The first thought I have, passing through the main entrance of the Georgia World Convention Center for the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting in Atlanta, is that I must be crazy, because I’m hearing voices. Well, a voice — a drawled, gravy-dipped bass that sounds distinctly like an enticement… or a threat.
What it says is: “THE WALL OF GUNS.”
To the right, people are already streaming into a line to hear a message of victory and gratitude from Donald Trump — President Trump! Straight ahead, I join an equally thick offshoot of humanity, slipping like timber down the escalators to the exhibition floor, toward the promised “15 acres of guns and gear,” beneath a 10-foot-wide banner of NRA CEO and Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre informing us that we are entering “Freedom’s Safest Place.”
The sound intensifies, a mic too close to somebody’s mouth somewhere ahead of us, blasting the message:
“THE WALL OF GUNS!”
As the escalator brings us closer, we realize that the Wall of Guns is real, and it is glorious: Eight brightly illuminated showcases brimming with firearms and firearm accessories. They’re all there. AR-15s. AR-10s. Henry rifles. Ruger 10/22s. 1911s and Single Action Armies that would make George Patton reach for a twenty and dream warmly of Colts for Christmas in April.
A child presses his nose up to a case displaying custom-made ammunition by the proudly politically incorrect gearhead Jesse James — “BECAUSE YOUR GUN DESERVES BETTER,” the ammo box announces. Next to the boy, a row of grown men in camo hats and baggy denim lines up in front of the glass boxes, as well. Everyone wants to storm the Wall Of Guns.
It glows golden as you approach, the sideshow caller loudly extolling all the well-machined majesties that lie within. Any one of these can be yours, he says… if you buy the right $20 raffle ticket, with complimentary t-shirt and turkey box-call:
“Alright folks, the WALLLLLLLLLL OF GUUUUUUUNS goin’ on right now. 2017 NRA Annual Meeting here in beautiful Atlanta, Georgia. BOOM shock-a-locka! Get your chance right now. Folks I got a deal goin’ on, we got about twenty chances, here’s the deal: Gimme a hundred dollars, gonna give you five chances on the WALLLLLL OF GUUUUUUNS.”
Take my money, I’m about to scream. There will be so many people I’ll want to fork money over to this weekend. But before I can grab my wallet, distraction sets in. Was that an open airsoft range we just passed?
Is that a country-music stage up ahead, next to the guy in the “Benghazi Lives Matter” shirt?
Is that a .50-cal Browning machine gun with a Trijicon laser sight?
Is… is that body armor for my dog?
Is this heaven? No, it’s a shitload of guns. Actually, it’s more: No earthly being could poop out this many guns and gun accessories. This is Woodstock for pluggers. The ineffable power of the Second Amendment intoxicates us. It wafts around the world’s largest gun safe; it arcs through laser concealed-carry simulators, lingerie holsters, and tactical beer koozies that can survive Armageddon. It dwells in the sound of a hundred dry fires, clicking and snapping in easy rhythm across thousands of square feet of booths and floor space.
I’m still on a cloud as I run back in the direction of Trump’s upcoming speech. After a Secret Service check, we credentialed media types stride single-file toward the empty arena, past a buzzing queue of eager audience-goers. One guy in a homemade Trump shirt yells, “YOU SHOULDN’T BE HERE!” toward me and Nicole Borrero, my camerawoman. A chorus of raspberries and huzzahs ripples through the crowd at the journalists.
The reporters I’ve met here are pro-gun, pro-vet, or right-leaning; most mainstream news organizations either didn’t get cleared by the NRA to attend or didn’t bother coming. But down here in this hallway, we’re not Adam and Nicole from T&P, and we’re certainly not gun people; we’re The Media, and we’re the enemy.
“There’s a lot of bald white guys here,” Borrero — whose dark complexion is drawing some leers — tells me over the din as we enter the arena, fearful she’ll lose me in the sea of similarly coiffed gun dudes. “Don’t stray too far.”
Where the hell did my heaven just go, I mutter.
This is the part in a feature article — us old folks in the business call it a “nut” — where I give you my thesis and a sense of what kind of article this is gonna be, so you can decide whether or not to bail on the particular trail I’m mapping out here. Maybe it’s a “service” article: 5 Of The Coolest Things You Can Buy At The NRA Show. Our readers would like that, we think! Or a newsier bent, in which I’d say something about checking out the post-election vibe at a weekend party put on by a powerful Washington lobby that just achieved the biggest political victory of its more-than-century-long existence. We’re pretty sure our readers would hate that. Talk about taking the fun out of guns!
But the truth is, now that I’m here, both of those stories are fighting in my head. If I have to give you a nut, it’s that I feel like I’m at two different meetings at once. That’s my baggage, not yours. But maybe don’t discount this all until after I tell you what I see and feel.
In one of those two meetings, everybody here is ebullient, cheery, relieved: We’ve got our guns, and we’ve got our country! It’s easily read in the faces of attendees like Phyllis Kinsinger, an unassuming, pink-shirted Glock-lover who recently retired with her husband to Lake Hartwell, up on the Georgia-South Carolina border.
“There’s just a feeling on people’s part now that, dammit, we’re doing this,” she tells me.
Kinsinger’s primed to burn some plastic — maybe not on guns, since few firearms are actually for sale here, and taking delivery back home is a bureaucratic pain in the ass if you don’t know a federal firearms dealer who can act as a legal middleman. But there’s still fresh merch to drop dough on: Optics; apparel; higher levels of NRA sponsorship, complete with a “limited edition hat” and “personal memento from Wayne LaPierre.”
“We keep saying we’re not gonna spend too much,” Kinsinger says, laughing. “I don’t know what too much is.”
Kinsinger is a competitive shooter now, pretty good with her Glock 23 — especially considering she hadn’t shot much before Dec. 11, 2000, the day she and her husband were victimized in a home invasion. “I was terrified,” she says. “The very next day, my husband said, ‘It’s time.’”
She is not afraid today. She is beaming. A lot of people are. “I have not met a rude person here,” she says. It’s something I will hear over and over again from the other attendees, many of them veterans: Everyone is so polite here! A well-armed society, they say, is a polite society.
That’s certainly how I was raised. The feeling I get at this NRA annual meeting, very acutely and consistently, is home. I am an ammosexual. I don’t just love guns. They are an indelible part of me. I floundered at tee-ball and virtually every other sport, but from the first time my father slipped a Ruger 10/22 into my arms, shooting — and being around other shooters — just felt like things my brain had been preprogrammed to do.
Maybe they were: Two generations before me were upstate New York gunsmiths — one of my pop’s best childhood friends, in fact, is at this show, hawking for the gun-parts company that once fed my grandpop. Before we had smartphones, my family had a stack of old American Rifleman magazines, and I burned through them all. I’ve taught lefty coworkers how to shoot without flinching. My upbringing is probably pretty similar to that of many fellow gun-show people.
But this ain’t the local gun convention at the War Memorial Auditorium; this is the NRA’s show. Everything here is turned up to 11, especially the politics. Which brings us to the other meeting that feels like it’s happening this weekend.
In this other meeting, dark forces still lurk around every corner, ready to roll our country into tyranny and bloody chaos. “These are dangerous times,” Trump is telling a fiery audience here. “These are horrible times for certain obvious reasons.” He has a conversation with a member of the crowd about border security:
THE PRESIDENT: We need a wall.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Build the wall!
THE PRESIDENT: We’ll build the wall. Don’t even think about it. Don’t even think about it. Don’t even think about it. That’s an easy one. We’re going to build the wall. We need the wall.
In this meeting, LaPierre is on a roll of his own: “As you know, there’s an intense war that’s being waged by leftist zealots to destroy President Trump and destroy his administration,” he tells the crowd. “They’ll seemingly stop at nothing, including tearing apart our country… If we don’t stand up to them, and I mean now, an entire generation of Americans could be lost. And our nation along with them.
“It’s up to us to speak up against the three most dangerous voices in America: academic elites, political elites, and media elites,” LaPierre concludes. “These are America’s greatest domestic threats.”
I wonder: Am I elite? I have a modest mortgage and a short-barrel Smith Model 19 loaded with .357 Magnum Hydra-Shok. Either way, a rant against political and media elites from the CEO of the most powerful Beltway-based firearms lobby in human history sounds strange. Almost as strange as one from a billionaire New York City real estate developer and prime-time TV celebrity.
Founded in the 1870s by a bunch of military veterans who sought to foster better marksmanship skills in American society, the NRA has evolved into the arbiter of gun culture. It has somewhere between 4 and 5 million members by its own accounting — hardly a plurality of the estimated one-third to one-half of American households that own guns, but more than almost every other lobby group that’s ever existed. NRA sponsorship and training have opened competitive shooting and instructor certifications to hundreds of thousands of Americans. And despite liberal criticism, I’ve never seen much harm in the NRA’s Eddie Eagle child-safety program, developed when I was in elementary school, to teach children to “Stop! Don’t touch! Leave the area! Tell an adult!” when they find a firearm.
But, look: No bullshit, the NRA has also evolved into the bully pulpit for a special kind of alt-fact-based Second Amendment conservatism. My pop gave up on the group in the mid-90s, about the same time LaPierre, the lobby’s main voice, first complained of a Democrat giving “jackbooted Government thugs more power to take away our Constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property and even injure and kill us.” I was just about to join the Navy, and as much of a civil libertarian as I was, it seemed pretty weird to me that a gun lobby whose membership is so vet and law enforcement-heavy would poop so publicly on its own kind.
So it’s been for my adult life. The NRA argues that the freedom to bear arms is “America’s 1st Freedom,” the one from which all others flow. It makes the case to gun owners that if they really care about firearms and freedom, they should agree that liberalism is a disease, that rioters and socialists and criminals and jihadis and dishonest reporters lurk around every corner, and that every election represents an historic threat to our 226-year-old right to self-armament. Hurricane Katrina? An excuse for the gun-grabbers. The United Nations? A plot by the gun-grabbers. Barack Hussein Obama? The worst gun-grabber of all, natch. The NRA, for whatever good it’s done, has become pretty adept at deploying bullshit to scare gun folks and jam up the government works.
Except, here’s the thing: They won. The NRA went all in for Trump while most establishment conservatives were still rolling their eyes at him. The NRA ran ads and dropped money bombs on precisely the Midwestern heartland media markets that Trump needed to break Hillary Clinton’s fabled “blue firewall.” The NRA helped crown an improbable president whose burn-it-down shtick dovetailed neatly with the gun lobby’s dark, stormy, over-the-top politics. “You came through for me, and I am going to come through for you,” he tells the crowd here. The anti-establishment NRA now is the establishment.
And let me tell you, LaPierre does not want any anti-establishment competition, from the right or left. Part of the NRA’s rhetoric is calculated to keep it from losing juice to edgier conservative gun groups like Gun Owners of America and the National Association for Gun Rights; some of the real state-level action on hot-button 2A issues these days, like “constitutional carry” and campus carry, comes from these groups and grassroots organizations that are uneasy with the NRA’s coziness to incumbent politicians.
And of course, the NRA can’t have a challenge from the anti-establishment left. “Bernie Sanders was not a movement, as a fawning media called his campaign,” LaPierre says at one point in his speech, namechecking that other outsider who gave Hillary Clinton a real scare in 2016. “Bernie is a political predator of young voters who were lied to by school teachers and college professors, set up for his message of big-government socialism.”
Which is weird to hear, because Bernie Sanders — you know, from Vermont, one of the most pro-gun states in the union — fought the Brady Bill and has worked with the NRA on a bunch of its legislation, to the chagrin of many lefties. Sanders sounds nothing like a commie gun-grabber when he talks about the issue. “We have been yelling and screaming at each other about guns for decades with very little success,” he said in 2015. “We need a sensible debate about gun control that overcomes the cultural divide in this country.” That divide, he added, was pretty dumb, because neither side was evil or entirely wrong. “Folks who do not like guns are fine,” Sanders said. “But we have millions of gun owners in this country who are law-abiding citizens.”
As political predators go, pretty tame stuff.
So, which NRA meeting are we really attending? Is it the one where we’re all empowered and cordial and tickled that we’re racking weapons, or the one where we’re scared shitless of all the unarmed forces of leftism that control zero branches of federal government and a mere quarter of the state houses in America? Am I at home here, or an enemy of American freedom?
“The majority of the media, I consider to be the opposition,” attendee Nick Laurino, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Hunter S. Thompson, tells me during a smoke break the morning after Trump’s speech. He doesn’t want to talk at first, until I tell him a little about Task & Purpose.
Laurino served in Vietnam from 1969 to 1971 with the 5th Special Forces Group. He’s also, according to the ribbons on his weekend pass, an NRA life member and a contributor to the lobby’s Golden Eagles program, which encourages youth shooting and firearms safety. Laurino loves the conservative political luminaries lined up to talk at the meeting this weekend, including Ted Cruz and Allen West, an ex-congressman who left the Army after being reprimanded for beating and threatening to kill an Iraq detainee. But Trump’s Friday speech was the big draw: “I was five rows back, in the center,” he laughs.
Laurino’s comrades — Desert Storm vet Bob Wiersema and fellow Vietnam Green Beret James Phillips — join the political refrain. “Liberal media buttcrap,” Wiersema says of the mainstream news. The Berkeley and Ferguson riots, he says, are proof that radicals “are trying to get a new generation out there.” Even Trump’s tape-recorded “locker-room talk,” they volunteer, is a non-story drummed up by a desperate, ratings-obsessed, left-wing news establishment. “Did he actually get off the bus and go and grab her?” Laurino says of Trump and the woman who was the object of his blue language.
Mind you, these vets aren’t primarily here for the politics. F&D Defense is rolling out a new AR-15 folding-stock system. AmericanSnipers.org is giving out spiffy challenge coins to donors who help fund new optics and supplementary gear for US special operations forces. The Wall of Guns is, well, The Wall of Guns.
Much more action revolves around book signings by pundits like Iran-Contra Marine Oliver North — who once secretly sold U.S. missiles to Iran to fund an illegal war in South America, and gave the NRA’s opening-day invocation in the name of “Jesus Christ, our savior” — and Milwaukee Sheriff David A. Clarke, who posed for crowds with his comically large cowboy hat and haughty memoir, “Cop Under Fire,” while back home, a grand jury recommended charges against several of his jail staffers in the dehydration death of an inmate who was refused water for seven days.
Not far from the book signings, in a seminar hall, I’m greeted warmly by retired Army Lt. Col. Dave Grossman — who, more than a decade ago, wrote the definitive book on killing in combat and the psychological toll it can take on a trigger-puller. Today, he offers NRA attendees lessons on being “a sheepdog,” not a sheep: preparing for violence in a violent age.
Grossman’s spiel is entertaining, intoxicating, and deeply confusing. “Look up at the ceiling,” he tells the audience:
Look at all the fire sprinklers up there. While you’re looking up there, look at the tiles. Those tiles are code-selected ’cause of fireproof material. Under those tiles are the smoke alarms. Now look at the old fire exit sign there. That ain’t just any fire sign, that’s a battery backup. When the world ends, it’ll still be lit like Christmas. And the wall boards are code selected material — it’s fire-proof, fire-retardant material. The concrete slab underneath your feet, the carpet on top of it, the seat that you’re sitting on, are code-selected because they’re fire-proof fire-retardant material. There is not one stinking thing in this room that will burn! And still we have fire sprinklers, fire exits, fire alarms, fire trucks, fire drills, fire hydrants, fire extinguishers. This fire guy seems crazy, this fire guy seems paranoid! Now we all agree he’s our A student.
But you try to prepare for violence. Folks, every year in America about 300 people are killed by fire. 15,000 are killed by violence…. If we spend all that time preparing for fire, can we spend a little time to prepare for violence? Yes?
I want to ask: Wouldn’t applying the success of fire-safety codes in America to gun violence suggest we need more gun regulations? Certainly an educated, quick-thinking, armed citizenry is a part of the solution, but the point is we didn’t conquer killer fires by leaving every man, woman, and child responsible for their own fireproofing in every building they grace. Right?
I want to ask, but I don’t want to be rude. And anyway, there’s still a ton of show to check out. Vets are well-represented here — from the VFW guys hunting for potential members by spotting the command ballcaps in the crowd, to the re-launched Devil Dog Arms and their spokesman, Walt Hasser — a spec ops Marine made famous by “Generation Kill.” I even hear a rumor that there’s a Medal of Honor recipient or two milling about, though we never track down anyone wearing that telltale baby-blue ribbon around their neck.
“If I was a millionaire, I’d own this whole place,” NRA life member Dan Cuddeback says, laughing, as we both take a break from walking the convention floor. (Over two days, my phone tells me, I’ve humped 17.6 miles.) A retired Marine sergeant and Beirut barracks-bombing survivor, Cuddeback likes gathering with “like-minded people” and checking out the new wares: “I mean, the political part I stay out of.”
Tops on his ever-expanding wish list is “the AR platform,” and he’s in the right place, my god. So many AR-15s and AR-10s, so little time. “They’re dummy-proof, basically,” he says. “And I think the idea of the government saying they’re bad makes me want more. It just does, you know? Anything that dumbass Obama said just goes out the window when you have it.”
After another minute on the convention-floor sidelines, the sing-song of snapping firing pins lures me back in. I play with a skeet thrower that’s grafted onto the brain of a drone, so it obeys commands from an iPad. I meet a summer-camp teacher who’s figured out how to pressurize plastic soda bottles, so they make a gratifying BOOM when shot with a .22. I try my hand at a tactical handgunning laser-trainer you can install in your own home for $400.
The pro running that booth makes me look really bad at shooting, cleaning out his targets while I’m still lining up my sights. “Want to try again?” he grins, and I agree, putting on my gameface. Okay, no sight-shooting this time. Shoot intuitively. I do better, and he lets me win. I can’t stop smiling.
And that smile persists as I peruse the AR uppers and the tacticool gear; as I watch a shapely woman demonstrate the benefits of her hip-hugging, Taurus-concealing undergarments; as I settle into the airgun range with a target rifle, like greeting an old friend.It’s nothing much, just an old .177 pellet gun with light optics. But I am home, plinking away at bowling pins and tin-pan targets. And as usual, I’m thinking, probably too much. People here are nice, and happy, and exultant in the shootin’-freude, the sheer fun that firearms offer — if you’ve never shot, I can’t explain that fun to you, but a couple minutes on a range will drive it home nicely.
There’s the joy, and then there’s the terror: LaPierre and the NRA continue to seek ways to scare their membership into action with half-truths and stereotypes. That’s not a new tactic for the Trump era; when George W. Bush was elected, a reporter asked LaPierre how he’d manage to whip up members without a gun-banning Democrat in the White House. LaPierre responded: “Thank God for the United Nations.” All that fear, all that resentment, it has to go somewhere. Doesn’t it?Maybe not; maybe it’ll dissipate amid the satisfaction of victory. My experience this weekend is that a lot of people just enjoy guns, and rightly or wrongly, they feel like it’s a little easier to do that now. They won. Their hated enemies lost. Let’s just take a damn breath.
Here on the range, my breath is slow and easy. There’s only me, a target, and a beautiful, weighty tool to close the distance between them. Once you know what you’re doing, you can think as much or as little as you like out there. Spaces and worries evaporate. Sights and sounds become clearer somehow. A bowling pin jumps with a satisfying ping as I cycle the bolt for another shot.
Next to me, Nicole, the videographer, has taken up an air rifle and is quickly running out of ammo. It is her first time holding a firearm. I’ve known her for two years, and I’ve never seen her grinning like this.
“What are you thinking?” I ask her.
“I’m thinking,” she says, “about the next time we can do this.”