It's the afternoon before the first day of the NRA's annual conference at the Music City Center in Nashville, Tennessee. Handguns, rifles and semi-autos are unpacked and hung in booths; scaffolding and stages are raised; one vendor grapples with a tragic routing mistake—his wares have somehow ended up somewhere in Florida instead of Tennessee ('How can they confuse Florida with Tennessee?!")
Gruff avatars of American manhood scowl from posters hanging on the walls in the main showcase. Cowboys riding away in sunsets, soldiers, policemen, snipers and hunters. Charlton Heston posthumously clutches his gun, as promised. A sweaty, disturbingly ripped Founding Father poses against the American flag with a black semi-automatic rifle strapped to his back. Over 70,000 people are expected to attend.
I keep getting in the way of all the industrious convention-building, gawking at the Remingtons and Winchesters and Brownings and Glocks -- obviously, it's a gun convention, but the sheer volume of guns is still overwhelming. Outside of the main exhibition hall, festivities are already underway as conference-goers – some who have been here all week -- file into the cavernous hall. "Guuuuuuns ladies and gentlemen come see us at the wall of guuuuns!" a man yells into a megaphone, luring conference-goers to a raffle that gives 1 in a 100 odds of winning not one, but two, of the rifles on display. Other handsome opportunities, for those so inclined, include joining the NRA Wine club, signing up your pet to NRA for pets ("Now your NRA membership benefits you and your pets!") and, boringly, a non-firearm themed Hertz rent-a-car.
Friday is the main event -- actually, probably Sunday is the main event, because that's when Ted Nugent performs -- but Friday is the day that potential GOP Presidential hopefuls have a chance to prove their limitless devotion to the 2nd amendment and the NRA. Over the course of an afternoon, the following people will speak, limited to 10 minute time slots because there are so many of them: Gov. Bobby Jindal, Gov. Scott Walker, Sen. Rick Santorum, Gov. Rick Perry, former Gov. Jeb Bush, Dr. Ben Carson, Sen. Marco Rubio, former Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sen. Ted Cruz, and, of course, everyman Donald Trump.
During the course of the day I chat with two NRA members who couldn't be more different for two people who are both at an NRA convention. One is Nancy Gysin, a brassy vendor of big game Safaris, with bleached blonde hair, creative eye-makeup, and very strong opinions about liberals who fret about dead rhinos but wear leather and happily feast on lobster and sushi. The other, Garry Morris, teaches high school students. Both stress that they currently have no favorites among the crop of potential GOP presidential hopefuls and will make up their minds when they're assured of their fealty to gun rights. My efforts to steer them towards smirking along with me at, say, the prospect of Scott Walker convincingly wielding a large firearm are for naught. Anyone the NRA anoints as sufficiently pro-gun has their support.
As USA Today reports, the NRA's millions of members are an attractive constituency for GOP candidates. And Morris bears testimony to that fact. "If they support the NRA I'm excited to see them. If they're not supporters, then not so much,' Morris says. "But the NRA really does a lot of research on these guys."
Ready for Combat: Warrior Mentality
The next day, from 9 in the morning on, the halls are so crowded you face the kind of choking human traffic jams where taking one wrong turn leaves you hopelessly deadlocked.
In a large room, one of the hyper-masculine avatars from the showcase posters has come to life and is leading a seminar called, "Survival Mindset: Are You Prepared?"
Sergeant Major Kyle E. Lamb, burly, bearded, and sporting a buzz cut, tells the -- let's face it, mostly past-middle-aged audience -- that they must stay vigilant at all times. That is because whether they're involved in a shooting in, "Nashville, Detroit, or Mogadishu, it's all combat," he says. Additionally, "You could be the target of terrorists."
Lamb is founder and President of Viking Tactics, supplier of a "large selection of high-quality, battle-proven tactical gear, designed by warriors for warriors," according to their site. Lamb’s bio claims he is also "highly sought out" as a military and law enforcement trainer. Back in the seminar, he says that the dangers presented by modern life such as terrorism, carjacking and home invasions, demand that warriors always be prepared.
"How do you prepare?" Lamb asks the audience. Not with "orange mocha Frappuccinos," that's for sure, he smirks, getting loud laughs. Also, their gun must be of a kind that they can access at all times. "If you've got a gun that's too heavy, push it around in a cart if it's that big!" he jokes.
The vigilant warrior with a conceal carry permit must have no illusions about what their gun is really for. "Are you carrying a gun for deterrence? Avoidance? No. This is threat elimination. It's part of the combat mindset. You have to be ready to eliminate the threat."
Becoming inured to the final screams of the dying is another unpleasant, but necessary, aspect of total preparedness. Lamb tells the audience of shooting a bear and being freaked out by the "death squall" ringing through the mountain and realizing that he did not want to show that kind of emotional vulnerability when confronted with a human foe, he says.
"Warrior skills are perishable!" his power point warns, "If you don't work on them you lose them!"
The idea that there are dangers all around, that the armed must be ready for war, is like a preview of the themes that will permeate the speeches of Presidential hopefuls that afternoon. A later seminar, "Current and Emerging Threats: How It Affects You!" brings that point home. "How do deteriorating conditions in Iraq, jihadist social media recruitment, cyber attacks, our porous borders, and other current and emerging global threats directly impact your family and your finances?" (not all of the seminars were survival themed -- others offered tips on cooking wild life and dog training).
Ready for War With ISIS and Hillary Clinton
In the afternoon, the NRA-IRL's leadership forum gets off to a good start, militarism-wise, with Oliver North launching the proceedings. He leads a prayer, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by the Star Spangled banner. The large hall sports a banner that warns "If they can ban one, they can ban them all!" referencing a bill -- one that failed -- that would have prohibited armor-piercing bullets can now be used in new type of semi-automatic weapon.
Next, the villains of the hour are trotted out. A video mashup shows Pres. Obama, Vice President Biden, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Sen. Chuck Schumer professing to support the Second Amendment. Boos ring out in the audience.
Chris Cox, chief lobbyist for the NRA, comes back on stage. "We're here to celebrate American values and lying isn't one of them, so you won't hear from them," he says. "But you'll hear from true champions of freedom."
Cox brings up NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre, who masterfully sets the theme of the day. "If you're like most people, you're worried about your country. Something's gone wrong. In so many ways, the values we care about most have been discarded by the political leadership: Honesty, integrity, virtue, generosity, civility."
LaPierre tells the audience they are charged with the solemn duty of helping pick the next President of the United States, and that had better not be Hillary Rodham Clinton.
"From a coronation, you don't get the best," he says. "What you get is Hillary Rodham Clinton," he says. "Hillary Rodham Clinton hasn't met a gun control bill she couldn't support." (booooos).
To loud applause, LaPierre chronicles Clinton's many alleged misdeeds, starting with something involving cattle in Arkansas and leading, inexorably, through Whitewater and to Benghazi. "OK, I'll go there!" LaPierre proclaims. "Whitewater! Cattle-gate, file-gate, Vince-foster-gate, White House Coffee Gate, Pardon-gate, Monica-gate, Benghazi-gate." (there may have been other gates). "Hillary Clinton has more gates than a South Texas cattle ranch!"
Not to put too fine a point on it, “Hillary Rodham Clinton will bring a permanent darkness of deceit and despair, forced upon the American people to endure,” LaPierre says.
He concludes thunderously, calling on audience-members to "...fight with everything we've got for 2016, and by God we'll elect our next great president of United States of America, and it will not be Hillary Rodham Clinton!"
After a brief interlude in which Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker gloats about his efforts to kill the Iran deal, the procession of "not-Hillary Clintons" make their pitch.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal warms up the crowd with more Clinton-bashing. "We're what Hillary Clinton called a vast right-wing conspiracy. Those were her words,” he intones. “She was wrong about the conspiracy but not about the vast." Next, the ever-popular guns-and-religion reference to then-candidate Barack Obama's campaign statement about bitter gun-toting Americans.
"We got plenty of guns and religion both, and we're not bitter about any of that."
Jindal goes on to defend the Indiana and Arkansas "religious liberty" laws, overturned after they caused widespread backlash for codifying discrimination against gays and lesbians. Of the backlash, Jindal says, "It was bullying. Radical left-wing and corporate America bullied them to back down."
But what about guns? "Freedom is the right of every individual,” Jindal says. “Freedom is a right, but it's not guaranteed. It has to be protected by honest people willing to fight, to take action. That's why NRA is the most effective civil rights organization in our country."
Up next, Scott Walker gives a school-report lesson in Freedom with a capital F: "Freedom. Endowed by the Creator, defined by the constitution, defended by men and women who wear the uniform of the United States." He accuses liberals of inculcating dependence on the safety net, ("No one signed a year book with, "Good luck being dependent on government."). And he includes a strong note of fear-mongering. "When I see a video of a Jordanian pilot burned alive [...] It's something you feel. It's concern about your children, your coworkers, your neighbors."
"It's not a matter of if, but when!" Walker warns. "I'm not gonna wait, I'm gonna take the fight to them before they bring the fight to us!" And a rousing note at the end of the speech. "The Founding Fathers were patriots who risked their lives for freedoms we hold dear today."
"Let this be that moment in history, when we did what was required to make America great again!"
The rest of the speeches trod on similar ground, cobbling together the disparate themes of the Founding Fathers' fortitude and bravery, gun-owners' fortitude and bravery, ISIS, criminals, weak current presidents, the Bible, Israel, and, of course, guns. Santorum does the "let me walk on the right side of the stage" schtick, and claims his family loves guns so much that for her birthday his wife doesn't want flowers, but ammo, and, "I never buy enough!" Freedom requires virtue, Santorum declaims, and the greatest source of virtue is the Bible. He warns that young minds were being poisoned by "anti-American Marxists" such as Howard Zinn.
Rick Perry had finagled the opportunity to precede his appearance with a video of Rick Perry shooting stuff. Afterwards he bounds on-stage in his "smart person" glasses, opening with a foreign policy critique. "We subscribe to reality based thinking. Terrorist regimes must be defeated by strength, not words," he says. "The Obama administration is isolating our allies and emboldening our enemies.”
Jeb Bush delivers a rushed speech next in a monotone, looking a bit like a professor who hates lecturing and is trying to get it over with. He mostly draws applause when he says "NRA" or "2nd amendment." Dr. Ben Carson's speech brings more drama, calling on the patriots in the audience to take up battle against islamic extremists.
"You know, there are people watching us all over this world,” he exhorts. They're called radical extremist Islamist terrorists, and they are going to get in here any way they can. We have to be able to fight them. Especially with an administration that won't fight them. We have to fight them ourselves." Yet another reason he offers for protecting the second amendment is so Americans can defend themselves "against overly aggressive government that wanted to exact tyranny in this country."
Marco Rubio also inspires the crowd, and appears to have acquired the services of a talented speechwriter who'd crafted lofty lines like, "Weakness is the friend of danger, weakness is the enemy of peace. President Obama is a weak President."
Donald Trump poses for pictures outside of the auditorium before his turn, then rolls onstage with his wealthy sons, awkwardly making one of them speak (the younger Trump unconvincingly calls the crowd, "our people,") He mostly has performance critiques for the President, warning, "Our country in serious, serious trouble ...This President is incompetent, doesn't know what he's doing."
Ted Cruz, the final GOP hopeful, finishes off the proceedings with a kind of reverse-version of John Lennon's Imagine. "Imagine America standing unapologetically with the nation of Israel! Imagine the Commander in Chief standing up with clarity and saying, We will defeat radical Islamic terror! Under no circumstances will the nation of Iran be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons!"
Of the letter he signed to undermine the nuclear deal with Iran, Cruz says, "The only thing I regret is that like John Hancock I didn't make my signature even bigger so the Ayatollah can read it without his reading glasses!"
Afterwards, NRA audience members mill around outside, reacting to the various efforts to woo them.
One guy who didn't want to give his name said he doesn't trust most politicians; that especially the ones who've been around the longest take on a "slimy" quality.
Lyle Steeber and his wife are there to support Dr. Ben Carson. She's pasted a picture of Carson to her cowboy hat. They love his message, and how he says it. "Everything he says makes sense," he says. "And he's calm about it." And the other guys? "Well, they're the other guys!" he says, laughing dismissively. His wife, though, also finds Ted Cruz appealing.
Anne Bitts is thoroughly underwhelmed by Jeb Bush, the fact that "he read" his speech instead of reciting it, and wondered if perhaps his seeming lack of enthusiasm shows he did not quite share their values.
Walker, Jindal and Rubio seemed to get the highest marks.