NRA Members Get Ready for Hillary as They Await 2016 Republicans

Members of the nation's largest and most powerful gun organization gathered here say they plan to do whatever it takes to defeat Clinton, if she becomes her party's nominee next year.
John McCormick/Bloomberg

NASHVILLE—In the crowded aisles of vendors selling handguns, rifles, pistol holsters and "covert operations" backpacks, it's not hard to find people who dislike Hillary Clinton. 

As the annual National Rifle Association convention formally begins Friday, the soon-to-announce Democratic presidential candidate is being carefully watched. Members of the nation's largest and most powerful gun organization gathered here say they plan to do whatever it takes to defeat Clinton, if she becomes her party's nominee next year.

"I don't think she has ever met an anti-gun law she didn't like," said Steve Stone, a lifetime NRA member and retired Coca-Cola manager from Atlanta. "I fear she would try to further the agenda that the Constitution and Bill of Rights are outdated and need to be revised."

NRA convention attendees review some guns being raffled off in Nashville.

NRA convention attendees review guns being raffled off in Nashville.

John McCormick/Bloomberg

In May, Clinton said she supports the right of people to own guns, but that the nation's gun culture has gotten "way out of balance" and the country needs to rein in the notion that "anybody can have a gun, anywhere, anytime."

Those are fighting words to the NRA members here, many of whom are Republican or libertarian-leaning and come from key general election states such as Ohio, Virginia and Florida.

"If she could get away with it, I think she would be extremely restrictive on guns," said Rochelle Wine, a retired print shop manager from Virginia. "I think she and the Democrats consider gun owners almost enemies of the state."

It also doesn't help Clinton's standing that she's married to a former president who signed high-profile gun control legislation. The views of both Clintons on guns stand in stark contrast to those of the likely field of Republican candidates, who have largely opposed efforts to tighten restrictions.

About a dozen of those prospective Republican candidates are scheduled to speak Friday afternoon near the start of a three-day convention that organizers say will draw about 70,000 to the downtown Music City Center.

Absent will be New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. NRA officials told the Tennessean newspaper that neither man was invited.

Christie, who once criticized the NRA after the group featured President Barack Obama's children in a video, was given a C grade ahead of his successful 2013 re-election. Paul, who opposes gun control legislation and has been an outspoken on the Second Amendment, is in the midst of a four-state tour following his Tuesday presidential campaign announcement. He told Bloomberg Thursday that he was being punished by the NRA because of his work with groups like the National Association for Gun Rights and Gun Owners of America.

A Washington Post review late last month found that the majority of the likely Republican candidates are strongly pro-gun, noting that the "15 noteworthy contenders" for the Republican nomination collectively own at least 40 guns.

With the exception of Christie, nearly all of the prospective Republican candidates are opposed to new limits on the purchase or use of guns. Their NRA ratings range from A-plus to an A-minus. That makes all of them much more palatable to NRA members than Clinton and her husband.

John McCormick/Bloomberg

In 1993, Bill Clinton signed the Brady Bill, which requires a waiting period and background check for all handgun purchases through federally licensed dealers. A year later, he lobbied for passage of the 1994 Crime Bill, which included what became commonly known as the Federal Assault Weapons Ban.

The former president, who grew up near some of the nation’s finest duck hunting in Arkansas, went hunting at least a couple times during his White House tenure to try to counter the notion that he was after the guns of hunters. It didn't work.

"I think they are both equally bad," said convention attendee Dennis Mitchell, a retired government worker from Chicago who lives just more than a mile from where Hillary Clinton grew up in Park Ridge, Illinois.

At the convention, there are more than 550 exhibitors covering 450,000 square feet of interior and exterior space, according to the NRA. Some of the exhibits are targeted toward the heavily male audience, including a massive Czech Republic-made CZ Scorpion EVO 3 S1 pistol next to a photo of a woman wearing a black corset and not much more.

Visitors can sign up to the NRA Visa card, which claims "$24 million raised to date" for the organization, or NRA for Pets, which offers pet insurance, prescription discounts and more. There's even the NRA Wine Club, which has the slogan "Supporting the NRA with Every Sip."

The Fairfax, Virginia-based group claims 5 million members and spends millions annually on lobbying in Washington and state capitols. It has proven to be a powerful force to turn out Republican-leaning voters.

One of the reasons NRA members interviewed said they aren't too worried about Hillary Clinton in the White House is because they feel comfortable about gun support in Congress.

"Any of us who support the Second Amendment worry about her," said Jim Shade, a court clerk from Nashville. "Congress is pretty solid with the Second Amendment now, but who knows the future."

Terry Imar of Columbus, Ohio, examines a rifle on display at the NRA annual convention in Nashville.

Terry Imar of Columbus, Ohio, examines a rifle on display at the NRA annual convention in Nashville.

John McCormick/Bloomberg

In 2013, Obama unsuccessfully pushed for legislation that would have expanded background checks for firearm purchases to gun shows and online sales. The proposal came in the wake of the December 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school massacre in Connecticut that resulted in the deaths of 20 children and six educators.

Some of those at the convention say high-profile shootings like Sandy Hook prove the need for law-abiding citizens to own firearms to protect themselves and others.

"I wish I would have been there to shoot the S.O.B., before he could hurt anyone," said Robert Lafay, an Indianapolis resident who works as a customer service representative for a time-share company. "He knew there wasn't going to be any resistance."