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The 1990 NRA show.

Just as most of America's most prominent firearms manufacturers were preparing their displays, all exhibitors received a correspondence dated January 12, 1990 and signed by National Rifle Association Secretary Warren L. Cheek. Cheek's letter was intended to serve a dual purpose. First, it was an advisory to alert all exhibitors to the California penal code as it pertains to the sale and advertising of certain classes of firearms, particularly semi-automatic "assault rifles" and concealable" handguns. Second, it was a rationale (although some considered it an excuse) for the NRA's inability (or refusal) to relocate the combined show and annual membership meetings outside California.

The "assault rifle" restrictions come as no particular surprise to anyone, since California's news-making ban on an open-end list of semi-auto rifles (signed into law by Governor Deukmejian shortly after the 89 NRA Show, by the way) had been primetime fodder for almost a year. Only a complete recluse could be unaware of its implications. But handguns, too? That bit of news was a real eye opener. Sure, the "concealed weapons" statute had been on the books for some time, as Cheek declared. But in all the furor over "assault rifles," nobody ever considered the possibility that the display of handguns might expose exhibitors to possible legal redress. But there it was, in black and white and various shades of gray. Offering concealable handguns for sale without a proper retail license, advertising their availability for sale, or displaying them for any reason other than "educational" purposes was forbidden ... or so it seemed. Nobody knew for sure what they could or could not do because the California statute was written in legalese," that peculiar foreign language which leaves all translations open to interpretation and which guarantees that all answers are as vague as the questions are futile. No, nobody knew for certain whether or not they could legally display handguns. But, considering the ominous anti-gun political climate in California, neither was anyone eager to play guinea pig.

The phone lines sang and the FAX machines hummed.

From coast to coast, manufacturers queried each other, their attorneys, and the NRA: "Are you going to risk it?" - "Can we distribute catalogs?" - "Is there any way to get a retail license?" - "Can our California distributors display for us?" Even the California State Attorney General's office, the Anaheim city clerk and the Orange County sheriff were pressed for definitive answers. In virtually every instance, double-talk and mumbo-jumbo reigned supreme. Even the NRA, under attack from all quarters, could only respond with: "You pays your money and you takes your chances." The chances, of course, included the possibility of a vacation of undetermined length in the Orange County pokey, not to mention bad press, astronomically expensive legal battles, and the possible confiscation of a lot of expensive merchandise. Considering that the NRA Show, unlike the SHOT Show, is a simple public relations event for most manufacturers rather than a selling orgy, many were uncertain if the limited rewards were worth the substantial risk. At the eleventh hour, the success of the 1990 NRA Show didn't appear to be a safe, iron-clad bet. Under gray skies and intermittent rain, the doors of the Anaheim convention center opened to the public at noon on Friday, June 8th. From the beginning it was obvious that disaster had somehow been sidestepped for yet another year. (SI readers might remember that the 89 NRA Show in St. Louis was another walking-on-eggs affair due to a barrage of media attention brought on by the then-recent assault on assault rifles.") Of all the manufacturers who tippy-toed and toyed with the idea of staying home, only four major firearms companies were firm in their conviction to be "no shows:" Taurus International and Charter Arms declined to attend because their entire product line of handguns might place them in legal jeopardy; Thompson Center Arms chose not to display because the .410 barrel it offers for its single shot Contender was not acceptable under California law; Springfield Armory opted to leave its display in Illinois because of the concern that display and promotion of either its semi-auto rifles or handguns might be an open invitation to some crusading state's attorney seeking instant notoriety. But of those four prominent manufacturers, only Charter Arms failed to fulfill its financial obligation to the NRA for pre-contracted exhibit space.

Of the approximately two hundred exhibitors who were in attendance roughly the same number as in 89 some did take steps to safeguard themselves. Some, like Action Arms, reduced their display size and/or the variety of products displayed. The Action folks, already suffering from an import ban on their Israeli - made UZIs and Galils, also left their AT88 pistols in Pennsylvania and displayed only their .357 pump action Timberwolf carbine - some painted in bright "California" colors and their line of optics. Others, including Ruger, SIGARMS and Colt, displayed signs proclaiming that all firearms on display were intended for educational purposes only. In the end, all those precautions proved unnecessary, because not a single instigator, demonstrator or hell-bent public servant made so much as a ripple of trouble. The local and national press was heavily in evidence, of course, but most of the reporters conducted themselves with a reasonable degree of decency, even though much of their reportage stank of the usual anti-gun bias. The only disturbance, albeit a minor one, was initiated by a small group of Scientologists who attempted to distribute literature in the show hall until they were quietly ushered out the door by show management. As show manager Nancy Cooney said: "After all, this is California. We had to expect a few crackpots."

Encouraging attendance

Do Californians still like guns? If the NRA's headcount of 21,773 attendees is any indication, you bet they do! In fact, that's about 4,000 more than attended the 89 show in St. Louis. The show hall was crowded for three full days to the delight of NRA officials and exhibitors. So, even though California has taken the lead in anti-gun legislation, and even though the voter turnout in California's recent primary election was disappointingly light and the result decidedly anti-gun, there's reason to believe that some advocates of gun ownership still live and breathe in California, and that there's still a glimmer of light for firearms enthusiasts in the land of the Golden Bear.

Speaking of the Golden Bear, an NRA supported pro-gun organization call Operation Golden Bear did yeoman's duty registering California voters and shaking gun owners out of their apathy. In addition to staging a major pro-gun rally on Friday evening featuring Charlton Heston and several other staunch pro-gun speakers, Operation Golden Bear's exhibit featured an impressive computer setup which allowed Californians to view their elected officials' voting records on gun related issues. Not to be outdone, the California Rifle and Pistol Association manned its booth with real live revolutionary war soldiers to draw attention to the imperative need for all gun owners to ban together in a fight to retain one of their most precious civil liberties the right to bear arms.

So, what's the outlook for next year's NRA Show? Maybe we'll finally get a break since the '91 show is booked into San Antonio. And we all know that Texas is traditionally a strong pro-gun state. But, wait a minute ... isn't San Antonio the city that banned the sale of all long bladed lockback folding "Buck" knives a few years back? And some of us thought Anaheim was the home of Mickey Mouse ! Here we go again
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Title Annotation:National Rifle Association Show in Anaheim, California
Author:Grueskin, Robert
Publication:Shooting Industry
Date:Sep 1, 1990
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