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.
The boar photos were the second series of graphic images I'd been shown that day depicting flesh shredded by a bullet. The first time was earlier that afternoon, at the protest across the street from the convention center. I arrived to find a New York activist named Aaron Black exchanging words with an NRA board member named Todd Rathner, the only high-level official to visit the protest and speak to press. Raethner was offering a variation of the guns-don't-kill-people argument when Black pulled out full-color photos of a dead girl on a hospital cot, her neck and head ripped open. "This is my friend's daughter Bri," he said. "This is what's left of her. She lost her only child, and she wanted universal background checks. So did 90 percent of the American people. And you stonewalled it."
Surrounded by protestors, NRA hecklers, and reporters from Japan, Australia, and USA Today, the two men commenced a brief dramatic performance of American gun politics, in miniature.
"You don't know that," said Rathner, referring to the 90 percent poll.
"People are mad."
"Call your senator."
"I have, and I'll continue to do so."
"Well, it ain't working."
"Well, I ain't going anywhere."
When Black stormed off, I followed him and asked about the girl. Her name was Bri Jeffries. Black told me she was the 16-year old daughter of his friend, and had been caught one afternoon in crossfire from an assault rifle on the streets of Washington D.C. "He needed to see these pictures -- we all do -- because the media Disnifies and sterilizes this issue so much that nobody knows what it looks like," said Black. "But he doesn't care," Black added of Rathner. Did you see his face? He looked like a great white shark. He's not representing gun owners. He's representing gun manufacturers. I'm tired of watching our democracy sold to the highest bidder. Campaign finance is the root of this whole thing. That's why we couldn't get the votes."
Todd Rathner has spent much of his professional life working key votes for the gun lobby. A self-described "Jewish redneck" and former NRA lobbyist who now runs his own shop in Arizona as well as an African safari company, Rathner celebrates the defeat of the Manchin-Toomey background check legislation and dismisses polls showing a split between NRA members and leadership on the issue of universal background checks. "Bloomberg paid Frank Luntz for the 72 percent number, and Luntz knows how to manipulate numbers," he said. "And the 90 percent number -- it's bogus."
Time will tell. Even if the polls turn out to be right, Rathner thinks the NRA can deflate support by educating the public on the real menace of attempts to plug leaks in the current background check regime: the menace of a Trojan horse for the kind of universal gun registry that Manchin-Toomey explicitly rejected.
"The defeated legislation wanted to subject every transaction to a background check. How do they enforce it? Some form of universal registration is the only way," said Rathner. "That's what this is about. If you simply explain to the American people that universal background checks require universal registration, support for the idea will plummet."
Will it? The supposition that a deep fear of the government unites Joe Public and NRA conventioneers is a risky basis for strategy. Americans are comfortable registering their cars, pets, votes, and marriages, and most would struggle to comprehend the NRA's insurrectionist-tinted freak-out over gun registration - especially given that the freak-out appears to be based on a fantasy. At least, they would until they put on a pair of NRA Freedom Goggles. Viewed through these, registering a Bushmaster XM-15 looks less like registering a used Mazda, and more like registering your freedom of religion.
"Would you tolerate having to register your right to free speech?" Rathner asked. "Would you submit to a background check before you can publish on the Internet? The Second Amendment is the same as the First. They are both constitutionally protected."
Lurking behind the false notion that we don't regulate aspects of speech and peaceable assembly -- you can't yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater, or hold large public protests without a permit -- is the fear, pervasive among the NRA members that attend conventions, that a federal gun registry will lead to an army of repo men going door to door, one micro zip code at a time, like census workers in riot gear.
"If you look at history, registration leads to confiscation," said Rathner. "If they know where the guns are, they can come and take 'em. If there's no registration, we don't have to worry about the government. Why does the government need to know all this stuff? Why should they know what I have in my house?"
Rathner rested his case by saying the so-called gun show loophole is nothing but a media myth. "I go to gun shows almost every weekend," he said. "More than 90 percent are subject to rules and regulations. Almost all the guns sold on Internet are subject to them as well. The amount of guns sold without background checks is miniscule."
What if these cracks in the current system combine with a cheap gun glut to send stray bullets into people like Bri Jeffries? And what if it happens every single day? Maybe that's just Freedom's price. But it's a price the NRA's rural and suburban membership aren't worried about paying. While waiting for the start of a seminar on the ABC's of "Freedom Finance," I asked a voting NRA member from Fort Lauderdale his thoughts on gun violence in American cities. He looked at me like I was stupid, and lowered his voice. "You know, almost all of these shooting deaths in the cities are black-on-black," he said. "It's not black-on-white."
Other NRA members are more concerned with urban violence and have even initiated programs to extend the group's agenda to big cities. Walking back from a Ted Nugent signing event, I ran into a Kyle Coplen, a 29-year-old gun activist who was carrying an electric guitar shaped like a machine gun. His bright green t-shirts featured the logo of something called the Armed Citizens Project, a young non-profit Coplen founded that distributes free shotguns to residents of high-crime neighborhoods. "We're combining Joe Biden's love of shotguns with Obama's love of redistribution," he said. "If we get the poor comfortable with being safe and armed in their own home, maybe later they'll join the NRA, and get themselves a concealed handgun license. We look at the shotgun as a gateway gun to the gun culture."
Coplen says they've raised a good amount of money through coverage on AM talk radio, the Breitbart sites, and Fox News, but the ACP can't yet afford American-made guns. "Right now we're using a cheap, commie Chi-Com 12-gauge pump [shotgun], which is a good gun, but we want to buy American," he said.
The Project may not have trouble raising money for long. Coplen told me its founders are in the process of formalizing a relationship with the NRA, which would link them with plenty of potential funders eager to fulfill the group's real agenda of statistically "measuring the effect that a heavily armed society has on crime rates."
"Providing policy analysis on guns and cities," Coplen surmised, would be useful "in aiding the efforts of decision makers [to] get rid of bad regulations."
Late on the second day of the conference, Democratic Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee dropped by the protest across from the convention center. The NRA was in her home district, and she had requested a meeting with Wayne LaPierre, a request the NRA did not acknowledge. Instead, Lee told a sprinkling of reporters why she supported universal background checks and a national registry. "People think gun registration is something sinister, but it helps you protect your guns the way car registration does when your car is stolen," she said. "It would make an enormous difference to the children and teenagers who lose their lives to guns every three hours and 15 minutes in this country."
Lee's strong defense of new regulations was followed by an anachronistic call for dialogue and compromise with the NRA. "I hope to work with them when I get back to Washington," she said.
With all due respect to the Congresswoman, she has a better chance of finding a unicorn grazing on the National Mall. Had Lee turned around and looked at the side of the George Brown Convention Center, she would not have found the slogan, "NRA: Let's Work Together," but rather the Alamo-like battle cry, "Stand and Fight." Earlier that morning, the organization adopted a hardline resolution written by WND.com columnist and NRA Endowment member Jeff Knox, resolving to reject "any and all" bills containing new gun regulations. The official gesture may have merely enshrined the obvious, but it spoke to a confidence reflecting not just the recent Senate victory, but also the million new members the NRA claims have joined since the election, each paying dues into a war chest already bursting with industry cash and estate gifts.
"If you look at the budget for last year, there's $80 million from endowments alone, and this year is going to be bigger," said a member from Ohio. "My kids aren't going to hate it, but I'm leaving a large gift [to the NRA]. They have great people working on legal support and trust services. This is a money war. If you're not well capitalized, you don't impact Congress. The NRA may be a small group of four or five million, but they've got a hell of a kit. If they come at ya', there gonna take you out."
The evidence on this point is decidedly mixed, and there are signs voters have already turned against senators who voted against Manchin-Toomey. But there's no denying that the power of all that cash to buy enormous amounts of mischief to thwart the public will. The $500,000 check hanging over the CheaperThanDirt.com booth would be a major get for most self-described "civil rights organizations." At the NRA, it's chump change. In Fairfax, gifts are weighed against the seven-figure checks signed every year by Midway's Larry Potterfield, the ammo and sporting goods mogul whose "round-up" campaigns have bolstered NRA-ILA coffers for 20 years. At this year's Leadership Forum on Friday afternoon, Potterfield's public donation was accompanied by the seemingly absurd claim that his company, which sells everything from camping equipment to ATV parts, "wouldn't be in business if not for the NRA."
It was another statement that only looks absurd until you don your NRA Freedom Goggles. It then becomes clear what Potterfield meant: Without the NRA, private property and the shooting sports would not survive, because Congress would pass popular gun reform regulations, thus destroying the Second Amendment, which is the foundational Freedom upon which everything else rests, including Larry Potterfield's ability to sell rifle rounds and a wide range of duck hunting boots.
Each of the speakers following Potterfield reiterated this idea in their own way. Rick Santorum said Europe was "dying" because it failed to enshrine rights, including gun rights, as God given. Unmentioned by Santorum was the fact that, for all its secular sins, the "dying" countries of the EU continue to extend their life-expectancy advantage over the U.S., a trend that might have something to do with the fact that they don't lose 30,000 young citizens annually to gun violence.
The man who followed Santorum symbolized the safety of the status quo in the age of the 60-vote hurdle. Texas senator Ted Cruz drew a standing ovation and sent the "Don't Tread on Me" flags waving when he promised to filibuster any gun bill to hit the Senate floor on his watch. John Bolton followed Cruz, urging vigilance in opposing the UN Arms Trade Treaty, which he described as "the Obama administration's back-up plan for failed domestic policy." Radio host Mark Levin, who joined the NRA and bought his first gun only 18 months ago, sent a taped message about the "ominous forces" gathering against his new favorite Amendment. Texas governor Rick Perry said something to the effect of loving guns and people with guns, but not liking people who hate guns and people with guns. At the meeting's keynote speech the next night, Glenn Beck unveiled an image of Michael Bloomberg giving a Nazi salute, setting off yet another round of condemnations from national Jewish organizations.
These were the voices of the "culture war" promised by Chris Cox. None of them hold much promise as recruitment tools for the 30-plus million gun owners who don't belong to the NRA. In contrast to the their friends in the RNC, which finds itself in a similar dilemma, the NRA appears utterly oblivious to its smoky Southern regional odor. Last week Media Matters reported that the new NRA president, an Alabama lawyer named James Porter, refers to the Civil War just like his grand pappy did, as the War of Northern Aggression. Things like this just don't play well outside deep Dixie, though it may endear Porter to the several hundred NRA members who attended last weekend's seminar on "Civil War Sharpshooters," which included the heartwarming true story of the "black reb" Holt Collier, a talented sniper who stayed loyal to his owner after Emancipation and fought for the Confederacy.
I lasted about 20 minutes in the Civil War seminar before slipping out to explore the exhibit hall and talk to more gun dealers. Among the companies still on my list to visit was Sig Saur, whose Jumbotronic display anchored one of the biggest and flashiest sets on the floor of NRA 2013. The company had recently initiated a big marketing push around its new line of MPX submachine guns, and large digital screens looped promotional videos of the sleek black guns unloading 30-round magazines on full-auto mode, with long black suppressors reducing the noise and flash. As configured in the ads, the MPX would require a raft of special permits, including the signature of a local sheriff, before a sale was approved and logged in a federal registry. But the exhibit was mobbed just the same. As one gun blogger explained it, "Those little machine guns are like the Lamborghinis at a car show."
I was mentally cataloguing the problems with this analogy when I overheard a Sig Sauer sales rep effuse about the number of MPX preorders due for delivery this summer. "We're running two shifts up at the factory," he said. "Day and night, it's the sound of freedom."