Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The city agreed to waive convention center rental fees to the gun rights group for their annual convention in May. Now one city council member has raised an objection.
On Monday, a member of the Dallas City Council took to the steps of City Hall to send a message to the National Rifle Association: Find somewhere else to hold your party.
Dallas Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway, who’s the city’s District 4 representative, issued a statement urging the NRA to reconsider hosting its annual leadership forum in Dallas in May.
“There will be marches and demonstrations should [the NRA] come to Dallas,” Caraway told reporters. “And we, Dallas, will be the ones that have to bear the costs, the responsibility, and to protect the citizens.”
Back in 2012, the city waived the six-figure fee for renting the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center on May 3–6 of this year, as the Charlotte Observer reports. But with the gun advocacy group now experiencing considerable public backlash following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, some city officials may be experiencing buyer’s remorse.
It’s unclear whether the city could actually do anything to prevent the NRA from hosting its annual meeting there as planned. That’s the opinion of the NRA, anyway. “No politician anywhere can tell the NRA not to come to their city,” the NRA told the local Fox affiliate in Dallas. “We are already there.”
It’s also unclear whether Dallas could do anything to recoup what it has already paid to bring the organization to town: at least $410,000 in in-kind support. Mayor Mike Rawlings seems resigned to fulfilling the current arrangement. “We’re always working to be a welcoming city for people and organizations of diverse backgrounds and beliefs. But of course I’m concerned about the image of Dallas as the host of this convention,” Rawlings told CityLab in a statement. “I know I’m one of many Dallasites who doesn’t agree with the NRA’s viewpoints or tactics.”
The mayor added, “However, they have a legal contract that was signed in 2012 and I’m not advocating that we violate that agreement. Hopefully we will take the opportunity in Dallas to engage in meaningful dialogue about how we work together to end mass killings in America.”
Part trade show, part gun-rights rally, the annual NRA confab tends to tour big cities across the South and Midwest, in cities where you’d expect to fetch an audience for highly technical exhibits on shooting gear and the paranoid stylings of Wayne LaPierre. Dallas, Charlotte, St. Louis, Houston, Phoenix, and Pittsburgh have each hosted more than one NRA convention since 2000; the NRA hasn’t visited the Northeast or Pacific Northwest since the Clinton years. The tight geography of this circuit makes it somewhat surprising that cities need to pay the NRA, instead of the other way around.
Yet Dallas is not alone in offering big incentives to lure the NRA’s annual convention. The Charlotte Observer reports that the Queen City gave the NRA an in-kind payment of $150,000—free rent at the Charlotte Convention Center—plus a straightforward purse of $15,000 when the organization brought its annual meeting to the city 8 years ago. In 2016, then-Mayor Jennifer Roberts told the newspaper that she would happily support the NRA returning to the city, even with taxpayer subsidies.
The current mayor of Charlotte, Vi Lyles, is traveling and could not be reached for comment. A spokesperson said that he did not know the mayor’s position on hosting the NRA in the future.
Robert Wilonsky, a columnist for The Dallas Morning News, explains how the Big D kickback came to be. Most of the rent for the convention center was paid for by the city’s Tourism Public Improvement District, which represents large Dallas hotels and draws its funds from a percentage of room rentals. The organization’s board members, mostly hotel executives, approved the NRA subsidy in 2012. Which makes sense: Some 70,000 to 80,000 attendees will be staying in the Dallas area, many of them in hotel blocks, during the convention. “[L]ong story short: The hotels are paying for the NRA to come to town,” Wilonsky writes.
What’s good business for large hotel chains isn’t necessarily good for the city, however: As Caraway said, it will fall on Dallas, not the Sheraton, to provide security for any protests that this convention draws and clean-up after any unrest. That hasn’t been so much of a problem in the past: A protest of the NRA’s 2017 convention in Atlanta drew about 200 demonstrators, including the city’s House Representative, John Lewis.
But going forward, protests may be much bigger, if the Parkland massacre proves to be a tipping point. While Texans truly love their guns, progressive Dallas may not like being linked to a divisive organization that will spend the coming weeks and months trying to discredit the message of traumatized teenagers. Gun violence is a particular sore spot in Dallas, especially for members of the Dallas Police Department who might prefer to sit out an emotional, confrontational reminder of their own very recent tragedy: In July 2016, the city became the site of the deadliest showdown for law enforcement in recent history.
Will this NRA meet-up be more likely to attract major protesters? With the student survivors of the Parkland shooting linking up with the Women’s March for a national rally in Washington, D.C., next month, and promising action until legislators bring change, the event could find itself the target of a newly energized movement to stiffen U.S. gun regulations. The hotel-funded tourism board says that the NRA event will brings in $43 million; Dallas may find that, this year at least, the costs outweigh the benefits.