An NRA Annual Meetings and Exhibits attendee peruses a wall of guns at Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center on May 3.
Jeremy Smith

Sighting in with the NRA


Above: An NRA Annual Meetings and Exhibits attendee peruses a wall of guns at Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center on May 3. See additional photos in our slideshow "Peaceably Assemble: The NRA Comes to Houston."

This is the moment when I knew the world I had entered was different from the one I’m used to. It was midday on Friday, May 3, the first day of the three-day gunstravaganza that was the National Rifle Association’s Annual Meetings & Exhibits in Houston. I was at the Jotto Desk booth checking out the NRA Home Defense Cabinet, a tall, wall-mounted mirror that slides away to reveal a recessed gun safe featuring, a sign indicated, “proprietary biometric security.”

The salesman was explaining its features to an attendee wearing the unofficial NRA uniform: a T-shirt tucked into blue jeans with a braided leather belt. The salesman then turned to me and narrowed his eyes.

“Would you like a press release?” he asked. He was proud of having figured out I was press. After seeing several NRA members recoil when they read the big black badge identifying me as “MEDIA,” I’d started carrying a sheaf of pamphlets in front of my chest. But the fact that I was a youngish woman was a dead giveaway. Most attendees were men of retirement age. Middle-aged women made up perhaps a quarter of attendees, with young men maybe another quarter. Largely absent were young women. The crowd was overwhelmingly white.

“Sure,” I said.

Taking aim at a practice target with laser-sighting technology.
Taking aim at a practice target with laser-sighting technology.  Jeremy Smith

The NRA Home Defense Cabinet was cool. I’m sure there are people who don’t love a secret door or a hidden passageway, but I have nothing to say to them. The cabinet looked like a perfectly normal dressing mirror. No thief would suspect it hid weapons, and even if he did, he couldn’t steal them because of the aforementioned proprietary biometric security.

“So, a thumbprint,” I said.

“Not just a thumbprint,” the salesman stressed. “It’s proprietary biometric security.”

I looked at the cabinet. It held one handgun and one rifle. Near the top was a little black box with a sensor to read your fingerprint.

I wasn’t trying to be rude. I just didn’t get it. “So, how is this not just a thumbprint?”

The salesman looked exasperated. “It reads the cells and blood and stuff,” he said. If the intruder cuts off your thumb, he explained, and presses it to the thumbprint reader, the proprietary biometric security will see that the thumb is dead and reject the print.

With the NRA Home Defense Cabinet, enemies can’t take your guns even with your cold, dead hands.

The exhibit hall of Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center wasn’t packed Friday morning—only a fraction of the weekend’s eventual 86,000 attendees had arrived—but it was full-ish, and the thousands of people who moved past its 500-plus booths ambled mostly in quiet pairs, hands in pockets, a gesture that looked in this setting more like self-control than disinterest.

The exhibit hall was like an alternate world in which deadly weapons are everywhere but no one is scared. When I entered, I spotted a young man with a slim neck and a baseball cap peering toward me through the magnifying scope of a semiautomatic pistol. Normally, finding myself in a stranger’s crosshairs would be bad. On this day, the chillness of the masses around me, strolling so slowly it was almost just oscillation, kept me calm.

Here’s a list of nearly all of the objects for sale that were not guns: laser scopes; taxidermy services; zombie targets that “bleed” green when shot; knives and sharpeners; gun cleaners; goggles; safes; flashlights; holsters; protective clothes; freeze-dried food; seat covers; sculptures of wildlife; ear protection; and no more than a handful of T-shirts saying things like, “Buy a gun, annoy a liberal.” There was a helicopter, but it was not for sale. It was a prop for selling travel packages to hunt wild hogs via helicopter, an activity I was disappointed to see is not called pork-chopping.

NRA exhibitor Vertex Tactical Aviation offered an Aerial Hunting Safety course for $35
NRA exhibitor Vertex Tactical Aviation offered an Aerial Hunting Safety course for $35  Jeremy Smith

Everything else was guns. The exhibits covered 382,000 square feet with almost no breaks or seating, just footpaths and firearms. The stuff listed above functioned like the coffee beans you’re supposed to smell between perfume samples so your brain doesn’t just give up and pick Wonderstruck by Taylor Swift.

Pretty soon, the sight of rows upon rows of guns became normal. I don’t know what I expected. The term “gun culture” gets used a lot of different ways, but it’s rarely meant as simply as, for example, “car culture.” When you go to a car show, you expect a whole lot of cars and car accessories, and maybe some cheesecake calendars. When you go to a gun show—okay, when I went to a gun show, which is basically what the NRA exhibits were—I expected something more political. I expected a tea party rally with heavy security. Or at least an information booth on outfitting your bunker for the coming race wars.

But no. The NRA exhibits were nerdy good times for people who think guns are interesting. Antique weapons, historically accurate replica weapons and especially pretty weapons drew big crowds. I read later that someone was selling practice dummies that looked like Barack Obama, and that someone else offered ex-wife-themed targets. I saw neither. They, and the C-list country band that sold a Confederate flag koozie, were statistically insignificant.

The NRA exhibits were, far more than I would have thought possible, apolitical. I heard zero people talking about “O-Bummer” or discussing a power grab by the United Nations. They were too busy geeking out over a pearl-handled six-shooter that was, objectively, gorgeous.

NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre addresses the membership on the convention’s opening day
NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre addresses the membership on the convention’s opening day  Jeremy Smith

On Saturday, the NRA announced that after a busy day at the convention’s new membership desk, the organization had surpassed five million members. That’s more than the population of half the states and Puerto Rico. Ten percent of those members had signed up in the last six months—which is to say, mostly since the massacre at Newtown.

NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre announced this milestone on Saturday morning at the Annual Meeting of Members.

“The state of the NRA is stronger and larger than it has ever been,” LaPierre crowed. “Our commitment to freedom is unwavering and our growth is unprecedented. … By the time we’re finished, the NRA must and will be 10 million strong!”

LaPierre’s call to double the NRA’s membership, and his phrase “by the time we’re finished,” seemed odd. The NRA is a 141-year-old organization founded by a Union general and colonel who were appalled by how badly their troops shot during the Civil War. The group has since promoted marksmanship, youth programs, training and education, hunting safety, and self-defense. While any organization wants to grow, those goals don’t require 10 million members, and they’re ongoing objectives, not the kinds of things one “finishes.”

But LaPierre wasn’t talking about the NRA’s youth, self-defense, or hunting programs. He was referring to the group’s opposition to new gun-control legislation.

“We are in the midst of a once-in-a-generation fight for everything we care about,” LaPierre said. “We have a chance to secure our freedom for a generation, or to lose it forever.”

It would be a waste of space to quote even a smattering of the bombastic, elliptical, dubious, amusing, boring, irrelevant and fantastical claims made over the weekend for television cameras by a relentless who’s who of Republican also-rans: ex-Gov. Sarah Palin, ex-Sen. Rick Santorum, ex-Rep. Asa Hutchinson, ex-Ambassador John Bolton, and—hey, remember Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal? He was there, too. So were Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Ted Cruz, the former receiving a somewhat dutiful welcome, the latter an ecstatic one.

You can listen to these speakers online, but I’ll save you time. Each message boiled down to this: these are the Second Amendment’s End of Days, and the only thing standing between America and annihilation of one kind or another is the courage of the God-fearing NRA.

To the exact degree that guns were the focus in the exhibit hall, they were neglected in the auditorium. Speech after speech concerned itself with liberty, tyranny, freedom, evil, the Founding Fathers, the Constitution, democracy, secularism, terrorism, abortion, the culture wars, the malicious media, the craven political elite, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s soda ban and Benghazi. If anyone at a podium talked about background checks, waiting periods, or magazine sizes, I missed it.

When non-NRA members think of the National Rifle Association, they probably think of LaPierre nonsensically blaming the Newtown shootings on video games like Mortal Kombat, a martial arts-based game with few guns in it. They probably think of the NRA’s lobbying wing, the Institute for Legislative Action, which so effectively helped kill universal background checks in April. And they probably think of the parade of FOX News personalities who drum up ratings and book sales by peddling gun-seizure paranoia.

That’s what I thought of before I attended the NRA convention. Now I remember the group that takes veterans on free wilderness tours and the old guys who drove an RV several hundred miles to gaze lovingly down at a U.S. Navy Model 1837 caplock pistol under glass. In other words, now I think of the NRA’s members, not its leadership.

On Saturday morning, at the business component of the conference, members voted for a no-compromise stance on any new gun-control legislation, extant or hypothetical. The move was meant to repudiate polls showing widespread support among NRA members for universal background checks. But the NRA has five million members. The convention had 86,000 visitors. And in the auditorium, when that vote was taken, only 3,000 people were present.

Everyone else was over in the exhibit hall, looking at all the guns.