The president of the National Rifle Association visited the islands this week to advocate for development of shooting ranges and expansion of hunting opportunities.

David Keene also had another mission, which was to talk about the NRA itself, one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the country.

The NRA’s paramount interest is the preservation of Second Amendment rights.

“The story to tell is the great success we’ve had,” he said. “Attitude toward guns ownership and activities has improved.”

Hawaii is not usually seen as a pro-gun rights state. Yet, several legislative measures in recent years have received favorable recognition from the NRA.

House Bill 679, for example, exempted NRA certified firearms instructors from liability for injury or damage caused by discharge of their firearms during the course of providing training at a range. Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed the bill into law earlier this year, earning him rare props from the NRA.

And, though they did not pass, bills introduced in the 2011 session would have allowed chiefs of police to issue licenses to openly carry a firearm and to carry a concealed pistol or revolver. The measures were introduced by Sen. Sam Slom, a Republican, and Sen. Malama Solomon, a Democrat.

Hawaii, then, has its share of gun-rights supporters, and Keene welcomes the state’s involvement. He said the NRA’s success has come at a time when many in the country believe the nation is on decline.

“I’m here to say that it’s all working, but we can’t stop it,” he said of the group’s greater acceptance. “It’s vitally important to the country.”

The NRA today now has 4 million members, helped in recent years by more women joining — another important message that Keene wanted to convey.

“Membership has increased because of women, who find that guns are fun,” he said.

No Charlton Heston

Keene was elected to the NRA Board of Directors in 2000 and he currently serves as chairman of several NRA committees.

From 1984 to 2011, he was chairman of the American Conservative Union, self-described as the nation’s “oldest and largest grassroots conservative organization” that stands for “liberty, personal responsibility, traditional values, and strong national defense.”

A lifelong hunter (his preferred game is duck), Keene has worked to establish hunter-friendly conservation programs in Africa. He is an attorney, columnist and political activist who has fought for decades on behalf of hunters, shooters and firearms owners.

Keene is not to be mistaken for Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s CEO and executive vice president. Same goes for the group’s best-known figure, the late actor Charlton Heston (“I will give up my gun when they pry my cold, dead fingers from around it”).

Keene is a far more mild-mannered figure. He looks like a college professor but has no professorial airs.

At a meet-and-greet at the state’s hunting education program office at the Nimitz Center Tuesday, he mixed comfortably with other NRA members including employees of the Department of Land and Natural Resources. The office, run by the DLNR, features signs like “No hunting beyond this point” and others riddled with bullet holes.

It’s unclear how many NRA members are in Hawaii. A spokeswoman at the group’s Virginia headquarters said the NRA could not disclose that information. She also said she was not sure if Keene’s visit represented the first time a NRA officer visited the islands.

Keene’s Hawaii trip included meeting with DLNR officials to talk about shooting-range and hunting opportunities, a Friends of the NRA banquet at the Marine Corp Base in Kaneohe and talks on the Big Island. During his Honolulu talk, Maui Friends of the NRA and the Maui Tea Party Skyped in to the conversation.

“What good is having a rifle or a pistol on the Big Island and not being about to shoot it?” he said in his remarks at the DLNR office. “You might as well not have a right. So, a lot of our attention is focused on this. There is a great shortage of public ranges across the country.”

The shortage is due to greater interest in the activity. Keene said long lines at ranges are common.

Civil War Origins

Keene said most people associate the NRA with its high-profile lobbying and political activity. In fact, he said, only about 12 percent of its budget goes toward those activities.

The bulk of the NRA’s work involves instructing youth how to use guns safely and responsibly.

According to Keene, the NRA was founded in 1873 by Union generals who were concerned that many Union troops did not understand firearms. That was in contrast to their Confederate counterparts, who largely hailed from rural areas and were raised with guns.

“We were a nation of hunters,” said Keene.

Until recently, that description was applicable in more modern times.

Keene said he used to be able to carry his shotgun to school, for example, and it would raise no alarms. And it wasn’t all that long ago that guns could be carried in the overhead compartments of airplanes, with some airlines even providing an appropriately sized cardboard box.

“Those days are over,” he noted.

The NRA changed when the country changed, during the cultural shift of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Until that time, the group had never contributed to political candidates.

(Fun fact: NRA members have included FDR and JFK.)

Keene spent most of last month travelling the country in advance of the elections. He estimates the NRA — no fan of the Obama administration — spent about $30 million in its efforts.

‘Guns Are Cool’

Keene half-joked that Barack Obama’s re-election would lead to a run on buying guns and ammo, something that happened four years ago, too.

“Politically, it’s not about guns, it’s about values,” he said. “It’s about different views of the world.”

Mostly, Keene talked up the greater acceptance of guns in American society. That is evident in the growing number of states that have conceal-and-carry laws.

(Keene said Hawaii’s law on conceal-and-carry is “vague” and being contested in court.)

“Things have changed, and that’s a good thing,” he said. “Guns are cool.”

Meanwhile, Keene said it was his job to persuade the NRA’s constituencies — hunters, target shooters, law enforcement, military, gun dealers, manufacturers — that they have “common interests.”

Battles remain, however. Keene identified New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and video games as “enemies” — the former because of his aggressive support for gun control, the latter because they keep kids indoors.

“We’ve got to get kids outdoors,” he argued, where the activities could involve hunting and shooting.

The increasing interest of women — or “girls,” the word Keene used often — in firearms might help that, he said, noting that gun shops now sell pink guns and matching purses.

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