Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
For the most part, mayors of potential NRA host cities haven’t shown the same resistance as a growing number of private companies.
Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart are the latest companies to take a hard turn on guns. Dick’s announced on Wednesday a host of new store policies following the discovery that the shooter in the Parkland massacre once purchased a shotgun at a Dick’s outlet. No longer will Dick’s sell assault-style rifles or high-capacity magazines, and regardless of state law, no Dick’s will sell to anyone under 21. Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, declared the same age limit.
The Dick’s statement went further, issuing a list of demands for the government, including a federal ban on assault-style rifles.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with all of the victims and their loved ones,” reads the company’s forceful, even emotional memo. “But thoughts and prayers are not enough.”
A national debate about gun policy has turned into a consumer politics argument about the NRA itself. Major airlines, rental-car companies, retailers, insurers, and other firms have all ended their agreements with the NRA since the Parkland massacre.
Against a backdrop of escalating pronouncements on the NRA, some local leaders in a position to push back have stayed silent. One Dallas City Council member pleaded with the organization to reconsider hosting its convention in the city in May. While Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings says that he shares those concerns, the contract is already signed. Like a lot of cities, Dallas pays the NRA hundreds of thousands of dollars to lure its annual convention (and thousands of members) to town.
But other cities that pay six-figure sums to the NRA have not followed suit. Leaders from the circuit of Bible Belt cities that frequently host the NRA are slow to jump into the public debate over the group. Two years ago, then–Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts said that she would be glad to host the NRA again, like in 2010, when the city paid the NRA $150,000 in free rent at the convention center plus $15,000 in cash. (That was less memorable than in 2000, when Charlton Heston lifted a rifle over his head, telling NRA convention attendees in Charlotte that if Al Gore wanted his gun, he’d have to pry it from his “cold, dead hands.”) This week, Charlotte’s current mayor, Vi Lyles, declined to say whether the city should continue to offer its support to the NRA. (Charlotte just recently submitted a bid to host the 2020 Republican National Convention.)
Of the 17 cities that have hosted the NRA convention over the last 25 years, only one has said unequivocally that it would not support bringing the group back: Seattle. The only surprise here may be that Seattle ever held an NRA convention in the first place. It did, in 1997, likely for the last time. “The minute the NRA stands for responsible gun ownership and supports policies that will save lives in Seattle and every other city, then we might be willing to discuss,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan told CityLab.
Kansas City Mayor Sly James echoed the sentiment. “If the NRA changes certain positions on common-sense gun-safety laws, he would entertain talking to the organization,” a spokesperson said.
A spokesperson for the city of Phoenix, which hosted the NRA convention in 1995 and 2009, said that the city has no current plans to bring the convention back to town. But Phoenix City Council member Thelda Williams says that the city completed a $600 million expansion of the Phoenix Convention Center with an eye toward hosting large conventions like the NRA. “We would welcome a repeat visit,” she told CityLab in a statement.
Even in Orlando, where a man shot and killed 50 people (including himself) in 2016’s horrific Pulse nightclub shooting, leaders have not ruled out hosting the NRA convention again. A spokesperson for Mayor Buddy Dyer deferred, saying that Orlando’s convention Center belongs to Orange County, Florida. The county did not respond to an inquiry.
In fact, the Orange County Convention Center is probably too small to host an NRA convention today—not unless it completes the $500 million expansion under discussion. Charlotte may have neither the hotels nor convention space to suit an NRA meeting. St. Louis, where the group held its meeting in 2007 and 2012, is looking to build $120 million in convention center improvements, which would keep it in the elite class of metro areas eligible to bid hundreds of thousands of dollars on the NRA convention.
While Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts might like to bring the NRA convention to the Cornhusker State—and tweeted so on Friday—there’s no city in Nebraska large enough to host it. (An average NRA convention, with an attendance size of 70,000 members, would rank as Nebraska’s third-largest city.)
Leaders may not want to refuse to host the NRA’s annual meeting on speech grounds. This is contested legal territory: After Dallas banned a sex expo, Exxxotica, from renting its convention center in 2016, the porn convention sued the city. The case is now in appeals. There’s little doubt that the NRA would respond aggressively to a local effort to keep the NRA out, just as it has responded aggressively to local efforts to keep guns out.
However, direct consequences for leaders who shun the NRA may not be as painful as for some federal politicians. The NRA does not much bother funding state campaigns, and gave only $309,000 across about 500 contributions in 2016 and 2017 races, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. The NRA’s only listed contributions in any local election went to Todd Spitzer, a California Republican who received $1,600 in his two races for Orange County supervisor. Of course, that’s not to discount the NRA’s massive influence in mobilizing voters through issue spending and member outreach. But how much worse a grade could a big-city Democrat earn on guns than an F?
As it stands, only a few cities are both large enough and southern enough to welcome 70,000 gun-owning NRA members to town. Among them are Dallas, Atlanta, Louisville, Nashville, Houston, and Phoenix, most of which are repeat hosts. Meanwhile, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum took on the NRA and won last year—and now he’s running to be Florida’s governor on a message of stricter gun control and local freedom from state preemption.
Gillum’s “common-sense” gun-safety proposals aren’t far off from the platform supported by Dick’s Sporting Goods. Pension funds are facing pressure to drop their investments in gun manufacturers, and while in the past, calls for divestment have never made a dent in gun company stocks, gun makers are more vulnerable to market shifts today than in the past, for reasons that have little to do with the shootings in Parkland, Orlando, and Las Vegas. Mounting public outrage that results in action from retailers can only expose gun manufacturer stocks to more losses.
“What do we want? Gun control!” Gillum shouted, leading a column of 1,000 students from Florida State University and others in a march from campus to the state capitol last week. Public opinion and corporate sympathies may be falling in behind him.