I’ve never even so much as touched a gun in my entire 31 years on this planet. No interest. So naturally, I went to the 145th-annual National Rifle Association Annual Meeting this weekend in Louisville, an event three years older than the Kentucky Derby, in the interest of, for lack of a better term, discovery. And after a fish-out-of-water adventure this weekend, I still maintain total disinterest in owning a gun, but I now possess a better understanding as to why you might feel differently.
But let’s start at the beginning.
“No press credentials!” That’s the text I received less than 24 hours before I shlepped over to the Kentucky Exposition Center. Undoubtedly the print issue of this paper last week influenced the NRA’s PR team decision on this front. While not an exclusive mindset for any organization or event, it makes sense the NRA in particular would reserve credentials for media more interested in advancing their cause rather than, say, rabble-rousing.
But I didn’t come to the aptly-titled Freedom Hall to rouse such rabble, and not just because there’s a number of folks here ready for WWIII. I came to learn something about the estimated 80,000 attendees impacting the local economy to the tune of $53 million over the weekend, according to a recent WDRB story.
Though I tick most boxes on the progressive side of the political spectrum, as most writers at your local alternative newsweekly are wont to do, the issue of gun control has always given me pause. The arguments surrounding the debate are unequivocally complex and often ambivalent, referencing deep-seated ethics as well as legal and political minutiae. It’s arduous to sort the signals through the noise, especially in the time of social media offering up confirmation bias in its purest and most toxic form — a seal-tight echo chamber in which your curated media purview can pick apart the fact set in any given news story and spin it toward why guns are an epidemic, or how a “good guy with a gun” assuaged a volatile situation. The Wall Street Journal recently built a model of both left and right wing Facebook news feeds to illustrate this point. Like the Horseshoe Theory suggests, the extremes on both sides more closely resemble each other in their behavior, namely in this case, distorting truth to fit a narrative.
As both a Southerner and a Bernie Sanders supporter, I know what it feels like to get unfairly characterized in the media. I get it. Which made me wonder as an outsider, who are the people, of the millions of members nationwide, making the trek to this thing called the Annual Meeting?
I posited that while my mental visual of the militia-grade, apocalypse-ready artillery enthusiast would exist here, so too must a more moderate, nuanced persona. After all, a recent Public Policy Polling survey of gun owners in America revealed that 83 percent support criminal background checks for everyone who wants to buy a firearm, even though the NRA actively resists such. While the gun lobby is and will most likely continue to be a problematic body even (as I learned) by admission of its own members, and the Annual Meeting is rather ridiculous in the abstract, the spectrum of thought within gun ownership in America is perhaps more robust than the social media shouting match would have you believe. The aforementioned poll had me assume such, and as it turns out, the conversations tended to prove it.
But to get there, I had to get in. And since LEO got snubbed, the only way to enter is by purchasing a membership to the NRA myself. Let’s lock ’n load.
So I, an individual who’s never paintballed, even so much as never played Big Buck Hunter, am now a member of the NRA, like everyone else here. Well, an associate member, which means I don’t receive the (print) magazine. And since we came only as plebeians, professional cameras with detachable lenses were strictly prohibited. So LEO Weekly photographer extraordinaire Nik Vechery was relegated to a GoPro.
Entering the Fairground felt particularly ominous this day, with overcast stormy skies and the KEC sitting adjacent to Kentucky Kingdom, the sound of screams reverberating through the parking lot … as we’re entering an NRA convention. The adage “you couldn’t write this” might be a little cliched, but the irony was thick enough to make us reconsider the mission.
Beholding the advertised “11 acres of guns and gear” upon shuffling through the doors of the Kentucky Expo Center, with 1.2 million square feet of soul-sucking fluorescent lighting and regrettable ‘70s architecture, it felt like entering the veritable Brobdingnag of tactical toys, revealing thousands of mall kiosks basking in the glow of a specific interpretation of an Amendment. But the first merchant we engaged with sold… energy drinks.
“It’s all natural, and no crash on the backend,” Jordan from MTN OPS explained to me when I asked how his Blaze shot differed from 5-Hour Energy. “When you’re behind a firearm, you have to stay alert, because it’s your responsibility.” Blaze is marketed specifically for hunters. I remarked on the 2,000 percent of the daily intake of b6. I have to assume this is not FDA-approved, since this slice of Americana ain’t too keen on the government in their business (and to be fair, neither is Emergen-C). “If you look at Red Bull’s ingredients, or any energy drink, and if you see ‘taurine,’ that’s bull semen,” he said as I witnessed a burlier gentleman behind me raise his eyebrows with chagrin. This is actually an entirely something else from a bull, but we appreciated the sample shots he provided Nik and me, as well as their company’s charity arm that helps combat hunger. Syrupy and single-dimension, Blaze tasted less medicine-like than 5-Hour Energy and made me completely tweaky … which is exactly how you want to behave as the hippie at the gun show.
We then ran into Jon Pastusek, after passing by a booth adorned in a red carpet-style backdrop, diagonal lines reading “GOOD GUY.” Assuming this was a branding of the “good guy with a gun” principle, I had to speak with him. Youthful and affable, he eagerly explained how his company’s handgun sights provided a more accurate shot. Hearing only the Greek language, I told him I’ve never touched a gun. Without missing a beat, he gave me a little gun mechanics and handling 101 on the spot. Pastusek mentioned that his company, XS Sights, also manufactures medical and construction equipment. “It’s a way of life,” Pastusek said about what “GOOD GUY” means. “It’s our commitment to help out the good guy take care of any bad situation in a responsible way.”
As he is based in Texas, I was curious about his take on the state’s open carry laws, which are controversial even amongst gun owners. “If I have my holster under my jacket, and it catches on something like a chair, or if it’s my belt and I bend over,” he said, that could have “repercussions based on who’s around and the applicable laws.” In other words, if someone was feeling saucy that day, they could try to get him in trouble for not properly concealing. Jon was friendly and warm, not someone you’d immediately assume to be packing heat. And all signs pointed toward him being, ya know, a good guy.
Other sights included a colossal exhibit dedicated gold investment, because, as Glenn Beck often proclaimed, there’s never been a better time to invest in the stuff. You could’ve immediately added to your retirement portfolio on the spot this weekend, and throw in a commemorative Wayne LaPierre coin for only $28. Now that I’m an NRA member, maybe I should’ve grabbed some gold to store in the bunker I might as well build at this point, but unfortunately I had to save my extra scratch for the saddest burrito bowl I’ve ever eaten from Ramiro’s Cantina at the back of the KEC, the official Gringo grub of the NRA, as we joined two hunters from Ohio at one of the concession tables. “You think we’re gun nuts, huh,” one of the gentlemen asked. “Not necessarily, we’re mainly here out of curiosity.” It was a brief, amicable conversation. They said they came to look at and purchase gear, as they’ve done at NRA meetings past, not so much for the celebrity appearances from Outdoor Channel luminaries (though that didn’t hurt) and keynote addresses.
On the way out, we visited a booth dealing with tactical pens — dense, metallic $95 instruments that scribe as well as act as a self-defense weapon when striking an attacker at a pressure point. The woman behind the table casually ignored my “looks like the pen truly is mightier than the sword” quip. Perhaps she’s heard that one before.
A number of folks we encountered on the convention grounds were generally open to the mission at hand and happy to speak to us — off the record. Fair enough, the convention goers certainly have home field advantage here. So we ventured to a more demilitarized neutral zone later that night, a downtown dive bar near a cluster of hotels, to open up more dialogue. This is where I met Ray Smith, of Oklahoma, and his cohort. With a long white beard and adorned in a bent-bill ball cap and front-pocked t-shirt, he resembled a gingerly grandfather. He recently retired from a career in medicine, and has been a card-carrying member of the NRA “for decades.” “I’m passionate,” he tells me early in the conversation. He wasn’t wrong.
“When you picked up a handgun, where did you right finger?” he said when I revealed my dearth of proclivity toward firearms. “You put your finger on the trigger, and people who have never had any training, their finger falls right on the trigger. There’s no such thing as an accidental discharge. In my book, it’s a negligent discharge. I picked up hundred of guns today, and other than the simulation, didn’t once touch the trigger.”
When I asked him about the issue of background checks, Smith, who said he owns 300 to 400 firearms “all with a background check,” had a few issues he wanted to clear up. “No licensed dealer can sell without a background check. I, as a private citizen, can sell you a gun or give one to my son without one. Now, me being not stupid, I’ll make a copy of your driver’s license. The loophole you’re talking about is: I show up at the gun show with a sign that I’m going to sell you a gun, and I take you to my car. But these days, the security are more likely to kick you out.” He added that “the guns used in crimes are almost universally stolen” (police tend to agree with this, but the official data is in dispute) and if it’s stolen, there’s no background check.
On whether the country has a gun violence issue, Smith was quick (and again, passionate) about framing a gun as an instrument. This was a common refrain from most everyone I spoke to over the weekend. “By saying [gun violence], you’re saying the gun itself is violent. It’s not. It’s a thing! Yes, America is a violent country, with violent individuals, but it’s not the most violent. If you eliminate Chicago, New Orleans, and [Washington D.C.], America would be second from the bottom.” The latter, too, was a stat that came up earlier in the weekend. That’s not entirely accurate, but still, Smith provided a lot of intelligent context around how many NRA members feel about guns in America with both eloquence and charisma.
On the question of whether their personal ideologies diverge from the NRA agenda, Smith and his group provided similar answers. “There are times that the absolute hard-line, no-negotiation stance is counterproductive,” Smith said. An individual next to him, who asked not to be identified, added “The hard line is sometimes too hard of a line, and it will and does push some people away. But at the end of the day, it’s the last best organization we’ve got going for us.”
Strategically, it can be argued that in the NRA’s interest to draw an inflexible line, essentially manipulating the argumentum ad temperantiam to move the middle and the moderates closer to one end of the spectrum. And yet, the same PPP survey found that only half of gun owners feel the NRA represents their interests as gun owners.
Sam Bracken, a local food truck owner, falls within the other half. He became an NRA member so he could join a gun club for target practice. He has a conceal-carry permit, but he rarely exercises it. “Like my NRA brethren, I don’t think more restrictive gun laws will significantly deter gun violence. Criminals will still get guns. Gangs will have them. Crazy lone gunmen will still find a way to get them. Unlike my NRA fellows, I think we should try some gun control measures anyway. Give them a shot, pun intended.” He remarked that he finds the NRA an extremist group, and that it’s their job to toe that line. “For the past eight or so years, every issue [of the NRA magazine, that I won’t receive] has been full of articles about how Obama and other evil bleeding heart liberals were going to take away our guns. Hasn’t happened. At all.”
Bracken, who declined to attend the meeting this year, owns about a dozen guns “two of which went through a background check.” “It’s easier to buy a gun than it is to buy a pizza. That doesn’t seem right to me,” he said. While Ray Smith from the bar believes semi-automatic weapons should stay legal because “the law was written with the intent that the people would have equal force to the government so the people would stay the master,” Bracken feels only law enforcement or military need that sort of heavy artillery, though he conceded, “Will restrictions on high capacity magazine sales stop a criminal from getting one? Probably not.”
Bracken also discussed the gray area of mental illness in background checks. “If I became depressed, would the government take my gun? There is a question on the form I filled out to buy my rifle that said something like: Have you ever been diagnosed as a mental defective?. I answered ‘no,’ but my friends may disagree with that answer.”
Still yet, he believes governments should “at least try some of these forms of gun control, or come up with better ones. The rest of us have to be able to see the gray parts of the issue and do something to affect change, in effect, compromise. Sacrifice a little bit of our freedom to improve the safety of the society at large.”
Jeremy Sears is a 33-year old barbershop owner from Cincinnati who “used to sing in a punk band and is covered in tattoos,” quite a deviation from the Annual Meeting’s major demographic (or at least much of the public’s projection thereof). “There are millions of peaceful gun owners in America, and the media seems to focus on fringe elements, if they even interview them at all, in respect to why they own firearms or stand for our constitutional rights,” he said. Sears joined the NRA for the perks at shooting clubs and to support “a political lobby aimed at combating any infringement of my constitutional right.”
He added that, “Gun violence is a really funny term to me, just the insinuation that because the violence was perpetrated with a firearm, it attains a higher level of sinister or evil. All violence is repugnant.” On the issue of gun control measures, Sears cut the difference between Smith and Bracken, stating simply “I would like to see the current laws in place enforced better.” Indeed there does appear to be a significant gap between regulations and enforcement, often attributed to a lack of available resources within various government agencies.
Sears noted that, at the end of the day, “we [gun owners] are their neighbors, friends and family, not bad guys.” “Nobody wants to see a school get shot up by some wacko or see people gunned down by by some gang banger in a drive by,” Bracken added. “The NRA doesn’t want that, the Brady Campaign doesn’t want that, gun owners don’t want that, anti-gun activists don’t want that. Instead of fighting against each other into a stalemate where nothing changes, they should pool their power and energy into looking for real solutions. Maybe an overhaul of the mental health system. Maybe more opportunity for education and jobs for misguided inner-city youth. Maybe more training in gun safety.”
As Smith pointed out, the NRA does try to advance gun education, and this type of training emphasizes restraint. “I don’t carry weapons because I’m afraid. I carry weapons because I have a right to defend myself if the situation should ever arise,” he said. “I have a letter I wrote to myself when I got my conceal carry permit, and in that letter I described the situation that I would or would not use my weapon. That letter was sealed, mailed to myself and put in a safety deposit box. Heaven forbid I ever have to use my weapon, my lawyer will hand me that letter, and I’ll read it.”
America has a unique and entrenched relationship with guns compared to the rest of the world, and we can parse apart ad infinitum the reasons why. But the fact is that this debate ain’t going anywhere anytime soon. Perhaps it’s time we learn to talk about it, whether that’s at a dive bar, over a cup of coffee, or at ground zero of the NRA’s biggest event.