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AMERICAN FEAR:
A REPORT FROM THE NRA FRONTLINE



"Two full halls, displaying enough raw guns and ammo to maintain a cozy dictatorship in South America for a few months. If you can shove it into a gun and blow it out of the other end, they've got it here on the floor. Smokeless gunpowder. A guy in camouflage that's so mind-bendingly real a dog may well come over to piss on him at any second. I keep my eyes peeled, but no such luck."
by Cliff Montgomery

Copyright © 2001, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


Mention the NRA to the average American and you're likely to be met with a savage reply. Immediately the eyes fire and begin to twitch, the voice rises sharply, the words of praise or damnation come to the throat with a definite crispness and clarity that wasn't there before.

The question is why; what is it about this particular group that so arouses American passions? Some of their ideas - like the simple thought that an armed person, properly trained, can damn well take care of themselves - even make a lot of sense to most Americans. So what is it about them that make most of us so Goddamn nervous?

I spent 48 hours at the 129th annual NRA convention in Charlotte and discovered an organization of businessmen, alcoholics, political leaders, decorated soldiers, wanna-be cowboys, junkies and armless vets. But after a while, I also began to realize that the 'average' NRA member, away from the political honchos and spin doctors, is hardly the "gun nut" he or she isportrayed to be, and is on the whole even more particular and concerned about gun safety than those who protest against them in the first place.

They're a mixture - sometimes putrid, sometimes a breath of fresh air. They're bankers, binge drinkers, reverends, and molesters huddled together for a common cause . . .

The average NRA member is as frightfully conservative and as shockingly independent as you could ever find on these shores.

God help us, they are us.

~*~*~*~*~

The man with the duffel bag knew he was in the right.

It was a hell of a scene last night, just a few blocks from where theconvention started today. The ol' boy was gettin' hot, tired of bein' harassed by "them".

"Goddamn it, you tellin' me an honest man can't even git some good sleep 'round here? Jesus, I just . . .", he went on, but no one I talked to could make out what else he drunkenly told the cop who was trying to move him from the front of the fried chicken place.

Was he here for the convention? I couldn't find out for sure, but after hanging out with some of these people my gut tells me he probably was.

In any case, the ol' boy was ready to stand up for his rights. He looked that cop right in the eye and told him point blank that he had an AK-47 in that duffel bag and was going to stay where he damn well pleased.

It was getting tight now, and they say you could see that on the cop's face and smell it in the air. The cop knew enough about guns to know the guy couldn't have all that in that little duffel bag - but he had to wonder just what was there to surprise him.

The cop tells him if he doesn't leave he'll have no choice but to take him to jail. The cop's hand slowly crawls up to his holster and sits on the business end of his own gun, just in case. The man with the duffel bag thinks, then slowly begins to leave. He's muttering God knows what, butother than that "didn't say a fucking thing to anybody".

~*~*~*~*~

It hit me the moment I walked through the main entrance of theCharlotte Convention Center; that acrid odor of the body politic, that strange twisting of reality that could only find its full breath on thewinds of a political cause. It's a distortion only David Lynch could fully appreciate. Heston's face lingers high above on my right, on a long banner hanging from the ceiling that has him saying proudly, "I'm an NRA member". Timothy McVeigh was an NRA member, too; his picture is nowhere to be seen.

It's about ten minutes to 10 a.m. and the main concourse is already full of people. The crowd is strewn throughout the thoroughfare but balloonsobscenely thru the middle like a stuffed, bloated whale - and brother, it don't take you long if you try to work your way through all that to quickly become hungry for space. It seems the crowd problem isn't really the result of a bigger than expected turnout, but is due to a bizarre misunderstanding. A surprisingly fair number of these people can't seem to understand why the guards at the escalators won't let them descend to the completely unattended exhibit halls crammed with weapons ten minutes before the show actually begins, or why anyone has to be there to watch over them in the first place. They stand outside the escalators impatiently, like boys trying to take a peek at dad's 'Playboy' for the first time. Only they are not exactly giggling nervously as the anticipation hits; and the mood, while still subdued, is beginning to get just a little tense . . .

As I squeeze by two men, the one in the blue suit and blue-and-white striped tie is looking at his friend (who I couldn't see behind me) and telling him,

"Ah, Goddammit - I can see it all down there Frank, it's like it's waitin' for us. Damn guard won't let a soul thru 'til ten, so we gotta stand here like a bunch of Goddamn idiots, waiting 'til she says we can go down . . .", and throws his head back towards the young black female guard at the top of the escalator.

Apparently the guards won't be winning any popularity contests with this crowd anytime soon. As I somehow find a way to twist, turn, and roll mybody through to the other side of this morass, I hear a few others talking away about five feet to the left of me just as I'm pulling out of the whole thing. They're pointing to the guard at the escalator and the one in the middle dressed from head to toe in fatigues says to his two friends,

" . . . hey, listen - these are good people, as good as you'll ever find, trust me. The NRA's solid; it's just when we gotta deal with the 'homies' that the trouble starts . . .", and I'm now free enough of the crowd to turn around and see that he's staring right at the black guard, hard enough to burn a hole through her with that stare if he only could. His friends don't seem very impressed, though. They're members like the 'fatigues' boy. One is in a simple pair of jeans and white polo shirt; the other one is older and in a blue baseball cap, a plaid shirt buttoned loosely across his slumping body, and has not one honest tooth in his poor honest head. They wait as the boy in the fatigues turns around to take a call from his cell phone - the guy is in full outfit, complete with heavy jacket and brimmed hat even though it's already humid outside and the temperature's climbing upinto the high 80's - to give each other those short, silent signals people give when someone else's back is turned and they are absolutely convinced that person is stone-cold nuts.

I'm pulling out my pen and pad when I see, directly before me and notmore than 30 feet away, a man covered in black - black polo shirt, blackpants, black tennis shoes, black hair, black beard and mustache, black eyes - approach the flight of stairs found at the end of the main concourse and begin what could only be described as an epic struggle with the staircase. I can't tell you exactly what was doing war with the Man in Black; he never came clean about the whole thing, but from what I could get from him hisblood was nicely congealed with equally mad hits of downers, pot, and a few good shots of the liquors. "The liquors are what really does it", he droned like William S. Burroughs after a particularly brave evening as he conquered that top step. I felt like someone interviewing a great Olympic medalist, the doer of a fine, worthless achievement - and I guess in a way I was. I can only tell you that whatever was coursing through my friend's aching veins, I'm sure it was very expensive and probably not from this country.

Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the NRA. Jesus, if the whole weekend is like this I'm in for one hell of a ride . . .

 

Ten o'clock comes and goes as I mill around until an opportune moment, then make that great descent into the bowels of NRA heaven myself. Two full halls, displaying enough raw guns and ammo to maintain a cozy dictatorship in South America for a few months. If you can shove it into a gun and blow it out of the other end, they've got it here on the floor. Smokeless gunpowder. A guy in camouflage that's so mind-bendingly real a dog may well come over to piss on him at any second. I keep my eyes peeled, but no such luck. The guy looks like a talking bush that can move under its own power for Chrissake. I'd give my left eye to be here when the Man in Black comes down and stumbles across this one . . .

There's a revolutionary new gun here this year called an "iGun" - clearly a take on the very successful iMac computer, it even possesses an eerie likeness to the Apple. Made of the newest and toughest polymers, it's as much computer as gun; I'd prefer calling it 'RoboGun', but you can't have everything. Put out by iGun Technologies of Daytona, Fl., it possesses a chip programmed to search the user's fingers for an encoded ring; the chip scans the code, compares it to a code programmed in the gun's memory, and unlocks the trigger mechanism if the code found on the ring is a match.

It's a damn good idea whose time has come, and it shows - however surreptitiously - that the NRA members are not living in a bubble and understand the need for trigger-lock mechanisms themselves. When I went by, interest in it seemed reasonably high. The problem with it is that it's$10,000 and is, for all its laudable intentions, really just a glorified, battery-operated trigger-lock mechanism.

So why does the NRA hate the idea of the usual trigger-lock so much? Why despise the Clinton Administration for trying to enforce a relatively cheap alternative to something the NRA members clearly know needs to be done in the first place - else why have the iGun company there at all?

 

I've been down here a while; I check my watch - damn near 1pm. The Opening Ceremonies are happening in 15 minutes, and I've almost blown a good chance to see Heston and the big boys strutting their stuff in a cozy seat. I sure as hell don't want to be standing as I try to writedown in my small notebook all that's going on around me.

Even though I know the Center quite well, I can't seem to find where the ceremony's being held. Common sense dictates that it be held in the ballroom; but I go there and discover, along with a few older gray-haired redneck boys and one nice-looking, "Brady"-like family that there's no one there at all. Clearly we are on the wrong path.

"Is anyone in there?", the family's young dark-haired son asks. Judging by his seemingly constant look of confusion and what could only be described as a dull, aching kind of fear that shines from his eyes, I'd say he's about 18 going on 12.

"No honey, no one. Don't you worry though, babydoll", the still fairly attractive, raven-haired mother says to her pride and joy soothingly, her pale hand reaching out to touch his right arm, "we'll see him, by God". She says this without a hint of viciousness, but with a gentle forthrightness that says she's as serious and believing as a heart attack; they will see Heston, by the grace of God. God is good, and He lays us down in the pastures of the righteous, His love a gift of incense like the trees of Hebron, Amen.

Christ, now I know why the poor kid is terrified. I pull back and hang with the rednecks in case something happens. All in all, I'm less afraid of them.

"I'm sorry, are y'all looking for the Opening Ceremonies?" a voice calls from behind. We all reel around at once to see a small, thin woman about 40ish, her blonde pageboy haircut still able to give some justice to hergood-looking but somewhat tired face. "Well", she says in a drawl that could only be from Texas, "that's in 217A thru D - just go straight ahead here and - ya'll see the li'l, um, hallway there just to the riight? Gothru that and it should be there directly in front of yew. Need anything else?"

We said "no" almost as one, and she wished us all a fine time at the convention. As for her, she's working for the NRA in one of the registration booths downstairs on the main concourse, was coming by and saw us clearly confused and thought she could help. She's 44, indeed from Texas, told me about a few other things going on and where I could find them, is an NRA member, and is so petite, informed, attractive and so disarmingly nice that I actually start whistling as I'm walking away from her. Any organization that can attract and hold people who can make you whistle and make your step a little lighter as you go on your merry way can't be all bad . . .

 

I know enough about the building to be surprised when I learn that the ceremony's being held here - a rather small venue in which to officially kick off something of this magnitude. I get there, walk inside and am even more surprised to find plenty of empty chairs there to greet us. There's about ten minutes left until the whole thing starts, and even though there's only a few hundred seats here, only a third are taken. Something's up, that's obvious . . . but what?

I go over to an aisle seat close enough to the cozy one I had in my head and begin to sit down - only to spy a few items that's seconds away frombeing crushed by my reasonably large ass. I stop at the last moment andlook around; they're on all the seats in here - a baseball cap and a small accompanying pin proudly promoting a new "NRASports" idea the group's bigwigs have found intriguing, and topped off with a nice little American Flag for me and all the other people here to struggle with, lose, and finally 'drop' to the ground in secret frustration.

I sit down with my new toys and, as best I can, read what we can expect here from the NRA's Program Guide:

"A celebration of YOU the Proud NRA member. Take a glimpse of the past, view the present and see the future of YOUR NRA. Electrifying remarks from NRA guest speakers, a motivating video presentation spanning many years of gun owners victories and lots of fanfare.

Don't miss this great event!"

I do hate to miss a great event, so I'm thrilled to be here . . .

Even though I've seen these people all morning, it only strikes me now how terribly old most of this crowd is; I'd say their age tends to start at around fifty or fifty-five. Many are here with families - a lot of them seem to have brought their grandsons (granddaughters appear to be distinctly absent from this group). If they're not with the family or at least with a wife who's as much into the NRA as they are (while it's notoverbearingly so, there's a pretty big lack of committed females here), they seem to be much more susceptible to drink; terribly susceptible to drink, to tell the truth. The older man who is either here alone or hasbrought an uncaring wife and holds a taste for any of the harder stuff seems to be in the minority - that distinction clearly goes to the younger men who fit that mold. It almost seems that women and family act as even more of a counteraction against a heavy alcohol and drug use with the NRA crowd than you usually find with American males as a whole. And, like anything the NRA member tends to do once he gets his heart set on it, it becomes a passion of the hardest kind. The NRA member doesn't know the meaning of the term 'half- speed'; that's the kind of thing that's "almost ruined this here country", and it's something he's certain is done only by "New York City liberals and faggots". The NRA person tends to be the kind of individual who will dosomething to death or won't do it at all.

Most are from the south and west, and they are all - almost to a person - lily white. I searched a hard while to find a single black person during my time there, and only found three the second day. Two were a middle-agedcouple; the third was a very tall black guy nobody but me seemed to messwith at all. He appeared to be alone, and when I talked to him I found him to be quite sober, intelligent, kind in nature, and totally committed to the cause of the NRA.

Just when you think you've pegged them, someone like this guy or the sweet lady from Texas comes along and blows your fine theory all to hell.

 

It's getting close to showtime, and a small band against the far wall starts up and plays, "God Bless America", at which the now swelling audience claps heartily, then falls into the WWI classic "Over There", at which the audience seems suddenly stumped. It's getting crowded, but there's still enough room in here for an interesting show. I can see a few lights are starting up and falling over the crowd, and that the fairly large screen at the front has begun showing a few stills. The flags arewaving now, and a few women have taken their small flags and placed theminside the back of their caps like people do at political rallies. The fake political flavor that one found in the concourse but lost in the halls and in meeting with the members themselves has now come back with a vengeance. One wonders in looking at all this if this is really Heston's testing of the waters. Could he be thinking at this late hour in his life of throwing his hat into the Big Ring? He's always been a political animal, though he switched affiliations some years ago, somewhat "like Reagan" -that's a phrase you hear falling from a lot of mouths around here, young or old, male or female, high or sober. If Heston hasn't thought of it, the NRA members certainly have.

Just as I'm beginning to take a few small notes in an effort to be asunobtrusive an observer as possible, an guy about sixty asks if the seat to my right is taken; it's not, and so he sits down quickly - too quickly for either me or anyone else around to tell him what we know from experience is about to happen. No problem, his ass tells him soon enough. He gets up, a bit wiser now, freaks out just a bit as we tell him there's also a pin here on the seat ("Where is it? Do you see it? Is it on me? Oh God, is it?", he asks me frantically), and slowly sits back down - but not before running his wrinkled hand over the seat quickly. He's learned his lesson.

He's from Asheville, NC, so he's "right over from Charlotte". He tells me he's an NRA member, has been for a while now and admits to me that he's here mostly to see Heston. He's a bit excitable, but certainly nice enough, talkative - until he sees me holding my notepad and taking notes. A certain sense of woundedness, a hazy paranoia sweeps over him now; he seems both perplexed and a little worried about my notetaking.

If I weren't so much bigger and so much younger I'm picking up the scent that I'd have a fight on my hands. Over what I couldn't really say; and I doubt my former friend could exactly describe it either. I guess it's just that, after belonging to a group that is eyed so suspiciously by everyone else for so long, you can't help but eventually become suspicious yourself - even if you're a good-natured, somewhat excitable man from Asheville.

Finally, the 'great event' itself begins. Wayne LaPierre, Executive Vice- President, comes on. One gets a strong indication in between his pauses that he's the day-to-day man running things; it's when he starts to talk that the doubt sinks in. His only memorable characteristic is that no one can seem to remember a thing about him the moment he's gone.

The harsh lights from the lighting truss and cameras the NRA has for the event are shining dead into in my eyes, blinding me. Look at the tape when it's available (if they don't judiciously edit me out), and you'll see one lone soul near the middle on an aisle seat blinking his eyes like a rabbit caught in the headlights.

Here it is, the moment my former Asheville friend and the really interesting family at the ballroom doors came for, the man the members jammed in to see; Heston himself. Heston, the deliverer. Heston, time and again Man's last hope. Heston, on tape. He says he can't make it today unfortunately, though the bigwigs must have known about it for a while; they have a fully edited, very professional looking video with Heston's face explaining the whole thing for the deflated crowd. Most of those standing along the wall leave at once. We'll see him tomorrow, he says, but we're in his thoughts. The man from Asheville mutters, ". . . on tape". He looks defeated.

Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory shows up; "This is the first time I've ever had to follow Moses", he's says - all right, that's not bad. One can see why he's a politician; he thrives under the falsity of these experiences. He describes this fair city to the crowd, and is proud to say that it's a banking city and "a very clean city" - as opposed to all those other banking cities that are putrid cesspools. Before he leaves the podium he quickly wishes everyone here "a fine time in this very good, clean city".Cleanliness is very important to Charlotte's mayor.

Roy Firestone of ESPN is hosting the event (Christ, if Bobby Knight shows up, I'm thru), and is primarily introducing people the NRA feels are good role models for their campaigns. Goddamn cameramen are making it hot for me now, shining their tools right in my eyes and the eyes of the crowd around me for the "stirring" crowd shots; the Asheville guy moans, and I'm blinking and shaking my head now like a deformed madman - probably not the drama the cameramen wish to convey. After that my section of the audience would be left alone like people shaking with the plague, but I never get so much as a 'thank you'. Go figure . . .

After a brief sportsmanlike statement about how we must 'fight for what we know to be true' (that's close enough), Firestone begins by introducing Medal of Honor winner Lewis Millet - a real hero from WWII whose greatest asset is to make any American who disagrees with him feel like shit for doing it.

A pilot from the same era, Joseph Foss, himself a brave hero (and, itseems, once President of the NRA), comes out next. Firestone can't help but mention as he beams with pride that good ol' Foss was big in sports himself; I don't know who he is from a hole in ground. The man from Asheville says "Mmmm, yeah, Foss", but with so little conviction it's obvious he's not too sure himself exactly what it was the man did. He's sure it was something stupendous, though.

Notice I say Firestone "introduced" these people - probably the most impressive individuals taking the stage that day, average NRA members who went on to do great things and whose exploits demand respect - but they're not allowed to utter a single word.

James Jay Baker, the man who run the political and public relations arm (or 'Minister of Propaganda', for those of you who are truly spectral) comes on right after that, making a quick point that there are good laws already on the books nationwide - and others in SC and NH especially - to protect people from their own guns. He has a point, but refuses to mention that the NRA usually fought against every one.

NRA rep Craig Sandler comes next, and is convinced that "(the art of)hunting makes us a great nation". A person might question his exact definition of "greatness", but a few people in the audience are convinced he's on to something. A few random claps and shouts make the rounds. The Asheville man is watching me write all this down with an ever more suspicious eye. I believe he thinks I'm a Communist.

Firestone comes back on, bringing on kids who "did well" with shootin' . . . They include an Olympic star who won her medal for rifling, a young girl who fought to have a picture of herself as a member of the school gun club actually holding a gun put back in her high school yearbook (it makes sense, I'll give her that); but they really don't stir an impartial observer.

But one boy that was brought on - Jake Ryker of Pennsylvania - knew enough about guns and shooting from hunting expeditions with his dad to perceive when a kid gunman at his school ran out of ammo; he then took the opportunity to act. Now this is impressive, and makes a very good point; he knew what to do and when to act solely by virtue of his past experience with guns. All the anti-gun protests in the world won't change that fact. Since these times are so vicious and violent, it is imperative that we know when and how to act against an armed assailant, so the NRA is onto something.

One thing, though; the shooter was armed to begin with, probably by a gun he stole from his father's den, a man who is himself possibly a proud card holder of the NRA. It's still an excellent point, though . . .

Lapierre returns to briefly mention the NRA's newest attempt at spin; the idea of shooting as a clean, fun, and safe "outdoor - and indoor(!) - sport" (hence the "NRASports" tie-in), with NRA shooting centers built to support it - beginning with one in Times Square.

But do those people really need more access to guns? Seems to me they do fine all by themselves.

The big screen is put into use for the first time since Heston's "video card" to the members; the video starts, showing members skeet shooting, hunting, and having (pardon the pun) a blast . . . seems fine, until one of these people popping on the screen says on the voice-over that he is, in so many words, only in his element as a rifle roars away in his excited hands.

He looks just like Oswald. I've never been so scared in all my life.

Firestone then sings (!) "Don't let the Sun Go Down On Me" - a rather odd choice of song for a joyous great event. He doesn't embarrass himself, which is as much as you can ask for, I suppose. Clips appear onscreen of Joe Montana, Michael Jordan (also a strange and unsettling choice, since his beloved father was killed by two punks with a handgun around this very city a few years ago - something not a single NRA member appears to remember) and others ; now why all these sports stars are being shown in the first place is damn well beyond me, the Asheville man and all those around us as well. The only logical conclusion is a tie-in of some kind with Firestone's own interests or the "NRASports" turn . . . in any case the members are enjoying the video, but aren't getting the message.

LaPierre adjourns the Opening Celebration, then remembers in his deft way the very purpose of the Celebration in the first place. He steps up quickly to the podium again, suddenly ready to give the members the 'hard sell' on the "NRASports" concept that he should have given before the film clips of sports stars began; then the clips would have been in context and would have at least made more sense. Instead he only seems to think of all this the moment the members leave the meeting room. "Soon", he begins saying with a voice bordering on conviction, "(the NRASports idea) will hit the streets of New York, and we will prove (to America) that the shooting sports (sic) is the safest sport out there." He works hard, eventually using all his powers of charm and appeal to whip what's left of the crowd into a virulent indifference. I see some members are even moved enough to look back to the podium, convinced they heard a small voice of some kind.

 

As I ramble about on the meeting floor above the concourse, I find an interesting potpourri. There's meetings on Gun Law,"Great American Game Calling Championships", and a gun range that had tongues wagging weeks before the Convention even rolled to town.

People were worried - the NRA insisted it continue a tradition it claims it's had for years of giving members a chance to experience the joys of practicing at a good, well-kept and safe gun range. The local press had a field day; some pressed the idea that laws keeping guns from being firedinside city buildings must be maintained against the organization. Things were then said on both sides. Eventually cooler heads prevailed, and the NRA was allowed to continue its tradition, provided it could prove the display met safety and building regulations the city would set. Certainly this would be something to see.

I find the range up here, and wonder about the lack of any gun sounds in the area. Those championship game callers can't be droning everything else out, can they? It's an event these boys take very seriously; competition is fierce, and more than one good ol' boy was practicing in the hallway, blowing his lungs out and sweating bullets as it became his turn to give the judges his all. As I walk up on the range, those piercing shrieks shock all in the halls. The sound is almost deafening, and I'm wondering if I really am proceeding here at my own risk. What if a guy is practicing at the range and starts having one of those weird "Vietnam flashbacks?" What if he thinks it's Charlie trying to trick him? Christ, I don't stand a chance. As Iwalk into the doorway, my first thought is to fall to the ground and begforgiveness in case some hotshot tries to blame me for the sounds and ruining his perfect shot.

As I'm about to walk in a guy stumbles up to me and asks in a drunkenhaze if I "know where the bathroom is" - apparently it's a hell of an emergency. I tell him, he looks around , pushes out a "Thank ye'" and meanders off in a fairly straight line. Please God, don't tell me he was just in here shootin' up the place nice and good like . . .

What I see is a simple range, already set up and working, using nothing more than air guns to fire at the targets about thirty feet from the shooters. If this is what all the fuss is about, someone needs to do their homework. I walked in and watched them there; the range was indeed a little small, but was away from the meetings and, for its size and simplicity, quite efficient. A man working behind the small two-foot counter asked me if I'd like to try a shot; before I'd even picked up a gun (thereby not waiting to see if I might handle it efficiently or not), he asked me if I knew a lot about this type of weapon; he could see my visitor's sticker on the left side of my chest, and, it seemed, wanted to make sure everything would be as safe and as enjoyable for me as possible. With my poor eyesight it took me forever to aim and shoot, but it had a kick and feel to it that a person could describe as pretty damn realistic. I stood back after I was finished and watched as the attendants worked with others. They would never immediately assume that a person knew what they were doing, were always quick and precise with their help, and were so genuinely concerned for the safety and fun of the whole thing that an honest observer cannotpossibly believe it all to be for the sake of placating city fathers; and even if this were the case, it would hardly explain the obvious care andconsideration the customers (most, but not all, of whom were members themselves) put into something they so clearly enjoyed.

The papers around here (particularly the Charlotte Observer) had readers believing the NRA was going to make this 'gun nut' central for three fun- filled days; but that particular charge is a bum wrap, plain and simple.The only "loaded" guns in the building that the public can come close totouching are on this range and shoot bursts of air - potentially dangerous certainly, but hardly the weapon one would use to blow off kneecaps and make spaghetti of bellies.

As I talk and mill around the members themselves, I find that they are in fact usually not the rabid 'gun nuts' they're portrayed to be. What is here, however, is a particular sense of paranoia among most ofthem, especially regarding most forms of authority, which the NRA memberoften despises as if on principle - except for those authority figures who use guns themselves, that is. Then the feeling tends to become much more complicated, almost a 'love-hate' conundrum that the members aren't quite comfortable with and can't quite figure out themselves.

But there is still, on the whole, a genuine care and consideration for gun safety that would shame the average anti-gun protester, however noble their aims.

 

Not that every person here is capable of using a firearm anytime soon. Many of the drunks and younger pillpoppers (pills seem to be the drug of choice for the younger set) use the convention as a chance to "tie one on, by God", and they grab at this opportunity to live in the "big city" with a hunger they'd never show back home where everybody knows their names.

"We can't do any of this back where I'm from", one young buck from Oklahoma said to me hazily. "It's just - oh God, if people started talkin' 'bout the things I'm doin' here, my mama'd be sure to disown me, that's the truth. You live here? Shit, you should be . . . there's the world here man, everything. You can buy whatever you want here . . . and shit, thewomen; there are girls here - I mean just young girls - who'll doanything when you flash some cash and show 'em a bit of attention. Hell, sometimes you don't even need the cash - just dare 'em, that's the truth. Yeah, you got it made, boy" . . .

But I have to say - if they were running around "tyin' one on", they never came in to try out the gun range; at least I never saw anyone likethat going in the whole time I was there. I doubt the guys at the counter would have given them the time of day anyway - I'm sure they were told not to give any quarter to a bunch of yahoos who can barely stand straight.The image of those boys standing there gun-in-hand is the last thing the NRA needs right now.

 

As I write this there are three guys twenty feet in front of me. Two are average looking, and seem, according to their dress, to be fairly intelligent and successful; the other has been dug up by his cousin Cletus just for the show. They're splitting my head and everyone else'spracticing their cackles and calls for that Game Calling event; is the contest for the best or the loudest? Pretty soon it sounds like cousin Cletus and that redneck out back having too much fun with the turkeys on the farm. A pretty girl stops by the table at which I'm writing, reviews the whole scene, looks back at me and laughs hysterically at the whole strange episode. The Man in Black suddenly makes an appearance out of nowhere. He looks to me and Donna for help and is clearly scared shitless.

"Who is that, exactly", Donna yells as the Man in Black passes by. One of the 'successful' boys sees the cute member talking to me and - as if using a mating call sure to make her wet between her gorgeous thighs - begins roaring even closer to us.

"I - I don't really know - a friend." She can't quite hear me, and leans in towards me; she smells wonderful.

"A friend", I scream at once.

"Oh - he's a little, ah . . ."

"Yes, he is", is all I yell back.

It's damn near unbearable now, and people at the phones unfortunatelylocated a mere hundred feet away (who thought of putting the contest here of all places?) were working like Saint Jude himself at their lost cause of hearing whoever's on the other end. Most of those on the phones were well dressed, and clearly businessmen of some kind. I wonder what the hell the people at the other end of those lines were saying as they heard all that rumble thru the wires:

"Jeffrey? Jeffery, are you there? Are you calling from the inside of a slaughter house?"

Those two successful boys have rather nice calls bought from who knows where; the redneck is blowing thru a fucking piece of plastic tube - and for the audacity of that alone I hope he wins first prize. As for me, I'm looking at them and have never wanted to shoot a gun into a group of people so much in my life. If those air guns were only real, there'd be hell to pay.

Finally an end to the madness. An official of some kind rushes up to the three, still blowing what's left of their brains thru those calls and that tube.

"What the hell do you think you boys think you're doing? Are you trying to drive everybody around here nuts?!"

It was one of the judges from the Game Calling event. They could no longer even hear the contestants inside, and he'd had quite enough. Thethree stopped, bewildered. They understood enough to know that they'd probably blown their chances of winning right thru their instruments.

 

"That Goddamn LaPierre has no business runnin' things!", one old boy dressed as if he'd just stepped out of a cowboy movie said to a well-dressed middle-aged guy off to his right.

"Well, why's that?", the well-dressed guy asks.

"Why?!" Jesus, are you for real? He doesn't respect what this organization's about, that's why! He's a damn politician, just like hisfriend Clinton."

The well-dressed guy smiles at this and begins to laugh. "Wait, Clinton? What about how he stood up to Clinton recently? You know, the trigger-locks and all that? He didn't give any ground by God, just check it out for yourself."

The cowboy isn't convinced. He tells the man to check a number of websites that "will tell you the whole truth, mister. We need Knox back in runnin' things."

This is Saturday morning, and the members are running around drumming up support for the candidates they hope to have on the Board of Directors this year. The Annual Members' Meeting is happening at 10am sharp, and the whole place is buzzing.

The man the cowboy was talking about is Neal Knox, vice-president andmain man around here before LaPierre took over. It was Knox & Co. who called the ATF "jackbooted thugs" after the business at Waco, and it was a year later that loyal NRA member Timothy McVeigh blew up several children for having the audacity to be related to government officials. LaPierre was smart enough to see the writing on the wall, and worked like the devil in throwing Knox and his boys out on their militant asses a few years ago.

The hard line has never forgotten that indignity, and - even though they've been purged from the highest ranks - there's a number of them here mumbling about getting their boy Knox and his old lobbyist Tanya Metaksa(who adores saying that her name is spelled: "M-E-T-A-K (as in AK-47) S-A (as in semi-automatic)) back on the Board, and there's a few others pushing around leaflets with their golden boy on it. His pic is there on the front, with a caption underneath saying proudly that Knox is "Not just a prettyface". And if that isn't enough to convince you, it makes a point that the NRA never supported any gun safety laws when he was vice-president; but not everyone's convinced.

"Knox?", says one pudgy guy to a friend holding that leaflet in his hand. "Man, fuck that kook!"

That's a hell of a way to treat a pretty face.

 

As I'm meandering down these halls, I swear I see Peter Jennings - could it really be him? I decide it might be a good idea to get a quote or two from such a respected journalist. He sees me approaching as he talks to a female friend, observes the pad and pen in my hand and, being the committed, respected journalist that he is, turns and high-tails it away from me as fast as is socially acceptable. But I know the building better than he does; I know he's just walked down the wrong aisle, and that he's trapped. I have the respected journalist right where I want him. I go over to that short aisle and triumphantly look in; he's just walked quickly into one of two rooms there - the only places he can go. Both are dead ends. I stand there wondering, weighing my options. Should I go in? What if hescreams bloody murder? What if he knows karate? There's nothing more dangerous than a trapped respected journalist. I'm magnanimous; anotherrespected journalist will live to see another day. He's surely just looking the place over, and would never help someone else complete a story - what kind of respected journalist would be if he did that?

Besides, there's no way he could know what's going on here - he's Canadian, for Chrissake . . .

 

The NRA Banquet is on Saturday night, and it seems they have plenty to celebrate. After a sharp decline following the signing of the Brady Bill in '93 and the ban on assault weapons a year later, the organization was on the verge of a financial and emotional collapse. But this year things are different - on paper anyway. The NRA's $150-million dollar budget comes damn close to what it was in the halcyon days of '94, and it's PAC, The Political Victory Fund, has wheeled in a reported 5.5million bucks in the first two months of 2000, with projections indicating that it could be their most successful moneymaking year ever.

Certainly the banquet promises to be one hell of a show - proof that the NRA has scrubbed behind its ears, cleaned the corn from its toes, and with Charlton Heston as its famous and respected President, has joined the hallowed hall of American kingmakers. The lights and effects in that bulging hall are said to be tremendous, the talent slated was, I'm told,top-notch, and the show would be a clear indication of where the NRA washeaded in the 21st Century.

Only the acts, if indeed scheduled, never appeared; the great show never materialized. Though it's a full five months before the election, sources connected to the organization say that the NRA intends to commit so much of their new-found monetary clout pushing George W. Bush through to the Presidency and poising Republicans to keep control of Congress in November that in truth there will be very little of it left by election day - a fact that's quietly held from the rank-and-file, and definitely held from everyone else. In true NRA fashion, it seems the big boys are betting the farm on this single election year and have vowed to hold nothing back. The extravaganza itself was, I'm told, only pulled at the last harried minute, perhaps to keep heads from wondering and tongues from wagging.

Then what did happen at the banquet that Saturday night? Nothing much - an honor guard performed for a bit, Representative J.C. Watts spoke for just about a half hour and gave the crowd what was perhaps the most reasoned, rational part of the evening, a few of the biggest board members gave their two cents, and Moses himself finally made his grand appearance.

"It's not that we didn't appreciate what Watts was trying to do", onethoughtful looking black-haired man working behind the scenes said to meafter the show. "I mean, after all it is necessary - it's about time somebody said what needs to be said. There really isn't much differencebetween us and them (the anti-gun protesters) - I mean, as people. It'sjust that . . ."

"What?", I asked. "Was there a problem with what Watts was talking about?"

"Oh Lord, no", he says back to me quickly, scratching the bottom of his well-kept bearded face. "But see", he says to me leaning in, "our people are really just average Americans; I mean, when you really get down to it, that's the truth. So they're not bothered about 'keeping political score' or whatever - they just don't want people telling them what to do with their guns. They're not political animals. If you want to appeal to them, especially in this day and age, you have to appeal to different instincts."

"How do you mean?" Now I was leaning into him.

"You have to rouse them to attention", he said to me with the quick, clipped manner of a man who'd thought of such things a thousand times. "You have to find ways to make them mad, to make them furious at what's going on, especially in Washington. That's always the best way to get them to open up their mouths and their wallets - God, the way he went on for a half-hour almost killed it for us", he ends with the surprised look of a man who's just revealed too much.

"Are you saying a person can only be effective politically if they appeal to all the worst human instincts?"

"No no, you said that", he sputtered at once and in a flash was gone.

 

The disappearing man told me earlier that Heston's a little troubled now with what appears to be arthritic knees, but he still gave the card-carrying crowd the surging talk they've been waiting to hear all along. As he spoke he threw his arm up in the air, his aged fingersgrasping a rifle before the enthralled hordes, and proclaimed that Gore can take his gun when "he pries it from my cold, dead hands", all in that steely gaze and raspy voice that sent delicious shivers down the spines of moviegoers for years. I waited for him to flub his lines and refer to the Democrats as a bunch of "damn dirty apes", but he never did. I guess you can't have everything.

The honest truth of the matter is that he's a relic of a bygone time, but he still does it all with a grace and a charisma that must eat at his close friend LaPierre. Clearly the real man behind the strings, he can't possibly afford to lose Heston. It's easy to see that LaPierre knows that too, and is a good enough politician to realize that, however good and perceptive a wheeler-dealer he is behind the scenes, with the crowds at least, he just ain't got the goods. And if you don't have that in this day and age, you're beaten before you begin.

But the relic has "the goods" in spades, which is why the floor for the last few days has been buzzing like a hive about Heston taking on another term as the President and posterboy for the NRA. Besides, this crowd doesn't see the tired, aging man in front of them whose famous voice is becomingmore of a rasp than a roar these days; to them, he's still Moses about to part the Red Sea; Judah Ben-Hur sure to win the chariot race, or Michealangelo spewing genius on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. And,since Americans have always had a tough time separating Hollywood from real life, there's even a sense here that he really is all of these things, and not merely a fine actor whose best work occurred almost half a century ago. But then again, that suspension of disbelief has always been the power of the relic. And, like the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages, the relic is the best moneymaker the NRA has, which is why Heston will continue tohave the title of NRA President for as long as he wishes to keep it.

~*~*~*~*~

As I mentioned in the beginning, the NRA is as American as they come - with a few noticeable differences. While they cover a wider spectrum of the public than most pundunts admit, what really stands out among this crowd is an almost religious devotion to their idea of absolute, individual freedom - and that the fear factor of guns is the only thing making it possible. Ask almost any NRA member to his or her face why they feel they need their guns, and they're almost sure to bring up the second amendment before they bring up any idea of self-protection, or any more aesthetic idea such as hunting or gun collecting, and to insist that this amendment alone is the key to our individual liberty. Only the small numbers of women Italked to would immediately mention the idea of a gun as self-protection in any great numbers.

Indeed the members are for the most part every bit as safe and careful with their weapons as they can be, and there are even a number who will admit (secretly) that there isn't much reason to allow such things as armor-piercing bullets on the market - though most shudder at any restriction, and again really believe that such weapons as these are theonly things that keep a government at bay which is ready to attack them at any given second . . .

The anti-gun people, not realizing this aspect of the NRA members, believe their aversion to such forced measures to be proof of a flagrantdisregard for safety at least, and possible proof of insanity at worst. The NRA people, in despising anyone who tries to force them into conforming to any standard, see it as an affront to all that this country is - the ultimate place and utopia for the individualist.

But if they're really serious about being players on the national stage, the NRA people have to overcome that crippling fear that everyone is poised and out to get them. Most Americans would be as frightened by an America without the self-protection guns provide as any of them; they simply want to make sure that a dangerous product can be made as safe as they can make it - and hopefully, at least make an attempt to keep these weapons out of thehands of those who shouldn't have access to them in the first place.

It's the paranoid fear that an inch given will become a mile that scares the living hell out of the NRA members - and until they can conquer that and see otherwise, all the money spent in the world won't change where America's headed. Regardless of what the NRA believes, it's the ballot box and not the ammo box that decides how this country is run - and if they think it can be bought they should talk to Ross Perot. They can either become real players and help the rest of us become more understanding of gun safety and self-protection, or they can hold on to their knee-knocking fears, afraid of every sound heard under their beds as they hold an enemy at gun point who, like the boogieman, simply isn't there.

The choice is theirs - which, according the NRA members, is just as it should be.





Cliff Montgomery is a reasonably young man (about 28 or thereabouts) who - due to being born in a small upstate Maryland town called Cumberland, about a hard hour's drive from DC - took a very early interest in politics and political issues. Finding very few of his 2nd grade peers interested in his already tired Nixon and Kissinger jokes (they were funny to him, at any rate), Mr. Montgomery had to wait a while to be accepted by those around him. He has been, in turn, a writer and computer engineer for a small computer firm in Charlotte, NC (which he despised), a writer - briefly - for the NC chapter of the Sierra Club (which, being the only man employed with several attractive young ladies between the ages of 15-22, he rather enjoyed), a musician and a freelance writer. He now lives just outside of Charlotte, NC, and is foolish enough to believe he can make "real money" writing, and now experienced enough to know otherwise.

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