Welcome to Gun Land

For three days in May, uptown Charlotte was the center of a restless, gun-loving, conservative political universe. But the NRA convention wasn't all about guns, politics, and Sarah Palin. It was also a referendum on hope
Mike Hammer

If you believed the jokesters in the gym, chatter on Twitter, online commenters, or just people walking on the sidewalks, uptown Charlotte would be teeming with camo-clad gun nuts, proudly holstering pistols, waving rifles, and generally scaring the bejesus out of our staid, wide-eyed office workers. Fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty, ninety thousand freedom-loving Americans converging on our clean, quiet, we-don't-want-any-trouble center city for three days.

The National Rifle Association was coming to town, and this I had to see.

Of course, the NRA isn't just about guns anymore. It's become a symbol of the far right of the political spectrum, a polarizing force, a fundraising machine, a gantlet for anyone seeking federal public office. More than one politician would be launching a presidential campaign at the convention. Newt Gingrich, Chuck Norris, Glenn Beck, and, yes, Sarah Palin were among the dozen-plus scheduled speakers. Charlotte, where politics rates several slots below business, family, faith, and sports on matters of interest, would become the epicenter of the conservative political movement, with tea partiers and hard-line Republicans eating in our restaurants and drinking in our bars.

The NRA was coming to town, and this I had to see.

I am not one of the estimated 80 million Americans who own a gun. I am not against guns, but I am not convinced I could protect myself with one, either. I'm pretty sure the bad guy would somehow end up with my gun, or he'd shoot me first. I have never hunted, really. As a kid, growing up on three wooded acres, I fired at squirrels with my pellet gun. I hit one, once, and I felt awful. Between a visit to a police firing range and an excursion deep in the woods, I have fired a handgun, a high-powered rifle, a shotgun, and an automatic rifle, and I enjoyed it.

So I am ambivalent on the issue of gun control. I went to the NRA convention with an open mind, to see what I could see. I wandered over to the Charlotte Convention Center on a Thursday, when registration began. When I saw a man in a black cowboy hat talking on a cellphone outside the Westin, I knew I was headed to the right place. When I saw a car with bumper stickers reading "Why So Socialist?" (with President Obama depicted as the most recent Joker) and "Fire Pelosi," I knew I was headed to the right place.

Think of all the stereotypes. Muscled law-enforcement types, camouflaged hunters, scruffy folks with T-shirts reading "Don't Tread on Me" and "Texas Border Patrol." They were all there. But that's oversimplifying. Inside the convention center, here's what else I saw:

A sharply dressed Asian couple, striding purposefully through the hall. A young man wearing khaki slacks, a pink polo, and brown loafers, with his sunglasses perched on top of his head. A short man with a very long yellow tie walking next to a tall man with a very short blue tie, both staring down at their BlackBerries. Two fiftysomething women dressed like they came from brunch at the country club. Preppy college-age guys in plaid and New Balance. A shapely blonde wearing a black scoop-neck sleeveless top and the type of tight jeans one would expect to complement that top, set off by snakeskin stilettos. Hiking boots, combat boots, cowboy boots, work boots.

I did not see any people openly carrying guns. Loaded weapons are forbidden inside the Charlotte Convention Center. I was kind of disappointed.

Do you know what a Chucktatorship is? Neither did I. Apparently, we are all living in one. I learned this Friday morning at a workshop held by a group called the NRA-ILA Grassroots Division. The second part of the acronym stands for Institute for Legislative Action. These are the guys who demand that any candidate for office declare their undying love of firearms.

Chuck Norris, the former star of the television show Walker, Texas Ranger and hero to gun owners across the land, is the honorary chair of the NRA-ILA's "Trigger the Vote" campaign. He starred in a short video played early in the workshop. The video started with a Chuck-ism: "America is not a democracy. It's a Chuck-tatorship." In the video, he never said the word "gun," but he said "freedom" a lot. (Want to play a drinking game that will guarantee you end up in the hospital? Go to an NRA convention and drink every time you hear the words "freedom" or "liberty.") At the end of the video, Norris stood outside his house in front of a sign that read: "We don't call 911." Below the sign hung a crude painting of a handgun. Welcome to life in a Chuck-tatorship.

At the workshop, held in a Westin ballroom, the front tables were packed with the diehards, the back tables populated with the curious. There was a man with three teenage girls, at least one of whom looked to be his daughter. In an almost entirely white crowd, an African American couple stuck out so much that a photographer snapped their picture. There were containers of mints on the side tables, and Starbucks coffee, pastries, and fruit outside the ballroom.

There were two themes. One: the NRA is responsible for many Republican political victories. On this note, one number kept coming up: 537.

In 2000, George W. Bush won Florida by 537 votes over Al Gore. The NRA takes credit for this, or at least it did that Friday morning. "Do you think [Gore] would have put Alito or Roberts on the bench?" Brent Gardner, a grass-roots coordinator, asked rhetorically, referring to two conservative Supreme Court justices whom Bush appointed.

And so one number led to two more: 5-4. This was the tally in the Supreme Court decision in District of Columbia vs. Heller, which struck down Washington, D.C.'s handgun ban. The Heller case was another popular topic of conversation over the weekend.

"I don't think everyone should vote," Gardner says, to applause and laughter, which struck me as an odd way to promote "freedom." A little later, he advised, "If you guys have a day off, you should be signing up people to vote. Use the opportunity to get our young people started on the path to voting for freedom. … I want to make sure we're locked and loaded, because the NRA marches on Election Day."

And so the second theme is this, as put by Gardner: "The Second Amendment is always, always, always a relevant issue." The NRA insists on it. So forget for a moment that the only people in the country talking about gun control are those with guns. Always, always, always!

"Acres of guns and gear!"

That's how the billboards described the collection of exhibits at the NRA convention. And in fact, the Convention Center's 6.4-acre hall held almost 450 exhibitors, displaying every kind of gun you could possibly imagine, and then some. On Friday morning, people flowed down escalators and poured into the hall, eyes lit up like it was Christmas morning. The hall felt like a Las Vegas casino, with processed air and no clocks. From the middle, the hall looked endless to all sides.

When you pull the trigger of an unloaded gun, it's called "dry firing." There's a click, just like in the movies. Now imagine thousands of clicks, over and over. Click click click. Pistols, single-shot rifles, double-barrel shotguns, mean-looking assault rifles, precious little pink guns, six-shooters, semiautomatic handguns, and hundreds and hundreds more, all being dry fired into the air. It sounded like an army of crickets and tree frogs on a still summer night.

Uniformed police officers were almost always visible, but eventually they blended into the background. You couldn't actually buy guns or bullets at the show, but you could place orders. None of the guns were loaded, and all were attached to the displays, sort of like the video cameras at Best Buy.

There must have been a loose organization to the exhibits, but the casino effect, or my own poor sense of direction, made it difficult to discern. The tactical gear, including stacks and stacks of assault rifles, appeared to be in the middle. Tactical is a nice word for "designed to kill people as efficiently as possible." Those areas were full of warrior mannequins and curious men. The hunting exhibits featured camouflaged clerks and stuffed bears and elk trophies and lots of rifles. Personal and home defense was in another area. Many of those booths were staffed by attractive "gun girls." One blonde wore a tiny white top, a short denim skirt, and high heels. A belt made of bullets completed the outfit. She got a sideways glance here and there, but mostly the men just looked at the guns.

It wasn't just men. There were lots of families and couples. Steve and Wendy Mills came down from Wisconsin, said they were "making a vacation out of it." They were thrilled with their dinner the night before at Sonny's Real Pit Barbecue and were considering driving to South Carolina just to say they'd been.

Near where I met the Millses, Lenn Kristol hawked Baby Brownings. These collector's-item pistols, no bigger than an iPhone, retail for between $600 and $7,000. They were used by French soldiers in the French Resistance, Kristol says, looking over his bifocals. You can carry one in your pocket for self-defense, and you don't even have to load it. Threatened? Whip it out, cock it, and snarl "get out of my face." ("A lot of guys want to keep it loaded," he confides. He thinks they're asking to be neutered.)

A few yards over, a display of AR-10 SuperSasses — rifles made to look like machine guns — sat across the aisle from a tray of cute pink derringers. Both'll get the job done.

It wasn't just guns. What good is a gun without ammunition, Lenn Kristol's plan notwithstanding?

At the Barnes display of bullets, big flat-panel TVs stood like sentries on either side. A video played on a loop. A rich, resonant voice-over promised, "You can count on complete penetration with massive internal organ failure." Three deer stood in the middle of a dirt path. A crack. Two of the deer bounded away; one did not. In super slow motion, its torso quivered like Jell-O, its front legs spread, its head thrust up, its back legs collapsed. People watched in amazement and disgust. The scene cut to a new one. Voice-over: "Prairie dogs are virtually vaporized." A couple laughed as they walked away.

It wasn't just guns and ammo. The ZipIt, which is half LED light, half stun gun, an item you actually could buy on-site, was "selling like crazy," said a cute brunette clerk. "We have so many on back order. I just kind of snuck a few out for the show." How convenient. The same booth offered bear repellent, which comes in a spray, and a pink stun gun that looks like a vibrator. Another booth sold antique American flags.

I stopped at a collection of menacing-looking gas-firing assault rifles. I cannot imagine why an ordinary citizen — a banker or a barista or an accountant — would ever need to own such a gun. So I asked. "It's really an all-around gun," said the friendly salesman, who sells swimming pool equipment in Arizona for a living. "Whether you're a hunter, in law enforcement or special forces, or just a homeowner looking to protect their home." He told me he shot a buffalo with one just last weekend. He gave me a detailed tour of the weapon. I nodded here and there and tried to exclaim in all the right places before walking off with a glossy brochure.

Outside, it was hot. Tour buses were lined up on College Street, ready to transport people the six blocks to Time Warner Cable Arena, where Sarah Palin and company would speak. Steps away, in the park called The Green, a woman walked her Labrador retriever and young kids played in a fountain. On Tryon Street, a few people with NRA badges dangling from their necks walked through the open, tall wooden doors of St. Peter's Catholic Church, where a priest in flowing red robes welcomed them with open arms, literally. On the steps outside sat a man with a bushy goatee and Bluetooth earpiece and three floppy-haired kids. Each wore tired looks and NRA caps. In one of the church's halls behind the sanctuary, a small group of antigun activists was meeting to plan a protest.

The NRA was in town.

 

Around 10,000 people packed the lower bowl of Time Warner Cable Arena on Friday afternoon for an event called "A Celebration of American Values Leadership Forum," which was open to NRA members only. For those two days at least, the organizers co-opted the phrase "American values" and defined it as they pleased. A long list of speakers knew their lines.

Haley Barbour, governor of Mississippi, did the recruiting, drawling with people to talk up their candidates of choice in this fall's elections. "Talk about it to your family, your friends, the people you work with, the people you go to church with, the people your children go to school with or play Little League with, the people you go fishin' with or huntin' with. You need to talk to everybody. … Say, ‘Join me in electing … people who stand for the fact that we're going to make sure our children and grandchildren inherit in this country the same unfettered opportunities that we got in this country, the greatest country ever imagined, much less to exist in the history of the world." Applause. "God bless you."

In super slow motion, the deer's torso quivered like Jell-O, its front legs spread, its head thrust up, its back legs collapsed.

Video screens on the scoreboard showed swaths of attendees. It looked a lot like the folks you might see at an outlet mall, except it was all white people and there was more flag-themed apparel.

Senator John Thune (R-South Dakota): "We need to make sure that we … never give up because there are those out there who are constantly, the antigun elites, in places around this country, who are always on the attack."

Ken Blackwell, an author and failed gubernatorial candidate in Ohio, was selling his book, which is called The Blueprint: Obama's Plan to Subvert the Constitution and Build an Imperial Presidency. "Ladies and gentlemen," he says of the title, "that's no joke. That is a plan that must be stopped." He compared today's political environment ("an epic contest and struggle between the lovers of liberty and those who want to grow the power and reach of the state") to the Civil War, World War II, the civil rights movement, and 9/11. His speech was interrupted often by applause.

Dan Boren, a Democratic congressman from Oklahoma, opened by reading the Second Amendment and closed by shouting, "Give me liberty or give me death!"

Those were the warm-up acts. Sarah Palin waived her usual speaking fee. A thirty-seven second ovation followed her introduction. Then she said this:

"I'm proud to be among so many great Americans. Liberty-loving constitutionalists, those of you who understand why it is we need the NRA, we're part of the NRA, and we know that protection of our Constitution is the security that our nation needs. Such an honor to be here tonight, and again proudly clinging to our constitutional rights, proud to be Americans in this the greatest country on God's green Earth. I know that you, too, are proud to be NRA."

Where I typed periods and commas, she did not pause. It all just tumbled out. The crowd loved it.

It didn't take her long to go after one of her favorite targets, the "lamestream" media. "They don't deal in common sense. They deal with that emotionalism and propaganda. And they deal in lies. And they pound the bully pulpit every time a crazed lunatic goes on a shooting spree, which is always so extremely tragic, but they never publicize the many instances where a shooting spree was stopped by a good law-abiding citizen who exercised his Second Amendment rights and stopped the criminal." More applause.

I'm guessing it might make the news if an armed citizen stopped a shooting spree by cutting down the would-be shooter, if, that is, a reporter could see an alternate future to know that a shooting spree would have occurred. But this is the beauty of Sarah Palin. She doesn't have to make sense. She can read speeches from her palms, offer a mischievous, we're-all-in-on-the-joke grin, and her acolytes eat it up. She can string together non sequiturs, talk herself into a corner, verbally teleport out of it and into a different one, and she'll get cheers.

Sarah Palin knows what buttons to push at the end of a speech at the Celebration of American Values Leadership Forum, held by the NRA:

"We are America, God shed his grace on thee, we are the exceptional nation, we shall protect her, we will love, we will follow her Constitution, and we shall not apologize for being so proud of our country. God bless everyone in the NRA and God bless America."

The crowd cheered wildly for forty seconds.

Saturday morning, back inside the hall, the constant chorus of clicking was loud. There were so many people there, it felt like Disney World. A man in a motorized wheelchair handed a Colt pistol to his wife. Pretty girls posed for pictures with pink guns. Two men discussed a rifle.

"Mmm. Boyyy, that's pretty." Talking about the rifle.

"She likes killing turkeys and bear." Talking about his wife.

"Been lately?"

"Not since the little one. Hard to find a baby sitter at 4 in the morning. The second one was a surprise."

"Bless your heart."

"You'll never get the truth out of me," he laughed. "Let's just say I have a gun for every scenario I can imagine, from personal defense to national defense."

I met a man named William Norris. He's from Delaware. He has no interest in Sarah Palin or any of the other speakers. "I'm not real good at sitting and listening," he says. He's retired and a former competitive small-bore rifle shooter.

I met a lot of people like Norris, people who don't care much for politics. They just like guns, as a hobby or a sport. Maybe they hunt, maybe they shoot skeet. Really, there were two NRA conventions going on. One with tens of thousands of people. The other with about 10,000 people. One, just a bunch of people who like guns and like being around other people who like guns. The other, people who like circuses.

Still, the political undercurrent was strong. I talked to Abrahm Polaski, forty-four, and his son Seth, twenty-one, from Richland, North Carolina. They were wearing matching black cowboy hats, which made them look like brothers.

They smiled when I said so. Abrahm thinks the Second Amendment is threatened by today's crop of political leaders, and this disturbs him. "I've spent my entire life in the U.S. Marine Corps serving our country. I don't want to run down our leaders. But there is definitely, for lack of a better word, a socialist bent to some of our current leaders." He said this politely but firmly.

I met Don Rice, sixty-four, and Michael Thompson, fifty-four, friends, co-workers (they're engineers), and hunting buddies. Rice was impressed with the show, which he called "phenomenal," but not the state of the country. "A lot of people are not very happy with what's happening in the United States right now," he told me. He described a group of politicians intent on making this "a socialist nation. In my opinion." I asked Rice if he thought there was a lot of anger out there. "Yes."

Thompson had an almost apocalyptic view, which he shared enthusiastically. He thinks that the United States is on the verge of insolvency, that the bad economy is creating desperate criminals, that there will be more and more people living on the streets, and that politicians want to take people's guns. "People need to be able to protect themselves," he said, "when things escalate and we will all be in danger."

I asked about their guns. Rice said he's "down to three."

"He's small time," Thompson laughed. "He can fit all of his guns in his car."

You can't? "No effing way," Rice answered for him. "You'll never get the truth out of me," Thompson laughed again. "Let's just say I have a gun for every scenario I can imagine, from personal defense to national defense."

They were both looking forward to hearing Glenn Beck speak that evening.

Before that Saturday night, I had never heard Glenn Beck speak. Never seen his highly rated TV show on Fox News, never heard his radio show. Now that I have seen him speak, here's what I think: Glenn Beck is a clown. A buffoon. An entertainer, a ratings chaser, an opportunist. His speech was like a horoscope, filled with enough generalities that it could mean whatever you wanted it to mean. Only with more emoting.

So I'm not going to write anything more about Glenn Beck, even though I should. I should because even though I think he's ridiculous, millions of people apparently do not, according to television ratings and book sales. More than 12,000 people cheered his absurd performance at the Celebration of American Values Freedom Event, held at Time Warner Cable Arena. That is not a statement about the cheerers. People cheer for all sorts of entertainers — comedians and pop singers and professional wrestlers. Americans have a wide variety of tastes. But I will say this: sitting there, listening to Glenn Beck rant and rave and all those people egg him on, I felt uncomfortable for the first time all weekend. Beck may just be chasing easy money by, in essence, encouraging anarchy, but these folks appeared to be taking him dead seriously. That scared me.

It also shook me. Before Beck spoke, Newt Gingrich took the podium. He urged the crowd not to bother trying to listen to or understand anyone who disagreed with them — just remove their platform. Beck's histrionics further inflamed an us-vs.-them battle (leaving "them" open enough to mean just about anyone). If enough people subscribe to these theories, and I'm using that word loosely, then the United States is hopelessly polarized.

Sunday was the last day of the convention. I set my alarm to attend the 7:30 a.m. prayer breakfast. But I had had enough of the NRA. I couldn't bring myself to go. I opened the newspaper and found myself almost surprised that the country had not collapsed overnight. Couples smiled from wedding notices. A columnist raged about lack of attendance at a recent opera. The oil spill was still spreading. CMS was closing schools. A Charlotte swimmer toppled three Olympians. Girls liked Wicked.

Two weeks after the NRA convention, I met Neil Roeth for coffee in the bottom of an uptown tower. Roeth grew up on a farm. His parents didn't like guns, didn't have any in the house. As a teen, he asked his parents if he could take a hunter's safety course, maybe get a gun. They thought about it, politely declined. No problem, Roeth said. Thanks for thinking about it. And that was that.

I first met Roeth in a concourse at the convention hall. He was eating dinner alone; his wife and two kids were at the UltraSwim. He supports the NRA, likes what it does for the Second Amendment. He and his son shoot at targets for fun. He's a nuclear physicist who works for Wells Fargo designing quantitative analysis software. He told me that two years ago he never would have spoken to me. Too shy. But these days he feels it's important to discuss how he feels about the country, to "delve deep into the issues." While 12,000 people were at Time Warner Cable Arena to hear Glenn Beck, he was with 150 other people at a Grassroots North Carolina dinner, listening to a panel discuss court cases relevant to the Second Amendment.

"I consider [the Second Amendment] a litmus test of politicians in general," he told me when I first met him. "If they can ignore the very stark and plain language of the Second Amendment, they can't be trusted to uphold other rights. … The Second Amendment is there to protect the others."

Roeth, forty-eight, looks a little like Malcolm Gladwell, only with tamer hair. His eyes gleam with intelligence, and his neck muscles tense slightly when he thinks. He's soft spoken, and he smiles a little as he makes his points. Sitting in the coffee shop, I asked him if he feels the Second Amendment is threatened, as the NRA preaches and screeches as often as it possibly can. "I think that rights in general are threatened," he replied. "We should be looking at them as a package."

I told him I'm a little scared of guns. That's OK, he said. I asked him if people really need to have AK-47s. They don't need them, he said, but they should be able to get them if they want. "Do people need a flat-panel TV?" he asked.

"People who don't like guns should protect the Second Amendment for the same reason the ACLU defended the Nazis' right to free speech in Skokie, Illinois [in a famous 1977 case]," he said, looking at some notes he made to prepare for our conversation. He looked up. "The principle."

"The ability to own a gun, to protect oneself, is what keeps us free."

C'mon, man, guns are made to kill people!

"I fear an immoral man with a club more than a moral man with a nuclear weapon."

OK, OK, so I'm making him out to be some sort of mystic on a mountaintop. He's not. He's just a smart guy who's done a lot of reading, done even more thinking, is passionate about what he believes, and wants to share that belief. He doesn't mind if you disagree with him; he just wants to have a civil conversation about it. He's the anti-Glenn Beck.

Politically, I do not agree with Neil Roeth about very many things. Nor do I know very much about him. But Neil Roeth gives me hope.

Richard Thurmond is editor of this magazine.