Trigger happy: Inside the NRA's annual convention

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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


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.

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