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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.

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Time will tell. Even if the polls turn out to be right, Rathner thinks the NRA can deflate support by educating the public on the real menace of attempts to plug leaks in the current background check regime: the menace of a Trojan horse for the kind of universal gun registry that Manchin-Toomey explicitly rejected.

"The defeated legislation wanted to subject every transaction to a background check. How do they enforce it? Some form of universal registration is the only way," said Rathner. "That's what this is about. If you simply explain to the American people that universal background checks require universal registration, support for the idea will plummet."

Will it? The supposition that a deep fear of the government unites Joe Public and NRA conventioneers is a risky basis for strategy. Americans are comfortable registering their cars, pets, votes, and marriages, and most would struggle to comprehend the NRA's insurrectionist-tinted freak-out over gun registration - especially given that the freak-out appears to be based on a fantasy. At least, they would until they put on a pair of NRA Freedom Goggles. Viewed through these, registering a Bushmaster XM-15 looks less like registering a used Mazda, and more like registering your freedom of religion.

"Would you tolerate having to register your right to free speech?" Rathner asked. "Would you submit to a background check before you can publish on the Internet? The Second Amendment is the same as the First. They are both constitutionally protected."

Lurking behind the false notion that we don't regulate aspects of speech and peaceable assembly -- you can't yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater, or hold large public protests without a permit -- is the fear, pervasive among the NRA members that attend conventions, that a federal gun registry will lead to an army of repo men going door to door, one micro zip code at a time, like census workers in riot gear.

"If you look at history, registration leads to confiscation," said Rathner. "If they know where the guns are, they can come and take 'em. If there's no registration, we don't have to worry about the government. Why does the government need to know all this stuff? Why should they know what I have in my house?"

Rathner rested his case by saying the so-called gun show loophole is nothing but a media myth. "I go to gun shows almost every weekend," he said. "More than 90 percent are subject to rules and regulations. Almost all the guns sold on Internet are subject to them as well. The amount of guns sold without background checks is miniscule."

What if these cracks in the current system combine with a cheap gun glut to send stray bullets into people like Bri Jeffries? And what if it happens every single day? Maybe that's just Freedom's price. But it's a price the NRA's rural and suburban membership aren't worried about paying. While waiting for the start of a seminar on the ABC's of "Freedom Finance," I asked a voting NRA member from Fort Lauderdale his thoughts on gun violence in American cities. He looked at me like I was stupid, and lowered his voice. "You know, almost all of these shooting deaths in the cities are black-on-black," he said. "It's not black-on-white." 

Other NRA members are more concerned with urban violence and have even initiated programs to extend the group's agenda to big cities. Walking back from a Ted Nugent signing event, I ran into a Kyle Coplen, a 29-year-old gun activist who was carrying an electric guitar shaped like a machine gun. His bright green t-shirts featured the logo of something called the Armed Citizens Project, a young non-profit Coplen founded that distributes free shotguns to residents of high-crime neighborhoods. "We're combining Joe Biden's love of shotguns with Obama's love of redistribution," he said. "If we get the poor comfortable with being safe and armed in their own home, maybe later they'll join the NRA, and get themselves a concealed handgun license. We look at the shotgun as a gateway gun to the gun culture."

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