Heston to step down from NRA leadership at convention

Friday, April 25, 2003

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Charlton Heston is making his last appearance as president of the National Rifle Association this weekend, after using his movie-star prominence to amplify the gun-rights group's message and help put supporters in Washington.

As the NRA's public face for five years, Heston helped steer the organization out of several public-relations disasters -- including fallout from the Columbine massacre in 1999 -- and even won opponents' grudging respect.

"It helped the NRA immeasurably to have Charlton Heston president of the NRA," said Wayne LaPierre, the group's executive vice president. "Here's a figure the public really does love ... It brought a built-in microphone."

Heston's most famous sound bite as NRA president -- when he raised a rifle above his head and said, "From my cold, dead hands" -- still burns in the memories of many gun-control advocates.

"I would have to say to Mr. Heston, 'Just ask any mother to hold her son's cold, dead body in a farewell,"' said Mary Leigh Blek, director of the Million Mom March and mother of a 21-year-old son who was fatally shot.

Heston, 78, who announced last year that he has symptoms consistent with Alzheimer's disease, will be succeeded as president by Kayne Robinson, former chair of Iowa's Republican Party.

The NRA's annual convention in Orlando this weekend will include a tribute to Heston on Friday featuring country music singer Toby Keith.

Heston, who starred in "Ben-Hur," "The Ten Commandments" and "Planet of the Apes" during a 50-year film career, wasn't available for comment Thursday, an NRA spokesman said.

He became president of the NRA in 1998, at a time when the 4 million-member group was at odds with the White House. Heston campaigned vigorously for George W. Bush in 2000 and for Republican candidates in 22 states last year.

During Heston's tenure, the NRA experienced a seesaw of legislative successes and public-relations disasters.

After the worst school shooting in U.S. history -- the Columbine massacre in the Denver suburb of Littleton -- the NRA was criticized for sticking to earlier plans to hold its annual convention in Denver less than two weeks later, although it shortened the event from three days to one.

Heston told supporters at the 1999 convention that gun owners were being unfairly blamed. "We will not be silent or be told, 'Do not come here, you are not welcome in your own land,"' he said.

The NRA got more bad publicity last year in Michael Moore's Oscar-winning documentary "Bowling for Columbine." The NRA currently is championing an effort to revoke the Oscar for Moore, who interviewed a strident but feeble-looking Heston after using a star map to get to his house.

In recent years the NRA has seen several states and cities sue the gun industry to recover costs related to gun injuries, but also has scored legislative victories.

This month the Republican-controlled House approved legislation prohibiting lawsuits against gun manufacturers and distributors for damages resulting from the misuse of their products. Also, Congress recently approved letting pilots carry firearms in planes.

The NRA is continuing its fight against the federal ban on assault weapons, which will lapse next year without congressional action.

Heston's work has earned him respect even from political opponents such as leading gun-control advocate Sarah Brady.

"He's a very worthy opponent," she said. "I still disagree with him philosophically, but I respect what he has done for his fight on the issue."

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