CHICAGO -- The national gun lobby in Washington, D.C. is a big machine, motored by a multi-billion-dollar industry. The sprawling network of hardcore activists remaking the political gunscape in statehouses and the courts, on the other hand, is small. How small? It's so small that when Jeff Knox stepped up to a microphone at the premiere gun-activist conclave and referred to "Dad," no explanation was needed. Everyone at the Gun Rights Policy Conference last weekend knew who "Dad" was. Dad was Neal Knox, the hardline National Rifle Association board member who until his death in 2005 used his newsletter, The Hard Corps Report, as a machine gun nest aimed at his NRA colleagues, ready to fire at the first sign of weakness or perfidy in defense of the Second Amendment. For holding the gun lobby to his iron standard without mercy, "Dad" became a godfather to the activists who gather every September at an airport hotel under the banner of the Second Amendment Foundation.
Knox had the full power of the family name behind him on Sunday afternoon when he stepped to a microphone, invoked his father, and accused another gun-rights legend, GRPC organizer Alan Gottlieb, of betraying the movement. The alleged betrayal concerned Gottlieb's writing and backing of an initiative on the Washington State ballot in November. Few Americans have heard of bill 591, but the controversy it has stoked within the gun-rights world tells us much about fissures within its ranks.
Gottlieb's controversial bill is a direct response to another initiative on the ballot, 594, which expands background checks to include sales at gun shows and over the Internet. It is polling high and expected to pass. If Washington votes "yes," it will join the growing list of states that have taken gun policy into their own hands in the wake of Newtown. Both the NRA and Gottlieb's organization oppose 594. But Gottlieb has done more than just denounce it. He has raised more than a million dollars to promote an alternative bill, 591, which would prohibit the state from ever "requir[ing] background checks on the receipt of a firearm unless a uniform national standard is required."
Can you spot the offending language? It's this: "unless a uniform national standard is required."
For Jeff Knox and much of the gun-rights movement, to even accept the future possibility of federal background check legislation constitutes apostasy. Some of the groups represented at the GRPC are the ones who, along with stalwarts like the NRA and Larry Pratt's Gun Owners of America, mobilized in April 2013 to torpedo the Manchin-Toomey Senate bill, which would have closed background check loopholes across the country. After looking at the polling data, Gottlieb initially supported Manchin-Toomey as a way for the movement to get some "goodies" (such as relaxing laws on interstate gun sales) while supporting something that he thought was going to pass anyway. (Gottlieb later dropped his support when Chuck Schumer stripped the bill of Gottlieb's prized "goodie".)
Gottlieb's early support for the Senate bill earned him epitaphs like "sellout" and "traitor." But it's now looking like he understood something his critics did not. Steadfast opposition to a federal background-check bill would give rise to a growing and well-funded movement for background-check referenda in the states. In Washington, the coalition behind 594 is supported by a group of wealthy donors, including Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg, the head of the gun violence prevention group Everytown for Gun Safety. In his newsletter, Gottlieb describes their efforts as the "Billionaire's Club war against freedom."
So when Knox asked Gottlieb to defend the language of 591 at this year's GRPC, attendees sat up in their seats. After a weekend filled with enough policy weeds to replant the Everglades, the confrontation amounted to high-drama.
With his comb-over, pencil mustache, and brightly colored bowties, Alan Gottlieb has the presence of a harried, slightly eccentric accountant. But the Queens native is no dutiful CPA; he's a convicted tax felon who does not flinch easily on questions of strategy, let alone challenges to his commitment to the Second Amendment. In the 1970s, while still in his twenties, Gottlieb began organizing the legal workshops that grew into the brain trust that won the landmark Supreme Court rulings of Heller and McDonald, which enshrined gun ownership in the home as an individual right guaranteed by the Second Amendment. At the podium in Chicago, Gottlieb welcomed the chance to deliver a blunt message to the background-check dead-enders who had been calling him a traitor since Manchin-Toomey.
"The bottom line is that" the background check issue "is different" from other gun gun policy debates, Gottlieb explained, pointing to public opinion. "What issues do you find that get 70 to 90 percent of the people to agree on anything?"
After Knox asserted that he doesn't believe polls showing support for background checks, Gottlieb responded, "You may not believe the number, but I've seen well over 500 polls all across the country over the last six years on background checks. They all say the same damn thing. They're not wrong, believe me."
Knox countered with another reality: many gun groups, especially those in the referendum states of the southwest, are never going to sign off on background checks, ever, at any level. In Arizona, "I wouldn't be able to get our members to proactively concede anything," said Knox. His hardline solution is to "let them go ahead and deal with the consequences."
By "them," Knox means the feds. In the purist view, the best way to deal with any gun law is to dig in, take the hits, and ignore the law, forcing the government to "deal with the consequences." Knox said he wished the NRA had taken that approach with the 1934 National Firearms Act, which regulated machine guns and banned short-barrel rifles.
To Gottlieb, that's a doomed strategy. In any case, he stressed, "the Bloomberg people" know gun groups will never support background check legislation, so they can "knock our teeth out and there's nothing we can do about it." He later added, "They've got us hogtied because they know we're not going to change. I'm being honest with you. I'm not expecting you to change, but that's why we're going to lose."
When subsequent questioners echoed Knox, Gottlieb reminded his audience that even without a background check system in place, there are good reasons not to sell guns to strangers. "If you're stupid enough to sell a gun to someone you don't know, forget the criminal liability -- what about the civil liability?" he asked. "What about you getting sued" if the buyer kills someone?
They say comedy is just a funny way of being serious. So it's natural that a deepening climate crisis would produce a deepening well of climate comedy. We don't yet have our climate-themed Dr. Strangelove, but there's now a feature film's worth of gags, skits, and riffs exploring the lighter side of a cooking planet. Stand-up comics, from mainline stars like Louis C.K. to niche acts like the Christian comic Paul Kerensa, have mined climate change for material. Climate activist groups like 350.org have recently begun to take a cue from Comedy Central. Even NASA climatologists have gotten awkwardly into the act.
Like the global temperature, the phenomenon is on an upswing. In May, a New Yorker science blogger mused on the benefits of employing a "comedic frame" in climate coverage. A couple weeks later, the Guardian collected climate-comedy highpoints, from The Onion to "Ali G." The newest item on the list came from a May bit from an exasperated John Oliver on the media habit of "balancing" the climate consensus with fringe skeptics.
The biggest sign the genre is maturing hums with neon. Today, Chicago's Heartland Institute, the kings of unintentional climate-comedy, will hit the Vegas strip with a three-day show at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, featuring a chorus line's worth of hilarious climate rejectionists. The line-up will collectively perform the energy-policy equivalent of a Henny Youngman routine: "Take my planet capable of supporting civilization. Please!"
The think tank that flacked for Big Tobacco against the science of lung cancer will perform off the same playbook to flack for Big Carbon against the science of greenhouse gases. Tickets to see these self-styled climate researchers and political operatives -- almost none of whom are climate or earth systems scientists and nearly all of them funded at one- or two-degrees remove by oil and coal interests -- run $129, including meals.
On the Strip, Heartland speakers will pretend to be qualified to dissent from the equivalent to the National Academy of Sciences of every industrial country. Against the faint ring of slot machines, they'll dismiss the stark warnings of experts from 130 countries who contribute to the authoritative assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Because the first rule of improv comedy is "Yes, and...", some Heartland speakers will concede that, yes, man-made warming is occurring. The kicker comes when they echo Heartland's April report concluding that this is a net positive for all carbon-based life forms. With this pivot toward "Yes, and...", Heartland is ensuring they'll continue to have topical comedy fodder for years to come, even after their carbon denial becomes as outdated as their lung cancer material.
Heartland's Vegas appearance also suggests a strategy to avoid repeating the troupe's 2012 funding crisis. Instead of depending on corporate contributions, Heartland could find steady revenue as a regular sell-out act on the Strip. They aren't in a position to challenge Carrot Top for a headlining residency at the MGM Grand, but in a city whose economic base is expected to suffer devastating effects from climate change, there is a role for a group with years' worth of climate change gags, including slide shows and props. Heartland policy advisor Norman Rodgers, for example, would kill audiences with classic one-liners such as, "The few examples of coal or oil companies actually giving money to dissenters or dissenting organizations are so minor that one suspects that the gift was an accident or bureaucratic snafu." James Taylor would have them rolling with lines like, "I successfully completed Ivy League atmospheric science courses, so I'm a scientist by training."
If Don Rickles can make a Vegas career as the "Merchant of Venom," the folks at Heartland can make a run as the "Merchants of Doubt." The timing could not be better. Nevada's nearly 50 golf courses will likely soon be wilting under heat waves and water shortages, and the dwindling number of tourists visiting Vegas will want more air-conditioned entertainment. To draw these crowds, Heartland just needs to punch-up its clunky ad copy, which now reads, "Come to fabulous Las Vegas to meet leading scientists from around the world who question whether 'man-made global warming' will be harmful to plants, animals, or human welfare." A permanent show needs something that sparkles, like the tagline for the Cirque Du Soleil show "O: An aquatic masterpiece of surrealism and theatrical romance."
Heartland's might read, "Take the Money and Run: A planet-crushing masterpiece of delusion and breathtaking corruption."
There are other benefits to turning Heartland events into entertainment spectacles worthy of a Vegas marquee. Real scientists would no longer have to "tie up all our time fighting denialist propaganda," as astronomer Phil Plait put it. Instead, they could relegate Heartland coverage to the entertainment critics at Variety and Las Vegas Magazine. Heartland is a good bet to open to rave local reviews. They already have friends at the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Heartland is also getting into the movie side of show business. Its main co-sponsor in Vegas this week is the concurrent libertarian event, FreedomFest, held at Planet Hollywood. On Wednesday night, Heartland ticket-holders are invited to attend the debut the film, Atlas Shrugged 3: Where is John Galt? Fox Business host and popular climate comedian John Stossel will introduce the screening and broadcast his show from the FreedomFest floor.
Media Matters has produced brief playbill bios of Heartland's Vegas cast.
Sebastian L. Lüning
Allen West did not immediately take the stage following his introduction at last weekend's Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans. In his place, a horse-mounted Mel Gibson flashed onto two jumbo screens, rallying Scottish national forces against the approaching armies of Edward I. Only after Gibson's Braveheart monologue concluded did West emerge to a standing ovation. For anyone who had missed the point, the Fox News commentator unpacked the clip's lesson: It's 1297 all over again, a Braveheart is needed to lead conservatives over the forces of tyranny, and that man is a one-term rep from Broward County named Colonel Allen West.
"This is a good depiction of where we are on the ideological battlefield," said West. "We look across and think, 'They are too many.' We see the secular humanists, the progressive socialists, the radical Islamists. But we can win back our freedom. I've been on battlefields, and there is no difference between ideological battlefields and battlefields where bullets are flying, because you can lose your life physically, or you can lose your life metaphysically. We face the challenge of raising up a new Braveheart. The American people are looking for someone to come on the battlefield and say, 'Rally around me.'"
West's Braveheart bit was the boldest Hollywood-inspired open at the semiannual Leadership Conference since 2010, when Newt Gingrich strutted out from behind the curtains like a prizefighter and soaked up applause against speakers blasting "Eye of the Tiger" from Rocky. Gingrich's position back then resembled West's today. He was a controversial out-of-office firebrand trying to generate buzz for a long shot presidential bid. Gingrich's most important national platform at the time, now possessed by West, was a contributor gig at Fox News.
Since refashioning himself as a conservative media figure, West has equaled his reputation for inflammatory and divisive red-meat rhetoric. In recent media appearances and posts on his website, he's hinted that war hero and Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth may be harboring treasonous thoughts and performed acrobatic feats of logic to fuel his conservatives' 24-hour a day Benghazi hype-furnace. At every turn, he's told conservative audiences that he's pondering a run for the presidency.
But in New Orleans last weekend, there was no apparent momentum for an Allen West presidential candidacy. The black conservative that most excited the crowd was the one who did not attend. A large and dedicated contingent of "Draft Ben Carson" activists worked the floor collecting emails and handing out buttons and pamphlets. Like West, Carson is a contributor to Fox News. Unlike West, Carson has apparently used the airtime to develop traction among the conservative rank and file. Where the retired brain surgeon finished a close second behind Ted Cruz in the event's straw poll, the Army veteran failed to register. Carson's edge over West also likely extends beyond the GOP base. While the former can sit down with NBC's David Gregory to talk about his New York Times best-selling book, West has never been seen trying to appeal to a broader constituency.
But if his perch at Fox means West still has access to a national conservative audience, it's an open question whether he can win another Congressional race in Florida, never mind a Republican primary.
It wasn't long ago Allen West seemed a somewhat plausible bet for the first African-American on a Republican presidential ticket. Among the Tea Party freshman of 2010, he stood out for his fastball stump speech, delivered with the commanding cast and bearing of retired U.S. Army Lt. Colonel. During his two-year term, he grew a national conservative following as the quintessential tea party congressman. As his reelection campaign approached, he was no longer just the first black Republican Congressman to win in Florida since Reconstruction, he seemed the black conservative best positioned to advance to the national stage ahead of party turning sharply to the right.
Then he got redistricted.
INDIANAPOLIS-- The theme of last week's National Rifle Association annual meeting was an odd one: maternity.
It was not an official theme in the way macho slogans like "All In" and "Stand and Fight" have formally defined recent NRA congresses. But it was a thick running thread, one that signals the quickening of a broad shift underway across the gun rights movement, from the gun makers to the grassroots.
Red schwag set the tone. At tables throughout the complex, NRA staffers handed out "I'm an NRA MOM" buttons and t-shirts. At the building's main entrance hung an enormous banner of a woman, looking a little pouty, next to a populist taunt of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who recently said he would spend big on behalf of the gun safety movement.
While it is unclear if the woman is an NRA mom, she is notably not NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre or board member Ted Nugent. The billboard captures perfectly the NRA's double-pronged messaging campaign of the moment, best summarized as "Glocker Moms against Mayor Mike."
For years the role of women in the politics and business of guns has been growing. We may look back at 2014 as the year it flipped. In Indianapolis, women constituted a full quarter of NRA attendees for the first time -- up to a five-fold increase over the past decade, according to the group.
The NRA is pivoting quickly to adjust, and for the first time its convention program featured two major events for women. In addition to the $250-a-plate Women's Leadership Forum Luncheon and Auction, the group held the first annual Women's New Energy Breakfast, where female gun owners and NRA moms mixed and networked over a $15 breakfast buffet.
These same women are the target of a female-oriented media push, anchored by a running NRA web series called "Armed and Fabulous." An early episode looks admiringly at the Potterfield women of the Midway ammunition empire, whose scion, Larry, is one of the NRA's biggest industry donors.
The women-and-guns motif carried over into the male-dominated dog-and-pony show known as the Leadership Forum, where 2016 hopefuls bragged about their wives' gun racks. Rick Santorum boasted that his wife owns more guns than he does, and that his five-year old daughter is already an NRA member. Indiana Governor Mike Pence talked about falling in love with his wife for her handgun. Florida Senator Marco Rubio bemoaned the paperwork required for his female staffers to carry and conceal. And after two years in which Glenn Beck delivered the keynote, this year's honor fell to the pistol-packin' Mama Grizzly, Sarah Palin.
What's going on? The modern NRA is, above all, a thinly veiled industry group. Its "mom" offensive reflects basic gun industry economics: manufacturers' continued growth depends in no small part on making up for the duck and deer hunting demographic, which has been static or declining for generations.
The industry hopes that women can be their growth market. Thus far its degree of success is anyone's guess. Anecdotal evidence and some polling shows an increase in female gun ownership in recent years. But according to the General Social Survey, the gold standard for survey research, only 12 percent of women owned guns in 2012, a lower level than in the mid-1990s.
Whether or not there's a real demographic sea change at hand, the transformation is unfolding in the gun media, both popular and trade, where designers and analysts discuss the need for new models representing the past and future of the industry. Gun makers are rolling out more rifles fitted for arthritic fingers, as well as handguns like the Pavona pistol, "designed for the discerning woman."
PHOENIX -- The demographic death spiral of the conservative movement has a laugh track. It was recorded live in Barry Goldwater's hometown on Saturday night, in front of a 1,000-person ballroom audience, during a banquet roast of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the gala conclusion to the annual Western Conservative Conference, known until last year as Western CPAC.
Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne laid down the basic comic framework for his fellow roasters, totaling a dozen conservative dignitaries of local and national reputation. "Apologies to the Civic Center," said Horne, "but half of the kitchen staff was arrested tonight upon arrival of Joe and his deputies. Because of a budget crunch, the sheriff's cutting way back. No more green baloney for prisoners -- just an extra beating at suppertime. Over the years, Joe's touched many people. We know because many are now pressing charges."
Chuckling throughout Horne's routine on stage next to Arpaio was Russell Pearce, a recalled state senator with a documented fondness for neo-Nazi websites, and the primary architect of Arizona's controversial immigration bill S.B. 1070. Pearce smiled as his one-time ally in the 1070 fight, Arizona State Rep. John Kavanagh, began his set asking, "How many Hispanics did you pull over on the way over here, Arpaio?" He later added, "All these years I figured he was rounding up Hispanics because you had a grudge from [fighting in] the Spanish-American War. But if you were in the Korean War, how come you're not rounding up Asians?" Kavanagh was doing a bit about the difficulties of dining out with Arpaio -- "When we go into a restaurant, most of the wait staff and cooks dive out the back window" -- when he spotted a passing waiter who appeared to be Hispanic holding a platter of stuffed chickens, and screamed, "There's a brave one! Get him! Sic 'em!"
The crowd roared; the waiter turned red. Thus did a day of strategy sessions on how to reclaim the White House and build a new conservative majority end with national movement leaders affectionately teasing a divisive deport-'em-all drug-war dinosaur, whose roast material revolved entirely around the three facts of his being old, sadistic, and having a bit of a brown-person problem. The Tea Party's loud rejection of immigration reform shows it has also refused the message of electoral emergency delivered by Barack Obama's 2012 victory map. But if anyone needed another reminder, they now have the image of Joe Arpaio receiving a "Medal of Freedom" award in recognition of his rough detainment and deportation techniques, and a taste for racial profiling so aggressive it has resulted in a federally appointed monitor in Maricopa County.
The man behind the Western Conservative Conference, Floyd Brown, has never been very good at helping the GOP build bridges. In 1988, he created the infamous "Willie Horton" ad that has dogged his party's outreach efforts ever since. But Brown's interests and achievements are more diverse than scorched-earth political advertising. He has been a Zelig-like presence on the right for the better part of three decades, zig-zagging his way through and connecting the worlds of conservative organizing, publishing, opposition research, campaigning, fundraising, marketing, and predatory investment advice.
A co-founder of Citizens United, Brown now runs a marketing company, Excellentia Inc., helping clients "achieve success in the conservative and Christian marketplace." He works as a traveling speaker for groups like the Oxford Group claiming to offer "insider" stock tips and advice. He also pushes gold coins and municipal bonds, sometimes in mutual exclusion of the other, depending on his audience.
All of which makes Brown a perfect impresario for today's conservative grassroots activist circuit, where organizing and politics can seem incidental to the interests of an interlocking constellation of thinly veiled data mining, fundraising, and precious metals operations. This was sometimes the case in Phoenix, where an older, nearly all-white group of activist-attendees from Western states paid $399 to train under the tutelage of organizers from Heritage Action and the Leadership Institute, as well as hear national figures pitch gold coins and radio shows. The bold-face names who appeared live or by video included Sen. Ted Cruz, Gov. Rick Perry, and embattled National Rifle Association board member Ted Nugent, who was welcomed despite being under fire for racist attacks on President Obama.
It's an odd feeling to get the upsell on instruction manuals related to domestic terrorism. The nice lady from the Illinois hamlet of Smithton would never describe her wares that way, but that's what they are. The booklets were stacked in neat rows that wrapped around her four tables in the exhibitor's hall at October's Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot, a biannual event just south of Louisville that looks and sounds a lot like a reenactment of the first days of the Siege of Stalingrad. Since 1979, the Shoot has drawn growing numbers of full-auto aficionados to the wooded hills of West Point, Ky. for holidays of high explosives, artillery and machine gun fire. Each April and October, bombs shake the earth and blacken the sky. Streams of bullets smack steel and rubber targets until they burst aflame. The rumble from the range is audible even at the far end of the event's 900-table vendors hall, where I found myself one fine autumn morning perusing technical guides to building kitchen-table bombs and retro-engineering semi-automatic rifles into military-style machine guns.
Most of the many thousands of blueprints for sale at the Shoot -- old Army manuals for M16 maintenance, recipes for homemade bullets of every conceivable caliber -- can be described as ideologically neutral. The same cannot be said for those sold by the lady from Smithton (who refused to give her name, but let's call her Blanche). Her stapled pamphlets each contained cryptic forewords about government mind-control and the need to "advance our culture." For sale among them were spiral-bound copies of white-power manifestos and neo-fascist fantasy fiction, including a samizdat edition of The Turner Diaries, an influential skinhead classic by the neo-Nazi leader William Pierce. I was reading a page from the Diaries when Blanche returned with the change on my purchase of "Plastique Explosives: Composition C and Cyclonite Base With Various Plasticizing Agents." With all the nonchalance of a barista mentioning a new latte, she delivered her pitch on fertilizer bombs.
"You know," she said, "if you're interested in plastics, you might like the one my son's just putting out now." I followed her nod toward a gangly teenager in braces arranging the display of a tract titled, "Kitchen Improvised Fertilizer Explosives."
In certain extremist circles, there is a romance to this breed of bomb. The hero-martyr of The Turner Diaries, which I continued to hold in my hands, begins his "race war" by detonating truck bombs made from heating oil and ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Expository sections in The Turner Diaries explain the bomb-making process and may have inspired America's most murderous fertilizer bomber, Timothy McVeigh. Sections of the Diaries were found in McVeigh's getaway car after his 1995 attack on the Oklahoma City federal center. Three years after McVeigh's truck bomb, the Texas Klansman who dragged James Byrd Jr. to death from the back of his pick-up truck reportedly got behind the wheel with the words, "We're starting The Turner Diaries early."
The boy cheerfully handed me a copy of "Fertilizer Explosives" and I put the Diaries down. He and his mother watched me as I flipped through the instructions for mixing acetone with powdered nitroglycerin, the itemized lists of detonation velocities and pressures, the grades given to various mixtures for their applicability in the three categories of Blasting, Demolitions, and Munitions. For smaller jobs, there was a two-page recipe for a smokeless powder that can be spooned into P.V.C. pipes for a "dynamite alternative with good shattering characteristics." There were a few empty pages in the back for notes.
"Yeah, this is great," I said. "But I've been spending a lot of money out there." I extended a thumb in the direction of the range, where men, women, and children were lining up to pay $1.50 per bullet to unload ammo clips and belts at explosives-laden junkyard sedans and burned-out appliances.
"We'll be here all weekend if you change your mind," said Blanche. "Better to have these in paper. They're watching you now on the Internet."
Blanche placed my book on plastiques in a discreet brown paper bag and I strolled toward an exit under a weather-beaten Confederate battle flag. On the way out I passed the table of an Indiana-based online retailer of skinhead fashion. The business card on the table advertised "WWII German Memorabilia," but there was little for the collector at Knob Creek. Its presentation mostly featured items that looked like they had just come from the factory: crisp swastika patches, reflective SS stickers, Wehrmacht Eagle t-shirts, hoodies with Panzerdivison and Afrikakorps insignia. Across the aisle from both the neo-Nazi gear and the Tim McVeigh bookstore, two women in pink t-shirts offered $10 off annual memberships to the NRA.
"Take a look to your left," said the Hon. Philip Journey. "Now take a look to your right. What do you see?"
It was Saturday morning inside a hotel ballroom at Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport. We, the several hundred congregants of the twenty-eighth annual Guns Rights Policy Conference, did as instructed. Looking to my left, I saw the pundit and National Review columnist John Fund struggling to attach a new credit card reader to his smart phone. Looking to my right, I exchanged nods with an older gentleman wearing suspenders and a VFW hat. He looked like he could have served in the Navy with the airport's nearly nonagenarian namesake.
"You'll notice there's a lot of grey in this room," said Judge Journey, who when not sitting on a Kansas district court bench serves as an officer for the Kansas State Rifle Association. "That's the problem with our movement. We've got to get children into the shooting sports and develop an appreciation by them in the right to keep and bear arms. Because in 20 years, where will we be?"
This question -- "In 20 years, where will we be?" -- is one of gnawing urgency for the gun-rights movement. At the National Rifle Association convention last summer, I heard gun industry veterans joke that NRA now stood for "Normal Retirement Age." At this smaller but no less influential meeting of leading pro-gun minds, most speakers circled back to their fear that those in the room represented the end of a proud line. Even as the movement's leading activists boasted of recent victories at the federal and state level -- and there are many, from successful recall elections in Colorado to a carry law in Illinois -- they warned of a deadly demographic drop-off, that the energy and the youth was all in the gun-reform corner. "The people on the other side, like [the Stimson Center's] Rachel Stohl, they are very young and they are motivated," said Julianne Versnel, of the International Association for the Protection of Civilian Arms Rights. "They know how to Tweet and Facebook, and they are doing a very good job."
If only winning the battle for young hearts and minds was as simple as opening a Twitter account. Like the GOP it overwhelming supports, the pro-gun movement does not sound like a modern army positioned to win a culture war for the allegiance of young Americans. Beverly Zaslow, a protégé of Andrew Breitbart who produces right-wing documentaries, used to the GRPC podium to slam the television program Glee for not having "normal kinds of relationships in it." Another speaker advised the pro-gun movement to "accept the gays, if they're with us." This kind of outreach is unlikely to draw the required levels of new blood needed to replace the men in suspenders and VFW hats. The severity of the crisis was put most bluntly by Andrew Sypien, content manager for the online retail gun giant CheaperThanDirt.com. "It's the 25 to 35 year-olds who are going to replace you in ten years," he said. "If you don't get them, it's going to die here with you."
The "it" here refers to a Second Amendment absolutism that rejects as unconstitutional restrictions on the right of Americans to buy, sell, transport, and carry firearms as they see fit. For the last 30 years, no single figure has done more to advance this vision of an Armed America than the diminutive, bow-tied organizer behind the Gun Rights Policy Conference. Though few Americans have ever heard of Alan Gottlieb, we live in a country he helped create.
Last week in Salt Lake City, Glenn Beck hosted a three-day extravaganza featuring a spectacle-laden stage show, a history museum, speeches and presentations from prominent conservative figures, and a large exhibit hall. Below are scenes from Glenn Beck's latest get-together. First featured are scenes from the exhibit area maintained by the Beck-linked charity Mercury One. Following that are scenes from the main event, "Man in the Moon."
The Blaze Radio was broadcasting:
Lines for a meet and greet with Beck:
The official Man in the Moon store:
Beck's books were also on sale:
Other merchandise available at the event and scenes from Man In The Moon after the jump.
"There's a sucker born every minute."
-- Glenn Beck, Salt Lake City, July 6
SALT LAKE CITY -- The double rainbow arching directly over the outdoor stage could only mean one thing: God was smiling on Glenn Beck. Two hours after monsoon-like rains drenched and darkened Salt Lake Valley, and with weather reports still threatening an even chance of thunderstorms, Beck's fans celebrated the divine thumbs-ups in the clouds. As soon as the rainbows appeared, sounds of prayerful thanks rippled through the USANA amphitheater, a modest venue on the city's western outskirts. "It's God's message," said a woman in a raincoat fashioned from a garbage bag. "I just knew He wouldn't let tonight get washed out."
He did not. Aside from a few light sprinkles early in the unusually cool July 6 night, "Man in the Moon," the inaugural event of Beck's new entertainment company, American Dream Labs, went off without a hitch. This included the execution of a high-wire upside-down flag folding ceremony that had failed repeatedly in rehearsal. After much internal debate, Beck finally green-lit the risky act after getting the meteorological message from his Number One Fan. "When I saw the double rainbow, I thought, 'Let's go for it,'" Beck told the crowd to cheers.
As with Beck's last three summer gatherings, conservatism's least predictable impresario promoted "Man in the Moon" as an historic turning point in the American saga. Like other Beck-identified turning points, this one came with a merch table and all the lean marketing muscle of a major-market NFL franchise. Sixteen thousand people from around the country, including Georgia Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens,answered Beck's call to support his stage and video experiment, buying tickets in a tiered system that spiked out at $1,500 VIP passes. Gold and Platinum tickets included premium seating and parking, a signed poster, and a 10 second meet-and-greet photo op with Beck.
Not included in the ticket price was access to three days of lectures and seminars at the Grand America Hotel. Those passes to talks by leading conservative authors and activists like Fox's Michelle Malkin and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) cost extra, the proceeds going to the Beck-affiliated charity, Mercury One. The morning of the main event, that non-profit helped raise money for the charity of businessman Jon Huntsman Sr., a long-time Beck ally and the father of the former Utah governor and presidential candidate. FreedomWorks, which pays Beck one million dollars a year for fundraising and media support, functioned as an unofficial co-sponsor of "Man in the Moon." The night before Beck's show, theright-wing advocacy group hosted a "Free the People" event at the USANA amphitheater.
But nobody traveled to Salt Lake to hear FreedomWorks' Matt Kibbe give his flat freedom rap, or listen to Rafael Cruz, father of Senator Ted, compare Barack Obama to Fidel Castro. The draw in Utah was the final night's premiere of Beck's latest creation, "Man in the Moon." Tonight was not about restoring another vague concept like Honor or Courage, but celebrating the launch of Beck's new production company. As the sun set on the Wasatch mountain range, Beck described American Dream Labs' first offering as opening a new front in his media war to right and rescue the republic.
This is the front of popular culture. The Blaze octopus (web, TV, soon a radio network) would continue to base Beck's brand as a force in news and opinion; two years after losing his Fox gig in the wake of a years-long advertiser boycott, he is now attempting, with some early success, to muscle his way back into cable on his own terms. The Dream Labs, meanwhile, would function more like a faceless corporate movie studio, with Beck deliberately lowering his profile in the interests of growth.
"Our culture has gone off the rails," Beck told the sold-out amphitheater crowd. "And nobody on our side has done anything about it -- until tonight."
HOUSTON -- To swing the door on a National Rifle Association annual meeting is to enter a world where Freedom comes from a gun. The gun's purpose is not important. It doesn't have to be American made. It can be any number of shapes, so long as it has a grip, a trigger, and a barrel. But only from a gun barrel can Freedom flow. In the words of multiple NRA members who confronted protestors this past weekend, "The Second Amendment is the one thing protecting the First."
Last May in St. Louis, NRA leaders pounded away at this idea in a torrent of Apocalyptic warnings about the consequences of failure in the November elections. A year later, gathering two weeks after helping defeat the biggest effort to strengthen gun laws in a generation, the same men delivered the NRA's Second Amendment gospel with a newfound swagger. Unchanged was the primacy of guns and gun rights in the NRA's understanding of the world and everything in it. In his opening speech, Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre described the gun enthusiasts before him as "Freedom's biggest army, greatest hope, and brightest future." The group's chief lobbyist-strategist, the boyish Tennessean Chris Cox, celebrated the convention as "the biggest celebration ever of American values," whose 86,000-plus attendees embodied "the essence of participation in American democracy."
NRA summits involve leadership votes and platform debates, but NRA-style democracy isn't about those things alone. It's also about the guns that make it possible. Which is why NRA conventions feature an exhibition hall packed with hundreds of booths displaying Freedom's latest fashions -- what the group calls "the most spectacular displays of firearms, shooting and hunting accessories in the world."
The big story on the floor this year was the post-election sales bounce following Sandy Hook and a revitalized gun violence debate. Companies that had reduced production to normal post-election levels in November were blindsided by second buying frenzy and have yet to recover their balance. Among the biggest beneficiaries is the assault rifle industry the NRA did much to nurture in the 1980s. "Sales are through the roof," said a rep from Stag Arms. "We have an eight to 12-month wait." A manager from Core Rifle Systems described the recent frenzy as "almost a little ridiculous. But it's good for business. We have a two-year back order producing 3,500 rifles a month." DSA Inc., which makes a range of ARs and grenade launchers, says it's getting 2,000 emails a day. "Business is good, it's real, real good for all of us," said a rep from the online assault weapon retailer CheaperThanDirt.com. Behind him hung an oversized check for $500,000 made out to the NRA.
Veteran guns and ammo dealers see the current frenzy as resulting from several developments that together have created a perfect storm of paranoia among the gun community. Obama's reelection, legislative movement on Capitol Hill, the UN Arms Trade Treaty, reports of large purchases of ammunition by federal agencies -- all have been hyped in the gun press and in rightwing media as heralding everything from ammo droughts to full-on police state tyranny.
"Together with all the gun stuff in the news, you still have the bad economy, which means survival purchases of the three B's -- beans, bullets, and booze," said Jeff Mullins, a bullet designer and owner of Allegiance Ammunition. "Then people see these reports about the government buying high volume [ammo]. That makes people think, 'Well, they're buying it to keep it from us.' I don't want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but..."
When Mullins trailed off, an attendee listening nearby finished the thought. "Everybody is thinking that way," he said. "Nobody trusts the government."
This distrust is spreading to their fellow citizens. NRA members have been as jolted by public mass shootings as anyone else. Some of them just come to different conclusions about solutions. Among the workshops offered in Houston were several related to defensive handgun skills, i.e., how to be a good guy with a gun who stops bad guys with guns. The defensive shooting expert Rob Pincus introduced a full auditorium to the methods outlined in his book, Counter Ambush. In his talk, Pincus avoided phrases like "mass shootings" and "rampages," instead referring to emergencies in "the public environment situation."
Growing demand for bullets capable of dropping a Jared Loughner with one shot has increased interest in frag rounds like those designed by Jeff Mullins. "People are coming out of a fantasy world and realizing they have to take responsibility for their safety, even when they're at the mall or wherever," he said. "People now realize that bad people sometimes need to be taken out quick."
To illustrate why his trademarked bullets are the right tools for stopping an ambush, Mullins reached under the counter and pulled out photos of a dead 485-pound Russian boar. His daughter had recently killed it with a single round of his newest design. "It fragments so well that it creates instant trauma, shutting down the central nervous system," he explained. Like so many of his peers, he couldn't guess when his supply would catch up with demand.