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NRA convention draws top GOP presidential hopefuls

NRA Gathers In Houston For 2013 Annual MeetingNRA Gathers In Houston For 2013 Annual Meeting
Vintage handguns are displayed during the 2013 NRA Annual Meeting and Exhibits at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, Texas.Photograph by Justin Sullivan — Getty Images

This weekend’s National Rifle Association convention isn’t just an event held for the love of guns. It’s another political spectacle as the race for the 2016 presidency heats up.

While over 70,000 people are expected to attend this weekend’s NRA event in Nashville, Tenn., which showcases over 550 exhibitors, a select few guests will generate more headlines than any firearm maker could hope to muster.

A quick glance at the confirmed speakers at the NRA’s convention is a lineup that almost matches what the high-profile CPAC convention commands in any given years. Republicans with presidential ambitions have lined up to speak at the event, angling to court one of the party’s key constituencies. The NRA reportedly spent $15 million in 2012 to ensure President Barack Obama, a Democrat, wouldn’t be reelected in 2012.

Democrats have earned a reputation for being more in favor of gun control laws that the NRA and many Republicans publicly oppose. For Republicans, it’s important to win the praise of the NRA, not only for votes, but also for campaign donations.

Speakers at this year’s meeting, which is being held in Nashville, Tenn., include a handful of U.S. Senators (Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Lindsey Graham), as well as current and former governors (Mike Huckabee, Scott Walker, Mike Pence, and Jeb Bush). Almost all the speakers invited by the NRA to attend the event have expressed interest in — or are at least are rumored to be considering — a run for president. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul is the only notable absentee, and public statements earlier this week suggest he isn’t happy about the snub.

Although the gun lobby loudly backs Republican candidates, it’s important to note that gun manufacturers do well when Democrats are elected president. Gun sales soared in the wake of Obama’s election in 2008, and climbed again in 2012 when he was re-elected, driven by concerns that the election of a Democratic president could result in stricter gun control. And in the wake of a school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, fears of gun control legislation again surfaced, but never came to be. Obama has said that even the “mildest restrictions” wouldn’t pass in Congress.

Gun manufacturers could certainly use a lift. Smith & Wesson’s (SWHC) net sales slipped 19% for the nine months ending Jan. 31, while rival Sturm, Ruger & Co. (RGR) reported annual sales for 2014 tumbled 21%. Demand for guns slipped sharply in the back half of last year, hurt by weak consumer demand and high inventory levels. Sturm, Ruger & Co. said aggressive price discounting by rivals have also hurt profitability.

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