Heston, who is 73 and has been active in the association for more than 25 years, told the annual NRA convention in Philadelphia that he wanted to bring the NRA "back into the mainstream" so that no one would have to be ashamed to be a member.
His words reflected the new defensiveness of an organisation which has found itself increasingly blamed, especially by those on the left, for much that is wrong with America today, starting with levels of inner-city violence and a recent spate of fatal school shootings. There were anti- NRA protests in Philadelphia, a city that has bucked the trend towards less violent crime and has the highest proportion of shooting deaths - 82 per cent of 425 killings last year - in America.
The liberal establishment expressed its disapproval for the NRA by keeping the convention at arm's length, and many media organisations gave it scant coverage, aside from Heston's election.
To listen to NRA convention speakers, however, and read the NRA's publications is to access quite a different view of the world. The Association, with more than three million paid-up members, regards itself as the voice of "responsible gun ownership" and chief defender of the Second Amendment of the US Constitution, the right of every citizen to bear arms. Its platform combines support for increased civilian ownership of firearms with a strong law-and-order platform.
To the NRA, the villains of endemic urban crime and the recent school shootings are not guns, but lax parental discipline, family breakdown and a penal system which releases felons too soon. As the uncle of one of the pupils injured in last month's school shooting in Oregon put it in a letter to the Washington Post: "Providing safety with more restrictive gun-control laws is a feel-good fallacy that has failed in the past."
His views enjoy wide support, especially in the mid-Western and southern US states, as witnessed by increasing NRA membership and record attendance at this year's gathering. By the time the 4,000-strong convention closed yesterday, it had attracted almost 50,000 visitors.
In his keynote speech to the convention dinner, the leader of the Republican majority in the Senate, Trent Lott, said curbing violence in America's inner cities would be achieved not by reducing gun ownership, but by putting more guns in the hands of the law-abiding citizens. "What we really need," he said, "is 100 million Americans who know how to deter crime."
While President Clinton has had some success in toughening gun control, his anti-gun crusade has met resistance. To the NRA, gun control laws are anathema. The strength of feeling in the association is such that Charlton Heston faced strong opposition from a group that felt his credentials were not tough enough.Reuse content