In case you hadn't heard, the National Rifle Association dropped by the Orange County Convention Center April 24. About 50,000 members attended the 132nd-annual meeting and show. They came to pay tribute to outgoing NRA president Charlton Heston, select a new president, wave the flag, pat themselves on the back for getting George W. Bush elected and check out some guns. Lots and lots of guns. What follows are the scribblings of a reporter who spent three days embedded with the NRA and is now in recovery in an undisclosed location.
Thursday, April 24
The NRA's National Urban Affairs Committee is holding its first meeting at the Orlando convention, and I'm on the guest list. By mistake, it turns out. More on that later.
A woman with the NRA named Sue Ann or Sue Ellen is obviously uncomfortable that I'm here. She gives me a very professional greeting that says "hi," but really means, "Who are you and what are you doing here?" A thought occurs to me: How many of the people in this room are packing?
The Urban Affairs Committee is charged with increasing NRA membership among minorities. No small task, judging by the preponderance of white people at the convention this weekend.
But this right here is a very diverse group of blacks, whites and Hispanics. The featured speaker is Roy Innis, chairman of the Urban Affairs Committee and the national chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality.
Before his talk, Innis asks the folks in the room to introduce themselves. A black woman from Miami says her friends were surprised she would attend an NRA function, given that the street-level wisdom says the NRA is comprised of "racist, sexist, evil, old white men."
Innis takes the podium and gives a brief outline of the NRA's beginnings. The group dates to 1871, when Union veterans William Church and George Wingate got together to commiserate on their shared observation that Rebs were better shots than Yankees. Thus, notes Innis, who is black, the NRA has been aligned with the cause of racial equality since its beginnings. But somehow, the public image has slipped, he says. "How is it possible that with a start like that, the public image of the NRA has become so contorted?" he wonders.
The media "demonizes" guns, but guns don't really create problems, says Innis. They help prevent them. "[On 9/11] four planes were hijacked by some hoodlums. They didn't have guns and no one was able to do anything about it. Can you imagine if someone was armed on one of those planes how much less carnage would have occurred?"
Does he really advocate arming airline passengers? I mean to ask him, but there's no chance. Before my hand can shoot into the air he's off on another topic: gangs and guns.
"[In] New York, Miami, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles ... it is the young men in the gangs [that cause gun violence]. If before joining the gangs they had joined a new group of the NRA, I submit that there would be less killing, less mayhem."
Innis thinks it would be a good idea for the NRA to get its people into urban neighborhoods to put on handgun "demonstrations" for gangs like the Crips and the Bloods. "[That would] give them the opportunity to satisfy their curiosity about guns."
Time to leave.
As I'm walking out an NRA rep introduces himself as the person who sent me the invitation. "I was looking for a black guy," he says. "I thought seeing as you were with a weekly ..."
Sue Ann or Sue Ellen runs after me too. She wants to know how I found out about the meeting.
"He invited me," I say, pointing to the NRA rep.
Friday, April 25
At the "grassroots workshop" the topic is defeating anti-gun legislation. Members are here from all over the country, grouped by state. The California table has only two delegates. Florida has eight tables, all seats taken.
Suzie Roulette, NRA's grassroots coordinator, urges members to network using the "natural resources" that "anti-gunners" lack: gun shops, shows, clubs, shooting ranges. "Strike up a conversation over a particular firearm," she suggests. "Ask the shooter what they have done to protect the Second Amendment."
Anti-gun groups, like Handgun Control, Inc. (also referred to by NRA brass as "the Brady bunch" in honor of its founder, Sarah Brady) promote an "extremist" agenda, says Roulette. "We all know what they will resort to to get people involved in their extremist activities."
The most important thing to do is register and vote, she tells the gathered. And convince other NRA members to do the same. Together, NRA members can change the face of politics, she says. "Think for a moment of President Al Gore." The audience groans. "Attorney general Janet Reno for another four years!" The audience seems in physical pain.
Gore and Reno are among a handful of Democrats whose names elicited everything from chortles to guffaws all weekend long. Others include U.S. senators Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Diane Feinstein (Calif.) for their support of renewing the assault-weapons ban; U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (Calif.); U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy (Mass.); and of course Bill Clinton. Especially Bill Clinton, whose two terms in the White House are colloquially referred to as "the dark ages."
Clinton is despised for his anti-gun views in general, and his assault-weapons ban in particular. The ban sunsets in 2004. The NRA wants it gone forever. But how to get the public to warm up to assault rifles? The grassroots staff has a few pointers.
Roulette urges members to write their legislators. "Feel free to utilize our fact sheets, but use your own words," she says.
Rebecca Williams tells the audience to write letters to local newspapers. "Letters to the editor are a great way to get our issue in the media," says Williams. "As most of you know the media is not pro-gun."
For most, the heart of the NRA convention is the exhibit hall. It's here where the goods are -- hundreds of booths with everything from glossy new Glocks to bad-ass Heckler & Koch rifles that would be in style in Iraq at the moment.
My first stop is Laser Shot Shooting Simulations, where I summarily lay waste to 10 or 12 virtual ducks with a virtual 12-gauge shotgun. Laser Shot rep Anthony Francisco tells me that George Bush Sr. has one of the $6,000 simulators, as does the king of Morocco.
Speaking of Heckler & Koch, the company brought along a UMP model to tantalize showgoers. The UMP is H&K's "cost-effective" submachine gun for the military and police markets. Automatic weapons are, of course, banned. (Even the NRA won't touch that one.) But H&K does offer the USC .45 ACP Carbine, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the UMP, albeit in a semi-automatic. At $1,100, it's more of a "plinking" gun than a serious target shooter, the H&K rep says.
At the Extreme Shock Munitions booth, rep Jeff Mullins explains the "anti-terrorist" nomenclature on the company's newest line of ammo:
"You get one-shot stops," he says. "They're frangible and lead free. You put total energy into the target."
The bullets are good for home defense, adds Mullins, because they disint0egrate on impact. "Shot placement is not as critical. When it goes inside a pressurized cavity, it expands tremendously."
A few booths over is Steve Wiesner, creator of the Pager Pal, a concealed holster that fits inside your pants and hooks on your belt with a clip designed to look like a pager. Wearing a gun inside your pants has the advantage of effectively concealing the weapon, even when wearing shorts. When trouble arises, you simply reach into your pocket and push your gun up and out of your pants.
"If you don't have a handgun at an unexpected gun fight, you don't get to vote," says Wiesner.
Across from the exhibit hall is the air-gun range, where NRA volunteers are selling five shots for $1. I buy $3 worth. First I try a rifle, then a pistol. Range instructor Rod Berkheimer says my shot grouping is nice and tight. "Just sight it in a bit and you're on the bullseye. Excellent. Very, very good."
Choices, choices. Do I go to "methods of concealed carry" or "women aiming high"? Both are at 1:30 p.m. Fortunately they're right next door to one another. I opt for "concealed carry" first.
Tom Marx, an ex Chicago cop, is the instructor. He's been all around the world giving these seminars. "Generally when you get out of the country you don't find people carrying weapons off-duty," Marx notes. As Marx disparages middle-of-the-back holsters, calling them "unrealistic," my mind wanders. Time to go next door.
There, NRA second vice president Sandra Froman, board of directors member Susan Howard (who you may remember from her role as Donna Krebbs on "Dallas"), and Susan LaPierre, wife of NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre, are sitting on a comfy sofa sipping coffee and talking guns.
By the time I get there the three are taking questions from the audience. Froman fields the first one, which is something like, "I'm just a woman, how big a gun can I really carry?" Froman says, "My first gun was a .45 caliber. I say if you are strong enough to carry a man's groceries and strong enough to carry a man's baby, you are strong enough to carry a man's gun."
LaPierre is up next. An audience member wants to know how she deals with anti-gunners. "Sometimes I tell people that my husband works for a large, non-profit association," she says. "The next time I see them, if they still like me, I tell them the truth."
Another woman in the audience asks LaPierre about hunting. Her reply: "I love the biology of hunting. I love to watch them cut open that big thing."
The highlight of the day, if not the entire weekend, is the salute to outgoing NRA president Charlton Heston.
Heston is legendary in the NRA for his fiery pro-gun speeches, and in anti-gun circles for his no-compromise stance on anything that even remotely smacks of gun control. As an actor he's famous for his depiction of Moses, among other roles. This crowd makes little distinction between the role and the actor.
Unlike the daytime events, there's tight security for the Heston tribute. Perhaps police are worried that one of his many enemies will try to finish him off tonight. Perhaps they're worried that the NRA rank and file will get excited and start popping off shots into the ceiling. Or perhaps they sense the potential for trouble when 7,000 gun enthusiasts get together in one place for any reason.
So everyone has to pass through a metal detector before getting in. Once they do make it inside they are greeted by a vast hall festooned with flags. As the national anthem plays over the PA system, a bald eagle named Challenger flies from the stage to a podium in the rear. The bird overshoots its target and flops on the floor a bit before a handler picks it back up, but the moment is still magic. Challenger, I later learn, is on loan from the American Eagle Foundation, and is the only bald eagle ever trained to free-fly at sports stadiums.
All members of the press are confined to an elevated platform at least 100 yards from the main stage. There, a reporter for a daily newspaper wonders aloud, "Is it possible to wrap yourself so tightly in the flag that you suffocate?"
The first order of business is a 30-minute video of Heston's life, which begins, sensibly enough, with the town in Michigan where he was born: "A city of 100 people and 250 guns," he reminisces on the tape."We didn't need the NRA. Now we do. By God we do."
The Bill of Rights is a divinely inspired document, he goes on to say. "It's as if you can sense the hand of Almighty God guiding the swipe of a goose-quill pen."
Heston is 72 and suffering from symptoms consistent with Alzheimer's. He shuffles on stage with help from his wife, Lydia, and smiles broadly when Wayne LaPierre unveils a bronze statute of him, circa 1968, as Will Penny in the western of the same name. It was Heston's favorite role.
Heston's trademark in front of NRA crowds is his sign-off: "From my cold dead hands!" whereupon he hoists a rifle over his head. Tonight he only manages a wave before being escorted back offstage.
Saturday, April 26
I'm back in the cavernous meeting hall for the annual members meeting. The staging, once again, is amazing -- four huge screens, giant flags, red backlighting on blue curtains. The set is vast yet somehow intimate.
The members meeting turns out to be an opportunity for top NRA honchos to work the crowd into a lather with their best stump speeches of the year. They pull out all the rhetorical stops.
Executive director Craig Sandler urges members not to get complacent, lest the U.S. government try to strip its citizens of rights the way the Australian government did, by tightening gun ownership restrictions and buying back certain types of guns commonly linked to crime. "Imagine a day when your Ruger 10/22 is declared illegal and government agents demand you turn it in. No more Browings, Mossbergs, no more Ithacas. That's what happened to our brothers in Australia," says Sandler. "There are many more sad days ahead for our brothers down under."
As Sandler drones on, I buttonhole Rick Benson, an NRA member visiting from Macon, Ga. Upon learning that I'm a reporter he wants to know if I'm a "god-fearing, country-loving Republican."
"I'm not a Republican," I tell him.
"That's OK," he says. "My sister-in-law is a Democrat."
Benson has a concealed-weapons permit and carries a Glock pistol for protection. On Friday he forgot to take it off before coming into the convention center, which is against the rules. Before the gathering all NRA members got letters reminding them that guns are not allowed in the convention center.
Onstage, Froman, the NRA's second vice president, is eviscerating filmmaker Michael Moore. She disparages all "jackals" who feed on public fear and ignorance, and the clown prince of said jackals is Moore and his "nasty little propaganda film based on lies and guile."
She's referring, of course, to the Academy Award-winning "Bowling for Columbine." "Michael Moore is the great center of the anti-American movement and anti-guns movement," she says.
"If Michael Moore was in the pack of Saddam Hussein's most wanted playing cards, he would be the joker."
It makes no sense, but it sounds good to the crowd, who loudly applaud the line.
Kayne Robinson, NRA's first vice president and the man who will take over for Charlton Heston, cranks it up a notch. His entire speech can be summarized thus: People who disagree with the NRA hate freedom and may even be demonic.
"They are hunting haters, SUV haters. They loathe George Bush. These elites seem to hate our freedom," says Robinson.
If that sounds familiar, it should. Robinson, former chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa and a member of the Republican National Committee, took that page straight from his party's book on painting your political enemies as anti-American.
He compliments the Bush administration for its record on "working for freedom," referring, as is almost always the case when the NRA speaks, to the Second Amendment. There's no mention from him or anybody else on Bush's outright attacks on other aspects of the Bill of Rights via the Patriot Act, the Total Information Awareness database, Attorney General John Ashcroft's increased powers to detain and deport immigrants without charges, etc.
While Robinson lacks Heston's oratorical polish, he far surpasses his predecessor in polemics. Frankly, he strikes me as a particularly nasty man with all of Heston's venom and none of his charm. He peddles politics of fear and persecution that's difficult to reconcile with the fact that the NRA is 4 million members strong, and no one is calling for repealing the Second Amendment. I predict these folks will miss Moses dearly.
"They laugh at your values," Robinson tells the crowd. "To believe in freedom is 'sappy.' When we say the pledge of allegiance, they leave out 'under god.' When millions of us go to NASCAR races, they call us rednecks."
NRA haters are soft on crime, he says. But the NRA "stands with angels." He repeats the last phrase -- "you stand with the angels" -- three more times in the course of his speech.
Wayne LaPierre is the final podium pounder. He urges members not to trust the media. "This world is growing more dangerous and the media is growing more dishonest. How else can you describe a profession where the line is blurred between professionalism and treason?" LaPierre has an endearing habit of bobbing his head like a dashboard Taco Bell chihuahua every time he makes a particularly good dig.
The 132nd annual members' banquet features keynote speaker Gov. Jeb Bush. Heston makes a second appearance and is, by all accounts, much stronger. At least that's what I read. I skipped the event due to a severe case of rhetoric fatigue.
The NRA graciously supplied reporter's notebooks for media covering the convention. Included in the notebooks are a few stats to help hurried reporters write their stories:
A few facts not in the NRA reporter's notebook:
signed up since 9/11: 50,000