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ST. LOUIS • Cabbie Ismail Ibrahim calls it "the greatest news." Barkeep Patrick Russell is loading up extra supplies and staff hours.

They're not just talking about the Cardinals home opener or Blues playoff hockey, both happening this weekend. What thrills the downtown crowd is the prospect of 70,000 National Rifle Association members at America's Center, wallets at the ready.

The NRA convention is back in town only five years after its last gathering here.

That event, which drew 64,562 in 2007, stands as the convention center's second-biggest ever. The expectation is for more gun enthusiasts this time, in big part because of presidential politics.

Republican candidates Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich all plan to pump their Second Amendment pedigrees during a forum Friday. Other speakers include NRA favorites Oliver North and Glenn Beck.

Some promoters say the convention could draw more than the NRA record of 72,000, set in Charlotte, N.C., in 2010.

At the Eighth Street taxi stand across from America's Center, cabbies clapped their hands at the thought of all those fares.

"They'll go to dinner, to parties, maybe the zoo," said Ibrahim.

Fellow driver Abdukadir Abdule chimed in: "Lots of trips to the airport. This will make very, very good business."

Russell, managing partner of the Dubliner at 1025 Washington Avenue, said NRA members kept the place hopping in 2007. He has ordered extra food and boosted work shifts to welcome them back.

"These are red-blooded Americans with good American money," Russell said.

The St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission calculates the NRA will ring in $36.3 million to the local economy.

The NRA convention begins Thursday afternoon with registration. Booths and exhibits open at 9 a.m. Friday and run through 5 p.m. Sunday. The NRA has booked the entire America's Center, including the Edward Jones Dome. Members have filled up the downtown hotels and have pushed the demand for rooms beyond Lambert-St. Louis International Airport and Fairview Heights.

If the NRA does beat its own attendance record, it has little chance of unseating the top draw at America's Center. On Jan. 27, 1999, Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass in the Dome before 104,000 people, some of whom watched via closed-circuit TV in the main exhibition hall.

Andrew Arulanandam, spokesman for NRA headquarters in Fairfax, Va., said the association is back so soon for three big reasons: St. Louis is centrally located, has enough hotel rooms and attractions and hosted a successful event in 2007.

"With so many of our members within a four-hour drive, St. Louis is a target-rich environment for us," Arulanandam said. "We had a very positive experience in St. Louis five years ago."

St. Louis won that chance by default. The NRA had planned to meet that year in Columbus, Ohio, but the Columbus City Council voted to ban assault-type weapons. That's also why it won't patronize the home of the Cubs, the team the Cardinals are hosting this weekend at Busch Stadium.

"Chicago is a notoriously anti-gun city," Arulanandam said. "We refuse to spend our tens of millions of dollars in places like that."

If the NRA considers Missouri gun-friendly, it still has to contend with St. Louis' prohibition against carrying concealed weapons into public buildings, including America's Center. Arulanandam said the NRA will honor the city ban.

Missouri law allows people with the proper permits to carry concealed weapons, subject to some local conditions.

What the hotels are allowing inside their doors isn't clear. A check of hotels downtown found no one willing to entertain the question.

At the Dubliner, two blocks west of the convention center, Russell said NRA members arranged private parties there, apparently after his establishment passed a test.

"The first question was whether we allow concealed carry," Russell said. "I told them that we're not posted. I don't want to say we allow guns, but we don't post."

Missouri law allows private businesses to post notices banning concealed weapons.

Across Washington Avenue at Stanley's Cigar Bar and Lounge, there's a posting of another sort: "Smoking allowed here." That has attracted several events by NRA members.

"They appreciate good cigars," said co-owner Kevin Stanley.

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Amid the gun-rights bustle on Washington Avenue will be at least one gathering in dissent. State Rep. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, said she will be among speakers at a rally at 1 p.m. Saturday outside the main entrance of America's Center.

Nasheed said the killing of Trayvon Martin, 17, by a neighborhood-watch volunteer in Sanford, Fla., on Feb. 26 shows that many gun laws "are too soft." She referred specifically to Florida's 'stand your ground" law, which generally allows people to use force if attacked.

"It's time for us to stand our ground so we don't have more victims like Trayvon," said Nasheed. "I know the (NRA) convention will have a big economic impact in St. Louis, but what about the social impact?"

Kevin Jamison, the NRA's point man in Missouri, said the Florida case will come up, inside and outside the convention.

"That'll be because of the backlash nationally," said Jamison, of the Kansas City suburb of Gladstone. "People who don't understand laws on 'stand your ground' are horrified. It doesn't mean you can shoot people who irritate you ... or who are wearing hoodies."

Jamison, a lawyer, is president of the Missouri Sport Shooting Association. He is set to take part in a seminar on gun laws.

There will be thousands of guns inside America's Center, although the NRA's Arulanandam said all will be rendered inoperable. Many of the more than 550 booths are for gun manufacturers, shooting associations and collectors who will have weapons on display.

The convention schedule includes gun raffles and auctions, seminars, a prayer breakfast and plenty of speeches.

The GOP candidates are to attend a forum at 1 p.m. Friday. Among other speakers are U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a former GOP presidential candidate.

Matthew Hathaway of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.


EDITOR'S NOTE: This version adds an explanation of why the NRA won't plan a convention in Chicago.

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