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SI takes a look at the 1989 NRA Show - that was the year that was.

SI Takes A Look At The 1989 NRA SHOW


"...the NRA Show provided the first real opportunity for industry insiders, pundits and concerned gun owners to parlay, plan strategies, posture and pontificate on critical issues that could very well determine the future of gun ownership and the firearms business in the United States."

Coming as it does just a few scant months after the annual SHOT Show extravaganza, the National Rifles Association's spring exhibition is usually viewed as an anti-climax by most industry types. The massive trade-only SHOT Show is a buying bonanza for dealers, and a show-and-tell orgy of the newest and best products available for resale from the world's foremost manufacturers of shooting sports equipment. The NRA Show is consumer-oriented, considerably downscaled, and is, generally, considered a tire kicker's paradise and an obligatory PR appearance for the larger manufacturers.

"Show of Shows"

Not so this year. The 1989 NRA Show, held in conjunction with the National Rifle Association's 118th annual meetings and staged at the sprawling Cervantes Convention Center in St. Louis, was 1989's "Show of Shows". Not because of the volume of exhibitors, the innovative new products nor the number of attendees. But, rather, because 1989 has become "The Year of the Gun Bans", particularly a sweeping anti-assault rifle epidemic that has polarized pro-gunners and anti-gunners into separate warring camps. And the NRA Show provided the first real opportunity for industry insiders, pundits and concerned gun owners to parlay, plan strategies, posture and pontificate on critical issues that could very well determine the future of gun ownership and the firearms business in the United States.

To the credit of NRA officials, the '89 NRA Show was a well oiled, smoothly run affair overall, devoid of major disruptive outbursts, demonstrations or confrontations. Several exhibitors expressed both mild surprise and great relief at the almost total lack of antagonistic anti-gun activists, whose presence could have turned the whole affair into a three-ring circus.

Although the final head count of 16,875 attendees was considered only average (compared to 18,000 in Orlando in '88), the high pre-registration figure of 9,000-plus indicated a very high level of participation by NRA members and somewhat less than enthusiastic interest on the part of St. Louis area residents. New members enlisted at the show hit an all time high, suggesting concern felt by gun owners over what many view as a serious encroachment of their constitutional rights. The NRA is, of course, the foremost guardian of those righrs. And, it's interesting to note that even with the potential threat

posed by anti-gun n'er-do-wells and an openly hostile media, the show hall was full to capacity with 188 commercial exhibitors and 35 non-commercial displays, with no regular NRA participants conspicuously absent.

Media Coverage

Speaking of the media, there wasn't much. In contrast to what was expected to be a major media carnival, only a few determined reporters stalked the show hall seeking fodder for their daily editions and nightly newscasts. Somewhat surprisingly, most of the media types with who this writer had direct contact were not particularly unpleasant nor heavy-handed in their broadcasting. Opinionated? Of course. But, of the half dozen newspaper reporters and one television newsman with whom I had dealings, all at least seemed willing to listen to "the other side" of the semiauto story. Did it do any good or change anyone's mind? Probably not. But, at least a few people listened, and that's a start. Will wonders never cease!

All Was Not Sunshine And Roses

But, all was not sunshine and roses at the '89 NRA Show. No, indeed! There was conflict and controversy aplenty under the St. Louis Arch.

Sturm, Ruger & Co.

First, Sturm, Ruger & Company, purporting to speak for "all SAAMI members", promoted a controversial legislative proposal that would limit the sale and ownership of large capacity magazines for all semiautomatic firearms. Ruger's plan, an obvious attempt to defuse the semiauto issue by diverting attention away from the actual firearms, was met with considerably less than whole-hearted acceptance by other manufacturers and by gun owners. One Ruger staff member spent the better part of three days in a corner of the booth defending the company's position against attack by irate pro-gun activists. Interestingly enough, Senator Howard Metzenbaum, one of the primary gun grabbers Ruger was apparently trying to appease, didn't seem too impressed with Ruger's proposal, either. In a recent letter to Bill Ruger, Metzenbaum stated unequivocally that he did not intend to settle for a limitation on magazines. He wanted the offensive guns banned, and he thought Ruger should support his effort by voluntarily discontinuing civilian sales of their semiautos, particularly the Mini-14 rifle. It seems some people just don't appreciate a sacrificial lamb when it's offered, and others probably wish they had never stretched the lamb's neck (or their own) across the alter.

Colt Industries

Colt dropped its own bombshell, although after other recent developments at Colt it seemed little more than a small firecracker to most industry insiders. After its loss of a major government contract for M16 rifles to Fabrique Nationale, and after inviting the wrath of many thousands of gun owners by announcing that it would voluntarily suspend civilian sales of AR15 rifles, Colt's confirmation that the entire firearms division of Colt Industries is officially up for sale seemed a little anti-climatic and not entirely unexpected. But, the impact did manage to eclipse the introduction of Colt's long awaited Double Eagle double action .45 pistol (still just a prototype, by the way).

And, it almost -- but not quite -- succeeded in muffling the mostly negative response to Colt's display that featured .22LR conversion kits for the same .223 cal. AR15 rifles the company had already discontinued. NRA show management correctly anticipated the adverse reaction to the .22 conversions and politely asked Colt management to remove the display, but the company refused. Said one Colt rep, responding to a pointed question about the pending sale and all the associated furor: "We ain't goin' out of business and we're not gonna stop makin' guns. We're just up for sale. Nothing else is gonna change. Nothing." Only time will tell.


One of the loneliest and chilliest spots in the show hall this year was the BATF booth, where representatives claimed to have no input on questions pertaining to the recent import ban of semiauto rifles. On the other hand, one of the busiest places was the Gun South booth. Curious exhibitors and gun owners asked questions of the Alabama-based importer concerning the refusal by U.S. Customs officials to honor a federal court order to release a quantity of Steyr Aug rifles that had been impounded. At press time, the rifles still had not been released to Gun South and the order was under appeal to a higher court.

The NRA Show, Itself

The NRA had its own infighting to contend with, of course, this year dealing primarily with the association's position on and handling of the semiauto thunderstorm. Several different factions within the NRA argued vociferously for the various positions they felt the organization should assume, ranging from hardline and unrelenting to conciliatory and compromising.

American Shooting Sports Coalition

This year, a new organization made its presence felt at the NRA Show. The American Shooting Sports Coalition is an organization of firearms manufacturers, importers, distributors and retailers. ASSC is dedicated to the unification of the various elements of the shooting sports industry and is pledged to promote reasonable firearms legislation while opposing laws that unreasonably restrict the purchase and use of firearms by responsible, law abiding civilians. Emanuel Kapelsohn is the ASSC's first Executive Director. Unfortunately, the fledgling organization had its own unification problems during a late night executive board meeting when Chairman Tom Conrad of Intratec stepped down from his position in the midst of a heated argument over a proposal concerning secondary registration of firearms ("secondary" referring to enforced registration of firearms obtained either as gifts or through inheritance, as well as through second party transfers). Conrad has since reassumed his chairmanship, and ASSC is reportedly back on track in pursuit of its stated goals.

The 1989 NRA Show was, indeed, one of the most memorable NRA Shows on record. But by all appearances, it could have been only a harbinger of things to come. Because the gun grabbers seem intent on maintaining their frontal assault, and as we go to press, California Governor Duekmejian is preparing to sign a landmark bill making California the first state to ban several specific types of military style semiautomatic firearms.

And the 1990 NRA Show is scheduled for Anaheim.
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Title Annotation:National Rifle Association
Author:Grueskin, Robert
Publication:Shooting Industry
Date:Jul 1, 1989
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