgeddaboudit."

Wayne La Pierre, the NRA's polemical executive director, announced the retail venture at the group's annual meeting in Charlotte, N.C., last month. He likened NRASports Blast to the ESPN Zone's sports palace and the World Wrestling Federation's store and restaurant that occupy corners of Times Square.

Opponents have a different view of it altogether.

New York's City Council voted overwhelmingly against the idea, saying the "promotion of guns has no place" in Manhattan's historic entertainment mecca, whose renaissance from a crime-infested crossroads of porn palaces and smut shops to an area of wholesome, Disneyesque family fun, attracts a million people a day.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat who has tussled with the NRA in the past, urged Times Square landlords to keep the area NRA-free. He also proposed rescinding tax breaks from developers who rent to the gun-rights group.

"We didn't clean up Times Square so that the gun lobby could move in," Schumer said.

Times Square-area residents don't feel comfortable with the NRA, Lola Finkelstein, the outgoing chairwoman of a community group in midtown Manhattan, explained in a recent interview.

"When this first surfaced we began to get calls and letters from residents and people - primarily residents - who alerted us and expressed their great concern that this is an inappropriate and unwelcome venture," she said.

Bill Powell, a spokesman at NRA headquarters in Fairfax, Va., countered by saying New Yorkers have fallen into the trap of "political correctness."

"More people shoot for fun than play golf or play tennis," he said. "It is very much a major part of the sports fabric of America. It's politically correct to be anti-NRA, anti-gun, anti-shooting sports. But there is a bit of hypocrisy underlying all of this. It's too bad they don't recognize the millions of Americans who take their families out on the weekends and shoot for fun."

New York has some of the toughest gun laws in the country, but that hasn't stopped hunters and target shooters from engaging in their sport.

"There are 3 million law-abiding gun owners in the state of New York, and that includes hunters, collectors and people who own a gun for self-defense purposes," said Robey Newsom, a Wall Street banker and city regional director of the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association.

About a dozen gun ranges and clubs operate in the city, he said. Newsom estimates that about 44,000 licenses for rifles and shotguns have been issued in the city and 50,000 handgun licenses. The NRA venture is designed to counter the stereotypes of gun owners, he said.

"Having that sort of restaurant where families come can help to dispel that image of guns being only for bad purposes," he said. "I think it [Times Square] is the perfect place" to locate the NRA sports grill.

Since the revival of Times Square began in earnest five years ago, city and state officials have sought to lure tourists and families back to the heart of Manhattan's theater district. The development has been dubbed the "Disneyfication of Times Square."

The entertainment conglomerate renovated old theaters and burlesque houses on 42nd Street for the cartoon-inspired Broadway shows, "The Lion King" and "Beauty and the Beast." Disney and Warner Brothers opened megastores with merchandise featuring Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and other cartoon characters.

Arcade palaces, offering state-of-the-art video games and open 24 hours a day, followed. Then came the World Wrestling Federation store and restaurant, where a banner playfully remarks, "There Goes the Neighborhood."

Madame Tussaud's wax museum will debut soon. The legendary B. B. King will open a blues club, marking the return of live music to Times Square.

Office towers are rising at coveted corners. Times Square is again a fashionable address.

"People have rediscovered the terrific value of being part of a noisy, funky, congested spot. It's a terrific value," said Brendan Sexton, president of the Times Square Business Improvement District.

The NRA may want to cash in on a good thing, but Finkelstein and others note that the gun-rights group has not shared its plans with New York officials. That has prompted some to question the seriousness of the NRA venture.

Sexton said only a handful of locations in the Times Square area could accommodate another theme restaurant. His informal inquiries have turned up nothing to suggest the NRA is seriously considering a building.

"I think it was a great rallying stunt for the troops," Sexton said.

Powell, the NRA spokesman, contends the group is serious and its negotiations "very, very private." Hush-hush or not, New York pundits are taking their shots at the NRA.

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