Trigger happy: Inside the NRA's annual convention

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Rifle raffles, pistols as long as your arm and hundreds of people whose answer to the Newtown massacre is to put armed guards in primary schools. It can only be the NRA’s annual conference

Houston

There isn’t much sanctuary from the percussive bombardment that is the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting. You could have nipped into the Wild Game Cooking Seminar with chef Paul Meleen on the third level of the convention centre here in Houston. Or for real respite, maybe the gentleman’s loo.

Ping, ping, ping! Blam, blam, blam! These are the ballistic sound effects blasting out from the stands crammed into the main exhibitors’ floor. Roll up, roll up for the new SigSauer MPX. The next generation of submachine guns is here! Come on over to Crosman and take a look at our brand new Zombie Terminator Pump Action Rifle. Good thing it only fires pellets, because it is packaged like a toy. Zombies are hot right now; so are guns for kids.

For sheer luxe try the Beretta stand where the lead salesman switches between English and Italian (still with a bit of a Texas twang) and the camel-coloured carpeting is especially cushy. They have pistols in there longer than a man’s arm. Or for the very best in subtle branding step over to the Advanced Armament Corp with its attractive logo of a skull and crossed assault weapons beneath it instead of bones. Lest we forget that guns kill.

The sales pressure is on! People here mean to load you up with laser sights, bullets, magazines, holsters, gun-stands, credit cards and even mortgages. Or how about enrolling your kids at the independent Hillsdale College in central Michigan, where gunmanship is a special focus.

The other banging sound from higher floors in the convention hall is made by political chest-beating. While the annual NRA meeting is part jamboree, it is above all about reinforcing what the organisation exists for – lobbying Washington and stopping anyone, anywhere from encroaching on the rights of Americans to bear arms, enunciated in the second amendment to the Constitution.

And this is not an ordinary year or an ordinary meeting. The most powerful gun-rights lobbying group in the land, the NRA found itself on the defensive after the Newtown elementary school massacre in Connecticut last December. Here in Houston it is celebrating its success in derailing President Barack Obama’s effort to push Congress to pass new gun laws. “If you are an NRA member, you deserve to be proud,” Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s take-no-prisoners chief executive told his members. They, he added, “exemplify everything that’s good and right about America”.

But the NRA leadership remains wary, conscious of polls saying that 80 per cent of Americans support the President, at least as far as his plan for expanding background checks for gun buyers. The authors of the bill that failed in the US Senate last month are vowing to bring it back for a vote soon. “We’re engaged in a long battle that will take years. We know it’s not over,” said Andrew Arulanandam, the NRA’s director of public affairs. There is a sense of defiance and urgency here, which is why this year’s meeting is drawing a record 70,000 members.

The usual roll-call of icons of the political right is in town, too, to pay their dues and pump up the adrenalin. The vaguely familiar man with white hair signing books on the third floor? It’s Oliver North, star of the Iran-Contra scandal of the late 1980s and virile hero of the American right. Glenn Beck, the conservative broadcaster, did his radio show from here and the line of fans to see him stretched the equivalent of two city blocks.

The rabble-rousing began yesterday with an indoor rally – or “leadership forum” – with speeches by Governors Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal (Texas and Louisiana) and US Senator Ted Cruz (also Texas). He is beloved by the Tea Party, who are more than represented here this weekend. As was another of yesterday’s star speakers: Sarah Palin. There are no Democrats on the speaker lists and, safe to say, very few in the building. Nor, by the way, are there many non-whites.

It is tempting to think that in Houston this weekend you have stumbled into a Real America zone, a distilled version of a country that believes in the individual over the common good, in the frontier spirit and where “We the People” really means the government can go jump in the lake.

But this is only a part of America. It’s why this morning protesters belonging to “Occupy the NRA” are scheduled to gather in the small park across the street and why some Americans will look in from the outside and despair. Those Americans angry about Newtown and who can’t fathom the NRA and its followers whose response to the deaths of 20 first-graders is to call for armed security personnel in primary schools.

But there is no deflecting the NRA grassroots. They despair too – of Mr Obama. “They don’t want to control guns, they want to control people,” says Eric Jackson from Austin, Texas, the bulge in his jeans betraying the weapon he has (legally) brought to the convention hall. His is a cause that he traces back through history.

“We beat the British because the farm-boys bore guns, the frontiersman bore guns.”  He has no patience for Mr Obama and thinks that background checks of any kind violate the law. “I should be able to buy a gun just like I buy a hammer.”

His mother interrupts. Joan Jackson, 61, is a retired elementary school headmistress and has something to say about Newtown, too. “After Newtown my opinions on all this just changed,” she began. Was she about to depart the NRA script? No. Someone on staff at every school should indeed now take a gun to work. “If you don’t, everyone inside are like dumb sheep with a wolf in the pen.” Joan is standing by the “Wall of Guns”, a long partition with assorted weapons hanging in glass cases on either side that are being sold off in a series of rolling raffles. Her husband, Dan, just won a “Henry Big Bob” rifle with a $20 ticket.

Earlier, Felix Truett, a veteran of the US Navy and now an analyst for the US Border Control, is itching to get into the exhibition floor. “I am so excited,” he says, sitting on a bench alongside his sister, Katharine Truett-Ohman. (Her husband is the firearms expert who had earlier helped this reporter handle a Russian pistol in the airgun shooting range just across from the press room. We hit the target five times out of five.) “I think he is an idiot,” Mr Truett says of the President. “He doesn’t care about his country, he cares about his own agenda – and it’s pointing towards socialism”. He and his sister concur with the view held widely here – that Mr Obama means to use background check legislation to create a national gun owners’ registry and then take everyone’s firearms away. “All we will be allowed after will be shotguns,” says Katharine. That would be like Britain, she adds, with pity on her face.

It’s time to duck into the boy’s room for that elusive calm. But even there the assault isn’t over. “Stop Obama’s UN Gun Grab” yells a yellow card tucked behind the flush. We are meant to fill in the card, with our email address and phone number, and send it in. To where exactly, it is hard to tell. But the request for money surely won’t be far behind.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
tv'Jingle Bells' quickstep on Strictly Come Dancing's Christmas Special
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there