The billboards could be seen all over Colorado’s Front Range for months, showing a picture of actor Charlton Heston, then the president of the National Rifle Association, holding an antique rifle, with the words “Join me.” It was an ad for the NRA’s annual meeting, which, in 1999, was scheduled to be held in Denver from April 30 to May 2.
Those billboards were still up in Littleton, a suburb of Denver, after April 20, when two students entered Columbine High School there and shot and killed 12 students and a teacher before taking their own lives.
The NRA’s ads have since moved online, but once again, the group has its annual meeting scheduled in a state that has just endured a horrific school shooting. This time, the meeting is set to be in Houston, about a four-hour drive from Uvalde, Tex., where on Tuesday 19 children and two adults were killed by an 18-year-old gunman at Robb Elementary School.
Following the 1999 massacre, state and local politicians immediately criticized the NRA and its planned meeting, or at least distanced themselves from it. Denver Mayor Wellington Webb told the NRA flat-out, “We don’t want you here,” according to Heston. The city offered to pay the NRA’s expenses for canceling, CNN reported. State lawmakers who had been planning a vote on an NRA-backed concealed-carry bill shelved it.
This time, former president Donald Trump and three of Texas’s top Republican officials — Gov. Greg Abbott, Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Dan Crenshaw — are scheduled to speak. So far, none have canceled. (The state’s other Republican senator, John Cornyn, had been scheduled to speak but canceled amid a scheduling conflict in Washington, his office said.)
In 2021, more than two decades after Columbine, NPR correspondent Tim Mak obtained recordings of emergency conference calls NRA officials held between the 1999 shooting and that year’s meeting, where they debated about how to respond.
One official said that for the NRA to “tuck tail and run” would look like the group accepted responsibility. Another countered that if they did nothing, then “you end up being a tremendous [profanity] who wouldn’t tuck tail and run, you know?”
If its mainstream members felt pressured not to come, then only “hillbillies,” “nuts” and “fruitcakes” would show up, the officials worried. At one point, they considered creating a victims’ fund worth millions, before deciding it would be “twisted” into an admission of guilt.
One consultant referred to the fallout after the Oklahoma City bombing four years earlier, when domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh targeted a federal building that included a satellite office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The week before the bombing, the NRA had sent out a fundraising letter calling the ATF “jackbooted government thugs.” Former president George H.W. Bush was so disgusted that he publicly canceled his NRA membership. More than 500,000 NRA members followed him, a public relations adviser revealed on the call.
In the end, the NRA refused to cancel the Denver meeting, although it did scale it down from three days to one. It also canceled its usual gun show, just as news was breaking that guns used at Columbine had been purchased at gun shows.
But in Heston’s annual address, he was defiant. He said Adolf Hitler also supported gun control and compared the pressure he felt from Webb, Denver’s first Black mayor, to the pressure he felt in the 1960s not to attend the 1963 March on Washington. He accused a Democratic lawmaker of “slandering” the NRA in front of a “nodding” first lady Hillary Clinton; mention of her drew boos from the crowd.
“When an isolated, terrible event occurs, our phones ring, demanding that the NRA explain the inexplicable,” he said. He blamed the media for scapegoating NRA members as somehow responsible for the tragedy, while “racing” to “drench their microphones with the tears of victims.”
The NRA was being cast as the “villains,” he said, but it wouldn’t play that role. “We're not the rustic, reckless radicals they wish for.”
Outside, more than 8,000 people protested, including Tom Mauser, whose son Daniel was murdered in the massacre the previous week.
“I am here today because my son would want me to be here. If my son was alive, he would be here, too,” Mauser told the Associated Press. In the decades to come, Mauser would get over his lifelong shyness, something his son had inherited, to become a vocal gun control activist.
By the next year, when the NRA annual meeting was held in Charlotte, all was back to normal. Heston gave a robust speech — it was an election year, so much of it was focused on “defeating” candidates who supported gun control — before bringing out an antique rifle for his big finale.
“I want to say those fighting words for everyone within the sound of my voice, to hear and to heed, and especially for you, Mr. Gore,” he said, referring to the Democratic candidate for president. Then, holding the rifle up in the air, he shouted to laughter and applause, “From my cold, dead hands!”