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Fear, Paranoia and Loathing: Inside the NRA's 2013 Convention

To swing the door on a National Rifle Association annual meeting is to enter a world where Freedom comes from a gun.

National Rifle Association chief executive Wayne LaPierre speaks during the 2013 NRA Annual Meeting on May 3, 2013 in Houston, Texas.
Photo Credit: AFP


HOUSTON -- To swing the door on a National Rifle Association annual meeting is to enter a world where Freedom comes from a gun. The gun's purpose is not important. It doesn't have to be American made. It can be any number of shapes, so long as it has a grip, a trigger, and a barrel. But only from a gun barrel can Freedom flow. In the words of multiple NRA members who confronted protestors this past weekend, "The Second Amendment is the one thing protecting the First."

Last May in St. Louis, NRA leaders pounded away at this idea in a torrent of Apocalyptic warnings about the consequences of failure in the November elections. A year later, gathering two weeks after helping defeat the biggest effort to strengthen gun laws in a generation, the same men delivered the NRA's Second Amendment gospel with a newfound swagger. Unchanged was the primacy of guns and gun rights in the NRA's understanding of the world and everything in it. In his opening speech, Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre described the gun enthusiasts before him as "Freedom's biggest army, greatest hope, and brightest future." The group's chief lobbyist-strategist, the boyish Tennessean Chris Cox, celebrated the convention as "the biggest celebration ever of American values," whose 86,000-plus attendees embodied "the essence of participation in American democracy."

NRA summits involve leadership votes and platform debates, but NRA-style democracy isn't about those things alone. It's also about the guns that make it possible. Which is why NRA conventions feature an exhibition hall packed with hundreds of booths displaying Freedom's latest fashions -- what the group calls "the most spectacular displays of firearms, shooting and hunting accessories in the world."

The big story on the floor this year was the post-election sales bounce following Sandy Hook and a revitalized gun violence debate. Companies that had reduced production to normal post-election levels in November were blindsided by second buying frenzy and have yet to recover their balance. Among the biggest beneficiaries is the assault rifle industry the NRA did much to nurture in the 1980s. "Sales are through the roof," said a rep from Stag Arms. "We have an eight to 12-month wait." A manager from Core Rifle Systems described the recent frenzy as "almost a little ridiculous. But it's good for business. We have a two-year back order producing 3,500 rifles a month." DSA Inc., which makes a range of ARs and grenade launchers, says it's getting 2,000 emails a day. "Business is good, it's real, real good for all of us," said a rep from the online assault weapon retailer Behind him hung an oversized check for $500,000 made out to the NRA.

Veteran guns and ammo dealers see the current frenzy as resulting from several developments that together have created a perfect storm of paranoia among the gun community. Obama's reelection, legislative movement on Capitol Hill, the UN Arms Trade Treaty, reports of large purchases of ammunition by federal agencies -- all have been hyped in the gun press and in rightwing media as heralding everything from ammo droughts to full-on police state tyranny.

"Together with all the gun stuff in the news, you still have the bad economy, which means survival purchases of the three B's -- beans, bullets, and booze," said Jeff Mullins, a bullet designer and owner of Allegiance Ammunition. "Then people see these reports about the government buying high volume [ammo]. That makes people think, 'Well, they're buying it to keep it from us.' I don't want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but..."

When Mullins trailed off, an attendee listening nearby finished the thought. "Everybody is thinking that way," he said. "Nobody trusts the government."

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