The top trade association for American gun manufacturers has largely refrained from participating in the public debate over guns since the shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., last month, but the group is getting ready to break its silence.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, or NSSF, which happens to be based in Newtown, kicked off its annual Las Vegas trade show Tuesday, and a copy of NSSF President Steve Sanetti's opening speech has been posted to the organization's website. It begins with a complaint: "The State of our Industry is, in a word, misunderstood."
While it may be true that people are confused about the gun industry, the NSSF has done little to clear things up in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. Calls placed by The Huffington Post and other publications went unanswered in the days after the shooting; on its website, the group explained that it was keeping quiet out of respect for the victims, noting that "there are not many degrees of separation in small communities like Newtown, and so, not surprisingly, we had family, friends and acquaintances that were affected.”
The NSSF later added another statement, claiming that it would “welcome the opportunity” to eventually become part of a “full national conversation” aimed at improving the “protection of our children and our communities.”
Now, on the first day of the NSSF's big show, Sanetti appears prepared to talk. The SHOT Show (Shooting Hunting Outdoor Trade) is marking its 35th year, and a strong turnout is expected. Last year, more than 60,000 people attended, breaking a record.
Bushmaster, the company that manufactured the military-style rifle used in the Newtown shooting, is listed on the website as an exhibitor. So are many other firms that make assault weapons, or what the industry insists on calling "modern sporting rifles."
When guests aren't checking out the guns on display at the Sands convention center in Las Vegas, they'll be able to peruse the latest custom-made earplugs, outdoor survival kits, and other shooting sports paraphernalia. Celebrity hunters and gun enthusiasts will sign autographs.
But most of this will take place out of the view of the mainstream press. In the weeks leading up to the convention, reporters who visited the SHOT Show website were informed that online registration for the media had been closed, and that "media credentials will not be issued through the mail or on-site during the event." Representatives of the NSSF did not respond to a request for an interview on Tuesday afternoon.
In his published remarks, which he is scheduled to deliver on Tuesday evening, Sanetti offers reassurance to the people who make up the firearms industry: "You didn't cause the monstrous crime in Newtown and neither did we." He says that the industry "cares deeply about children's safety," and notes that it's expanding programs aimed at improving the secure storage of firearms. "We just gave 1,000 locks and safety kits to the people of Bridgeport, Connecticut," he says.
The NSSF stands ready to participate in any "constructive dialogue" about firearms, Sanetti says, adding that "a prerequisite to such dialog is an honest recognition of the legitimacy of what we do and the important part of the national culture which we represent."
Whether the possibility of a ban on assault weapons would be part of that conversation is unclear. In recent years, the group has promoted the use of military-style semi-automatic rifles for hunting and target shooting, and Sanetti devotes three paragraphs of his speech to defending those weapons.
"Millions of law-abiding sportsmen across the nation own them," he says, "and when those misinformed about firearms say that 'no sportsman has any need for a gun that is only used to kill people,' they are in effect calling millions of American sportsmen murderers." He concludes by reiterating that employees of the NSSF were personally affected by the Newtown massacre.
As the convention unfolds, lawmakers and activists in states throughout the country will be working toward a ban on many of the weapons on view at the SHOT Show. On Tuesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a law aimed at tightening the state's ban on assault weapons, restricting the number of bullets in magazines to seven, and making it harder for people with mental illness to acquire guns.
New York became the first state to pass a gun control bill since the Newtown shooting, and several other states may not be far behind. In Connecticut, Gov. Dan Malloy has appointed a task force to come up with policy recommendations, and Maryland's Gov. Martin O'Malley has said he will push for an assault-weapons ban and stricter licensing requirements.
President Obama also is expected to support an assault-weapons ban when he unveils his gun-control proposals on Wednesday.