NRA convention expecting 65,000

Event will use all 5 convention center exhibit halls

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The National Rifle Association's annual powwow will be taking over Downtown this week, and getting some special treatment befitting one of the city's biggest conventions of the year.

The city will shut 10th Street under the David L. Lawrence Convention Center all week, starting on Monday, and center officials have agreed to let those with concealed carry permits bring firearms into the government-owned facility.

Convention center managers SMG have been preparing for the NRA Annual Meeting and Exhibits show -- which runs from Thursday through next Sunday -- for a year. It will use all five convention exhibit halls and their 310,000 square feet, just as the yearly International Auto Show and the Home & Garden show do, but the exhibits will be more tightly-packed, and even two-storied in some cases.

More than 65,000 are expected at this year's "Riv3rs of Freedom event, drawing from the gun group's estimated 1 million members within a four-hour drive of the city. Based on estimates from the NRA's convention last year in Charlotte, N.C., the city's tourism agency VisitPittsburgh says the event could generate $23.7 million in local spending, part of it from the nearly 30 hotels getting bookings over the weekend.

Officials are closing 10th Street under the convention center to handle registration duties for the big event. Unlike last year's convention in North Carolina -- which prohibited permitted gun owners from carrying weapons on-site, to the consternation of many attendees -- Pittsburgh will allow it.

The NRA made the concealed-carry issue a condition of booking the convention, convention center general manager Mark Leahy said, and the center was happy to agree, especially given how smoothly the group's last convention in Pittsburgh went in 2004.

The convention is attended by a good number of families, and the exhibit areas are designed to be safe for children -- the guns on display are disabled, no live ammunition is exhibited (canine sweeps will check daily for gunpowder), and attendees carrying weapons are barred from unholstering them. Manufacturers will be showing off their latest models, but firearms will not be on sale on-site as they would be at a gun show.

While the convention center has barred weapons before -- for concerts and other events -- Mr. Leahy said it would be counter to the convention center's mission this time.

"We're here for [hosting] conventions. Whatever the laws of the state are, we'll go by. We're not changing anything and we're not taking [the law] further than what is intended. We're not playing politics," he said.

Ripples from the event will be felt around Downtown, from a country music concert Friday night at Stage AE to a Saturday-night event across the Allegheny at Consol Energy Center starring former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and comedian Jeff Foxworthy. A collection of largely Republican leaders, including U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum and former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton and local Democrat U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire of McCandless, will speak at a Celebration of American Values Leadership Forum Friday afternoon.

At least one protest -- called the March to Keep Illegal Guns Off the Street -- is scheduled for noon Saturday, starting at Freedom Corner in the Hill District. Gun control advocates CeaseFirePa will join in the march to the convention center, and plan to run advertisements during the week urging NRA leaders to agree to measures requiring the reporting of lost and stolen firearms to police.

The main exhibit halls open at 10 a.m. Friday. Admission is free for NRA members and $10 per adult for others. Members of the Boy and Girl Scouts and 4H clubs get in free, as do uniformed military and law enforcement personnel.

Full information is available at www.nraam.org/index.html.


Tim McNulty: tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581. Read the Early Returns blog at www.post-gazette.com/earlyreturns or on Twitter @EarlyReturns.


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