For several years I worked for the now defunct ESPNOutdoors.com and on a number of ESPN Outdoors TV shows. A couple of times a year the website would cover these massive annual trade shows that affected hunting, and we'd descend on giant convention center halls in Orlando and Las Vegas that were packed with camo and hunter orange gear. Visitors at these shows would wander a labyrinth of booths stacked with weaponry, optics, ammo and the rest. These were primarily industry events for retailers, all business, but with a pervasive America, fuck yeah atmosphere to the acres and acres of booths. There the American Dream was alive and it was armed.
The biggest convention we would cover was the SHOT (Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade) Show, where we usually shared an office with the guys from NRA Radio. They let us piggyback on their (ridiculously expensive) convention center internet service in return for us plugging their show on our site. The NRA guys were fun and smart, quick with a joke, very accommodating. They also pulled in some awesome guests. At one point I got to sit in while they interviewed R. Lee Ermey (Gunnery Sgt. Hartman from Full Metal Jacket) about Glock and his new TV show about guns and the shooting of said guns. Ermey selling out to do firearm-porn undermines the entire point of Full Metal Jacket, unfortunately, but for a Kubrick fan, eavesdropping on that conversation made my year.
One afternoon, while the ESPN Outdoors crew was cranking out quasi-news to justify our being at the convention, the NRA folks asked if they could use our room, beside their makeshift studio. A few minutes later, in walks the executive vice president of the NRA, Wayne LaPierre, to record his weekly "state of the NRA" address. He's no R. Lee Ermey, maybe, but I'd seen LaPierre enough on the news that I felt a bit starstruck. Here we were getting to see this incredibly important lobbyist—one of the country's foremost gun experts, I assumed—make his case on SiriusXM radio.
Turns out that he didn't even write the damn speech. Someone handed him a piece of paper and went over the points with him, even going over the pronunciation of a sticky word. They recorded a few takes and then turned LaPierre loose to glad-hand everyone, slap some backs and flash his chiclet perma-grin. Then he was whisked out of the room just as quickly as he'd come in.
I spent part of Friday trying to reconcile the collegial atmosphere of these trade shows with the defensive pro-gun cheerleading after the shootings in Connecticut. To be sure: I am not anti-gun. The outdoors side of the industry is justified in regarding rifles and shotguns as tools to hunt, safely and legally, to stock your deep freezer and maybe to mount a head on your wall. The tactical side of the industry, ever-expanding since 9/11, supports the necessary work of soldiers and of police. It's more fervent and more power-focused than the hunters, but you still appreciate the purpose behind this weaponry.
No one is going to dismantle hunting or the military or police departments. But if you hang around these big gun industry conventions very long, you notice that they stoke a persistent delusion of persecution around just those scenarios. The constant dread that you will only have your gun until The Government pries it out of your cold, dead hands—this is an irrational fear, and thus has to come from somewhere. Enter the NRA. Fear of gun confiscation or onerous ammo regulations only pump up sales. We're not overthrowing tyrants; we're blasting holes in any one who tries to take what's ours.
It's not obvious that more guns will make us safer as a people. But individually? Yeah, a lot of people feel safer with a Glock under their jacket. And while we try to decide whether stiffer gun laws reduce crime, we can be damn sure that selling more guns will make the manufacturers rich as shit. So the NRA pumps out gassy clouds of fear. It's their version of the infomercial line "limited quantities only!" that urges you to buy some crap you don't need.
Watching the NRA News team doing their radio show, I was struck by how much they harped on gun rights being challenged. If they weren't going out to the floor to do a piece on someone's new product that loaded faster, held more rounds, or shot more accurately, they came back to the studio to steer every on-air conversation toward nebulous ideas like "freedom" and "gun rights." They nailed those points to the wall as many times as they could.
When the microphone was off, conversation with them was about anything else. They were funny, affable guys, intelligent on a bevy of subjects. One of the producers was a former producer for Howard Stern, a sign to me that his NRA job was more about a paycheck than a moral crusade.
It reminded me of the dichotomy between the two sides of this argument regarding gun rights. There's a world full of people who just want to live their lives, not hurt anyone, and just be honest and sincere. Then there's the world where a corporation wants to sell you whatever it's making by any means necessary. This is where the NRA operates.
I can tell you this—most of the people I've met from the NRA don't believe the bullshit they're selling. Their ethos conforms to whomever pays their salary. That's a trap much bigger than most of us bother to notice. But let's take this small bite as we talk about how to keep people from shooting up kindergarten classrooms. Gun lobbyists, the guys drawing the big checks, aren't nutjobs and they don't love the Constitution any more than you do. They're Americans in it for a buck. They've taken a profitable position selling a lifestyle to frightened people who buy that lifestyle, ironically enough, from the very industry that funds their fear. They're not fanatics; they're just capitalists. Don't be afraid of them.
Matt Barnette spent seven years producing outdoors TV and websites for ESPN. He lives in Arkansas.