INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.-- More than 800 exhibitors continued putting final touches on their displays Thursday in the halls of the Indiana Convention Center in anticipation of Friday’s opening of the NRA’s 148th Annual Meeting.
The NRA’s return to Indianapolis after five years is equal parts business meeting, trade show and fundraising extravaganza with a presidential visit and all-star country concert thrown in.
The arrival of attendees today came less than 24 hours after the General Assembly adjourned its legislative session Wednesday as out-of-town lawmakers raced the clock to vacate downtown hotel rooms that were committed to the NRA.
“There were even comments on the floor of the House by Speaker Brian Bosma that said, ‘Hey, look, this is our timing because know a lot of you guys have to be out of your rooms by Wednesday night specifically because of this conference,’ so it was real and they were talking about this at the statehouse itself,” said Second Amendment Attorney Guy Relford, finally free of statehouse duty writing legislation to protect self-defense shooters from lawsuits while watching as a bill to permit guns in church became law but a proposal to provide gun training for teachers failed.
Visit Indy expects the spending of 75,000 NRA attendees to have a $35 million impact on the local economy.
Those visitors were welcomed to Indianapolis by a full page advertisement in the IndyStar that read, “NRA IN CRISIS,” and went on to recount investigations into the organization’s business and election practices, ties to Russia, internal spending and alleged sinking membership dues and donations.
The ad was paid for by Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund as firearms opposition groups have signaled their intentions to protest Saturday.
While banners with the faces of NRA personalities and leaders stretch over downtown streets adjacent to the convention center, grassroots members said they tend to focus more on their personal commitment to gun ownership.
“A lot of people think of the NRA as Wayne LaPierre and Chris Cox and now Ollie North sitting in Virginia making decisions or lobbying politicians,” said Relford who spent the legislative session working “shoulder-to-shoulder” with the group’s Indiana representative assigned from its national headquarters.
The NRA, said Relford, is more about its six million dues-paying members than the combative leadership at the forefront of America’s gun debate.
“Those folks have written a check or gotten their credit card out because they believe in the NRA and believe in the NRA defending their Second Amendment freedoms. They didn’t just like a Facebook page somewhere like you see in a lot of these other organizations. So that’s the strength of the NRA,” he said.
“We actually do lead the country in percentage of adults who do have a license to carry a handgun.”
According to Indiana State Police, 13 percent of the state’s nearly 6.7 million residents have an active license to own a firearm.
Last year, there were 890,730 active firearms licenses in Indiana with 109,157 of them, approximately one out of eight, in Marion County.
So far this year, 35 of Indianapolis’ 42 homicide victims have died of gunshot wounds.
The Concerned Clergy of Indianapolis issued a statement denouncing the NRA and the gun industry’s arrival in the city in the wake of such gun violence.
“The sad reality is these guns are being sold unconsciously, and with no remorse for the negative impact they are having not just in Indy, but all across America.
“The voices of community leaders and citizens continue to be ignored as we witness this billion dollar industry of the National Rifle Association (NRA) run rough shot over the voices of in our neighborhoods. We continue to watch as our schools get shot up. We continue to watch as our churches are shot up. We continue to see violence in bars, restaurants, and clubs in our communities.
“Does the business of the bullet mean more in this city and in this state than what our lives as Hoosiers mean? The economy of this industry means so much that most elected political leaders turn a blind eye to the effects that we as clergy and concerned citizens are forced to deal with. The NRA is quick to enter our cities to host a conference or do things for their benefit, but where are they when we have our innocent young children gunned down in drive-by shootings? Where are they when we have single mothers, who are bystanders, become innocent victims of gun violence?
“As community and religious leaders, we are firm believers in prayer, but we are also firm believers in policy change. It is time out for business as usual, and if we don't work to make changes now, we will only make things worse. It's time to hold our political representatives accountable and it's time to lead the charge for change that we want to see in our neighborhoods. This transformation must include common sense gun law changes.”
Mayor Joe Hogsett told reporters Wednesday that he has not been invited to attend the conference. In 2014 then-Mayor Greg Ballard was also denied an official invitation.
After that conference, Governor Mike Pence, who left the Indiana Statehouse to become Vice President, helped convince the NRA to sign contracts to return two more times, in 2019 and 2023, to Indianapolis for an unprecedented three visits in ten years.
Pence and President Trump will address the NRA membership Friday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“Gun owners are still questioning a little bit how much of a commitment to the Second Amendment our president has with his comments on red flag laws,” said Relford, recalling debates over the ability of police officers to seize the weapons of owners deemed a danger to themselves or others, “and the so-called bump stock ban that is now being litigated. Those things make a lot of gun owners question a little bit.”
When attendees enter the doors leading to one of the major convention halls, they will pass booth space turned over to Larry Wehner, president of the Indiana State Rifle & Pistol Association, which claims 1,200 members statewide.
“First of all, if you think you’re going to go through this in a couple hours, you’re wrong,” said Wehner as the NRA bills its conference as , “15 Acres of Guns & Gear,” and “3 Miles of Firearm Aisles.” “It's almost a two-day event if you want to really look at things and catch everything. There’s hundreds and hundreds of exhibitors in there.”
Wehner said he intends to man his group’s booth for the next four days.
“What’s going to be your favorite part of this weekend?” he was asked.
“When it's finished,” Wehner chuckled.