Politics & Government

Cities beset by gun violence use subsidies to woo NRA

In 2000, NRA President Charlton Heston spoke at the group’s Charlotte convention. Heston told NRA members in 2000 that Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore would have to take his rifle “from my cold, dead hands!” In cities such as Charlotte, Louisville and Houston, taxpayers have supported the NRA with subsidies, sometimes in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In 2000, NRA President Charlton Heston spoke at the group’s Charlotte convention. Heston told NRA members in 2000 that Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore would have to take his rifle “from my cold, dead hands!” In cities such as Charlotte, Louisville and Houston, taxpayers have supported the NRA with subsidies, sometimes in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. 2000 OBSERVER FILE PHOTO BY TODD

After the shooting deaths of five Dallas police officers in June, the city’s mayor, Mike Rawlings, and his police chief criticized Texas’ open-carry law, which was recently expanded to allow people to visibly carry handguns in a hip or shoulder holster.

Their view puts them at odds with the National Rifle Association, which had pushed the legislation.

Despite this conflict, business is business: The city will host the NRA’s annual convention in two years – with public subsidies to entice the group.

Dallas agreed four years ago to waive at least $410,000 in rent for the city-owned Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center.

“Five officers were killed because of guns, and we are going to have a convention here about guns,” Rawlings said in an interview with the Observer. “Personally (the NRA convention) is not at the top of my list. But I am separating how I feel with what makes good business sense.”

The taxpayer support for the NRA’s Dallas convention is not unique. In cities such as Charlotte, Louisville and Houston, taxpayers have supported the NRA with subsidies, sometimes in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Any attempt to deny the NRA subsidies available to other civil rights organizations would be an attack on my civil rights under the Second Amendment.

Paul Valone, president of Grass Roots North Carolina, a gun-rights organization

Charlotte was the site of perhaps the convention’s most famous moment, when actor Charlton Heston told NRA members in 2000 that Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore would have to take his rifle “from my cold, dead hands!”

When the NRA returned to Charlotte in 2010, the organization received free rent at the Convention Center worth nearly $150,000, as well as a $15,000 check to pay for incidental costs.

Tom Murray, chief executive officer of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority since 2012, said it would be dangerous to exclude conventions because of their political leanings, even in a Democratic-leaning city like Charlotte.

“You can hold an argument that when we got the (Democratic National Convention in 2012) that people from the other political party weren’t happy,” he said. “It would be near impossible to do business in that environment. We represent a community with diverse ideas.”

Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts, a Democrat, said she would support the NRA returning to Charlotte and wouldn’t object to any taxpayer subsidies the visitors authority might offer. She said the group has a good track record of teaching gun safety.

“If I were asked to write them a welcome letter, I very well might do that,” she said.

Josh Sugarmann is the executive director of the Violence Policy Center, which seeks to expand gun-control efforts such as restricting weapons like the AR-15, used in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut. He said he doesn’t believe cities should spend public money on the NRA.

“They are in essence promoting the gun industry,” Sugarmann said. “The question a community should ask is, ‘Do we want to subsidize that?’ 

He said cities should consider the actions of Campaign to Unload, a New York organization that urges hedge funds and money managers to divest from the manufacturers of assault weapons and high-capacity ammo clips. The group started after the Sandy Hook shooting four years ago.

The NRA refused numerous requests for comment.

Paul Valone, president of Grass Roots North Carolina, a gun-rights organization, said it would be unfair for a city to decline to recruit or subsidize the NRA based on the group’s politics.

“Any attempt to deny the NRA subsidies available to other civil rights organizations would be an attack on my civil rights under the Second Amendment,” he said.

Questioning the NRA

Trade Show News Network lists the nation’s 250 largest conventions and expos, with the NRA being the 112th largest in terms of square footage used.

As many as 70,000 people came to the NRA’s Nashville convention last year and more than 80,000 attended this year’s gathering in Louisville, when the organization endorsed Donald Trump for president.

The debate over gun control has, if anything, increased attendance.

Most of the convention visitors are day-trippers and don’t stay overnight in hotel rooms, according to tourism officials.

But the NRA convention still brings a sizable economic boost to the host city. Direct spending has been estimated between $10 million and $20 million.

The economic impact from the NRA is enough to overcome a city’s current or past differences with the organization.

If they want to come, they should pay their own way.

Cheryl Pollman of Dallas, a volunteer for an organization that seeks to stop gun violence

Atlanta, a heavily Democratic city, threatened in 1999 to join other cities in a lawsuit against gun manufacturers. The NRA quashed that effort by lobbying the state legislature to pass a law that prohibited the city’s legal action.

More recently, the NRA has criticized Democratic Mayor Kasim Reed’s police department for not following state law that requires them to auction confiscated guns to the public.

For next year’s NRA convention in Atlanta, the state-owned Georgia World Congress Center and the Atlanta Visitors and Convention Bureau will likely waive $393,000 in rental fees if the group spends a certain amount on food and beverages, according to a license agreement with the NRA.

The bureau will also give the NRA a $110,000 “financial incentive” payment. It will pay for the organization to have a party in either Centennial Olympic Park, the College Football Hall of Fame or the Georgia Aquarium, which is worth about $25,000.

It will also ensure the NRA has $10,000 worth of billboards in and around downtown to promote the meeting, and the chief executive of the convention and visitors bureau will facilitate introductions between the NRA and local corporations, such as Home Depot, Chick-fil-A, AT&T and Coca Cola. The NRA hopes the meetings lead to sponsorships, according to the contract.

“The important thing to understand is we’re making business decisions, not political decisions,” said William Pate, president of the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau. He noted that other conventions as large as the NRA receive similar incentives. “We look at every piece of business through a business lens. Our job is to decide who comes to Atlanta, not who can’t come to Atlanta.”

Rawlings, the Dallas mayor, agreed. He said the city was also “all-in” on attempting to win the 2016 Republican National Convention, which ultimately went to Cleveland.

Earlier this year, however, the Dallas City Council and Rawlings voted to keep a sex expo, Exxxotica, from returning to its convention center. Exxxotica sued on First Amendment grounds, but a federal judge said the city was within its rights to prohibit the group from returning to the city-owned convention center.

Rawlings said the group had violated its contract, in part because of nudity inside the convention center.

He said he understands some Dallas residents might be upset about the NRA receiving public money. But he said the subsidies are from the city’s hotel/motel occupancy tax, mostly paid by visitors.

Cheryl Pollman of Dallas, a volunteer for an organization that seeks to stop gun violence, said she was surprised that Dallas is subsidizing the NRA convention.

She believes the NRA should be welcome in Dallas, but not on taxpayers’ money.

“If they want to come, they should pay their own way,” she said.

Making business decisions

Murray, Charlotte’s top tourism official, said he doesn’t believe the visitors authority could reject the NRA, based on First Amendment grounds. He also said he doesn’t think the authority could invite the NRA to come but insist it pay a regular rate with no subsidies.

Murray said he doesn’t think the Charlotte Convention Center is big enough to host the NRA again. The Dallas and Atlanta centers are much larger.

Charlotte City Council member John Autry, a Democrat, voted four years ago against city incentives for United Technologies, which moved a division headquarters from Connecticut to Charlotte. Autry said he wasn’t comfortable using local tax dollars for a defense contractor.

If he were asked to vote on NRA incentives, Autry said he would vote no.

“I could not vote for that,” he said. “And I used to be a member. I quit paying my dues in 2000.”

Our sales team tells us that large conventions like NRA are very competitively bid, and incentives are needed in order to win the business.

Anthony Paraino of Explore St. Louis

Murray and other tourism officials said it would be impossible to decide which groups are too political or polarizing to be subsidized by a host city.

The conventions and meetings on the Trade Show News Network’s list are for products and fields like electronics, food service, health care, music, furniture and home building.

Many of those groups spend money on Washington lobbying, though none on the list of 250 trade shows spend as much as the NRA, according to an Observer review of data from the nonpartisan group Center for Responsive Politics.

The NRA spent $31.4 million on campaign donations, lobbying and political advertising during the 2014 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

On the other side of political spectrum, Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Human Rights Campaign, which supports LGBT rights, either don’t have annual conventions or they host much smaller meetings than the NRA, often in hotels.

Planned Parenthood held a 1,000-person rally in Pittsburgh this year at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, a meeting that was likely too small to qualify for incentives. According to the group’s contract, Planned Parenthood wasn’t given a break on the rent and paid $14,925 for using a ballroom and several meeting rooms.

Pittsburgh hosted the NRA in 2011 and waived $167,300 of rent for the convention, which had a much larger economic impact.

Valone, of Grass Roots North Carolina, said the NRA is similar to the NAACP in that they are both civil rights organizations. For the NAACP’s convention next year in Baltimore, the group is receiving free rent at the city’s convention center, worth about $200,000.

Some cities hosting the NRA struggle with gun violence, especially St. Louis, which has one of the nation’s highest homicide rates.

The city’s longtime mayor, Francis Slay, has been an outspoken supporter of gun control. But when St. Louis hosted the 2012 NRA Convention, some local media members criticized him for not speaking out against the group and against gun violence. The issue of subsidies for the NRA was not discussed at the time.

Explore St. Louis refused to release any contractual information about the 2012 NRA meeting, citing a recent Missouri law that allows organizations to withhold past contracts for economic development reasons.

But a spokesperson for the organization said the NRA received money to come.

“Our sales team tells us that large conventions like NRA are very competitively bid, and incentives are needed in order to win the business,” said Anthony Paraino of Explore St. Louis.

Pushback is rare

Gun-rights groups have rarely faced pushback from a host city.

In 1999, however, Atlanta’s announcement that it would sue the gun industry coincided with the Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade show in that city. The National Sports Foundation, which organizes the SHOT show, said it wouldn’t return to Atlanta, a promise it has kept.

The SHOT Show – now held every year in Las Vegas – is larger than the NRA’s convention. But the foundation spends a fraction of the money on campaign contributions, lobbying and political advertising that the NRA does.

The NRA has also left a city over gun-control legislation. In 2005, it announced it was pulling its 2007 convention from Columbus, Ohio, after the City Council there approved a ban on certain types of assault rifles.

Valone, of Grass Roots North Carolina, said Atlanta’s experience losing the SHOT Show was likely noticed by other cities.

“We all know why cities offer subsidies to conventions – it’s to provide economic stimuli to area merchants, who rake in millions from lodging, meals, transportation, entertainment, etc.,” Valone said. “By taking an overtly political action, Atlanta denied its merchants millions.”

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs

Other city incentives

It’s difficult to get a full picture of the incentives host cities give the National Rifle Association and other conventions.

Some contracts are exempt by state law. In many cases, a publicly owned convention center will be required to release the contracts, while non-profit convention and visitor bureaus will not.

When the NRA went to Nashville last year, local hotels paid the NRA’s rent at the Music City Center, which was $161,375.

A spokesperson for the Nashville Visitors and Convention Corp. said the organization did give the NRA a $25,000 cash payment as an incentive.

For the 2016 NRA Convention, the Kentucky State Fair Board’s contract with the NRA gave the organization free rent at the host Kentucky International Convention Center.

In addition, the NRA’s contract called for it to get free rent at the KFC Yum! Center, a 22,000-seat arena, for a Toby Keith concert. The free rent was dependent on how much it spent on food and beverages.

The Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau would not release its contract with the NRA for this year’s convention. It’s impossible to know if the NRA received other financial incentives.

Houston also waived rent for the 2013 convention, though its contract with the NRA didn’t list the value of the convention center space.

Indianapolis released a copy of its contract for the 2014 NRA convention but redacted how much the group was required to pay.

The Nashville mayor at the time of the convention, Karl Dean, didn’t take a position on gun control. Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, a Democrat, has said local governments should be able to pass their own gun-control legislation, according to the Courier-Journal.

Annise Parker, the former Democratic mayor of Houston at the time of the convention, had also called for gun control. Republican Greg Ballard, who was Indianapolis mayor for the 2014 NRA convention, has generally supported gun rights.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs

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