In a city still grieving over the Columbine High School massacre, the president of the National Rifle Association today told the group's annual meeting that gun owners are the victims of irrational vilification even as the father of a slain student led a rally and march nearby denouncing the NRA for its opposition to gun control.

"We're not the rustic, reckless radicals they wish for," said actor Charlton Heston, responding to those whom he said blamed the NRA for tragedies such as the shootings at Columbine High School in nearby Littleton.

Instead, Heston argued that the NRA represents "the broadest range of American demography imaginable" and should be included in the national debate over school violence that has developed since April 20 when two Columbine seniors, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, assaulted the school with explosives and firearms, killing 12 students and a teacher before turning their weapons on themselves.

While about 3,000 NRA members met in a downtown hotel ballroom this morning, several thousand protesters gathered on the steps of the Colorado state Capitol four blocks away to oppose the NRA meeting. Denver Mayor Wellington Webb had urged that the NRA cancel or relocate the meeting out of respect for the dead and the mourning.

"We want to send a strong signal to the NRA that they are not welcome in our state, not now, not ever," said Ted Pascoe, executive director of the Colorado Coalition Against Gun Violence, which organized the rally.

Tom Mauser, whose son Daniel was killed at Columbine, said, "Something is wrong in this country when a child can grab a gun so easily and shoot a bullet into the middle of a child's face, as my son experienced. Something is wrong."

Many in the crowd, which later marched to the hotel where the gun owners were meeting, held red and white signs that said, "Shame on the NRA."

Even as it recovers from years of internal dissent and membership declines with Heston as its attention-getting spokesman, the NRA faces a wave of new demands for gun control and gun safety measures being pressed both legislatively and in lawsuits against the firearms industry brought by a number of cities. The NRA is seeking to present itself as a mainstream, even moderate organization in events like today's meeting and through an advertising campaign that features endorsements by such well-known figures as author Tom Clancy and Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan.

In its first public statements since the shootings, the NRA modified long-standing policy positions and agreed to consider some of the gun control proposals put forward by President Clinton and others in recent days, including measures to conduct background checks on firearms sales at gun shows and adding juveniles with felony convictions to the categories of individuals prohibited from legally purchasing guns.

But the politically powerful association with 2.8 million members held fast on other points, underlining its opposition to proposals to reinstate a waiting period for handgun purchases and to limit individuals to the purchase of one gun a month.

"The NRA fought us every step of the way on the Brady Act," said Justice Department spokesman Myron Marlin, referring to the 1993 law that established background checks primarily for persons purchasing firearms at retail stores and pawnshops but does not apply to all gun show sales.

"We are pleased that the NRA is willing to consider closing the gun show loophole and to support the extension of Brady to violent juveniles," Marlin said. "We hope it doesn't take hundreds of other handgun deaths before they come around to support some of the president's other reasonable proposals."

The NRA had long scheduled a two-day annual convention to begin here Friday but scaled down its plans after the shootings. Receptions and dinners and a sprawling firearms exhibit that was expected to draw a crowd of more than 20,000 people to a convention center were canceled, shrinking the event to a session of speeches that lasted less than two hours.

In remarks that drew repeated ovations, Heston said he was saddened by the suggestion that the NRA should stay away from Denver because "it implies that you and I and 80 million honest gun owners are somehow to blame."

Heston spoke harshly about politicians and those in the media who he said were trying to profit from Columbine and other similar tragedies.

"The dirty little secret of this day and age is that political gain and media ratings all too often bloom upon fresh graves. . . . Today, carnage comes with a catchy title, splashy graphics, regular promos and a reactionary package of legislation," Heston said.

According to Heston, the NRA is often cast as the villain in this "pornography." But, he said, "that is not our role in American society, and we will not be forced to play it. Our mission is to remain a steady beacon of strength and support for the Second Amendment, even if it has no other friend on the planet," referring to the constitutional provision that describes the right to keep and bear arms.

Addressing the anti-violence rally with tears in his face and at his side a photograph of his son slain in the Columbine massacre, Mauser said: "We all have to make sacrifices for each other, and that means we as parents have to give up more time to our children. . . . Yes it means the NRA and the other gun groups also have to make some sacrifices."

Reasonable gun owners must realize that weapons such as the semiautomatic TEC DC-9 pistol Harris and Klebold used have "no useful purpose," Mauser said. "It's time to change and it's time for the NRA and us to change our agenda."