DENVER -- As 8,000 anti-gun demonstrators -- rallied by the anguished pleas of the father of a slain Columbine High School student -- marched in protest, the National Rifle Association held a scaled-back meeting here yesterday.
But although the group's members were outnumbered nearly 4-to-1 by the protesters, the mood among NRA members meeting in a basement ballroom was exuberantly defiant.
"Each horrible act can't become an ax for opportunists to cleave the very Bill of Rights that binds us," NRA President Charlton Heston told a cheering overflow crowd, many wearing blue-and-silver Columbine memorial ribbons fastened with NRA buttons.
Following the shootings April 20 at the school in suburban Littleton, in which two students killed 13 people before committing suicide, Denver Mayor Wellington Webb repeatedly asked the group to cancel its annual meeting. Instead, it cut back its schedule from three days to one and canceled exhibits.
"What saddens me most [about Webb's request]," Heston said after the group held a moment of silence for the Columbine victims, "is how that suggests complicity. It implies that 80 million honest gun owners are somehow to blame that you and I should not be as shocked and horrified as everyone else."
About the time Heston, a prominent Hollywood actor, was stepping to the podium, demonstrators gathered on the steps of the state Capitol a few blocks away to denounce the NRA's decision to follow through with its convention when -- as one clergyman said -- "the dust from the graves of our children has not even settled."
"Maybe somebody needs to tell Charlton Heston this is not a movie," said Pastor Patrick Demmer, president of the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance, generating wild applause from the thousands gathered on the front lawn of the Capitol.
At 10 a.m., the crowd stood in silence as a bell rang 15 times in tribute to the Columbine victims -- 12 students and one teacher -- and to their killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.
Yesterday in Littleton, about 15 miles from the NRA convention and protest, the Jefferson County district attorney's office revealed that Harris' parents, through an attorney, had requested immunity from prosecution as a condition of agreeing to be interviewed by investigators.
"The district attorney's office is not granting immunity to anyone at this time," said spokeswoman Pam Russell.
Legal experts have said the Harrises could be charged with a range of offenses if they had advance knowledge of the attack, including failing to report a crime, complicity or conspiracy. Yesterday, the prosecutor's office described the Harrises' status as witnesses, not possible defendants.
"We want to talk to them only as witnesses to the incident," Russell said. The Klebold family has agreed to be interviewed, she said.
At the demonstration, the father of one of Harris and Klebold's victims delivered a tearful appeal for more gun restrictions.
Tom Mauser carried a sign that said, "My son Daniel died at Columbine. He'd expect me to be here today." A color picture of a blond Daniel in a crew-neck shirt smiled out at the crowd.
"When a child can grab a gun so easily and shoot a bullet into the middle of a child's face, as my son experienced, something is wrong," Mauser said, struggling to maintain his composure.
"There are reasonable gun owners, many," Mauser said. "But the time has come to understand that a TEC-9 semiautomatic weapon like the one that killed my son, is not used to kill deer.
"It is time for change," he said, raising his hands in the American Sign Language gesture for love before collapsing in sobs.
Rabbi Steven Foster of Congregation Emanuel urged the crowd to refrain from blaming the NRA for the attack at Columbine and suggested the timing of the school tragedy and the NRA's long-planned convention was "divine coincidence."
"Maybe it's God's way of saying to all of us that we need to understand we need to move forward and make this a kinder, gentler place in which to live," he said.
But the homemade signs jutting up from the sea of demonstrators heaped much blame on the NRA: "Thanks NRA For Making The Columbine Massacre So Possible." "Hey, Hey, NRA, How Many Kids Did You Kill Today!!" "Shame on the NRA."
The demonstrators, many of them teen-agers wearing signs that read "I don't want to die," then took their message to the site of the NRA convention, walking the few blocks to and encircling the Adam's Mark hotel.
Pub Date: 5/02/99