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Guns, Paranoia and Obama Assassination Jokes: Inside the NRA's Annual Convention

In recent years, the NRA's leadership has expertly cultivated a very profitable hatred and paranoia among its membership.

ST. LOUIS -- The hotel minibus had barely left the airport when the guy to my left dropped the Obama assassination joke.

There were eight of us on our way to the National Rifle Association's annual convention downtown, rolling past a domino-row of highway billboards advertising the event's "Acres of Guns and Gear." The banter suggested the minibus crew was microcosmic of the NRA's claimed four million members, more than 70,000 of whom made the election-year pilgrimage. There was a soft-spoken father from Long Island and his teenage daughter headed to the University of Akron on a Division-I marksmanship scholarship. There were retired New Hampshire hunters from NRA families going back generations. There was a Russian immigrant whose only hobby is fully automatic machine guns.

And there was a professional Second Amendment extremist named Stephen Burke. An Endowment Life Member of the NRA and an attorney from Springfield, Massachusetts, Burke specializes in getting guns into the hands of ex-cons whose licenses have been revoked or downgraded for criminal activity.

Burke is a loud and boastful retired lance corporal who displays  a photo of himself with NRA Executive Vice President & CEO Wayne LaPierre on his professional website. The only thing he abhors more than gun control is silence. When a conversation about former New York Governor George Pataki's pro-gun record entered a lull, he asked the group what sounded like an American history riddle or piece of trivia: "What do Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Barack Obama have in common?"

The collective intelligence of the minibus was stumped. After a few beats, he delivered the answer: "Nothing.  Yet."

Most of the bus erupted in laughter, but the father from Long Island looked out the window, embarrassed.

Parents who want to shield their children from presidential assassination jokes should consider vacation destinations other than NRA conventions. The group's leadership has in recent years expertly cultivated a very profitable hatred and paranoia among its membership. This fact was on majestic display in St. Louis, where NRA officials painted the president as a dedicated "enemy of freedom" quietly implementing the early stages of a master gun confiscation plan. The convention marked the opening salvo in the group's campaign to defeat Obama and his gun control allies in November. The official battle cry for this effort, unveiled on Friday, is "All In."

The NRA's election-year slogan is meant to evoke a bit of the Wild West tough guy imagery that remains central to American gun culture. The phrase comes from poker, the card game of the frontier, and the desired picture is that of a noble, steely-eyed gun lobby pushing its mountain of chips across the table of America's destiny, betting everything on one last high-stakes hand. In NRA land, where impending Second Amendment Apocalypse is a state of mind and a business strategy, the next election is always the final hand. As he did in 2008, chief NRA spokesman Wayne LaPierre describes 2012 as "the most important election of our lifetime." 

For a group with a self-replenishing supply of chips, the slogan "All In" is absurd. Recent years have seen record profits for the gun and ammo industries, of which the NRA is an integral part. During Saturday's Leadership Forum, two grateful firms -- Ruger and MidwayUSA, the sponsor of the convention -- together donated more than $8 million to the NRA's lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action. These two gifts alone -- raised through a "round-up" campaign on sales -- nearly equal the group's record spending for the 2008 cycle.

Flush with cash from the Obama-era gun boom it's done so much to fuel and drive, the NRA is today a very different beast than when it faced the possibility of bankruptcy in the mid-1990s. It has even mutated in large and important ways since 2007, when one of its former lobbyists, Richard Feldman, described the organization as a "cynical, mercenary political cult." Today's NRA is less a lobbying and campaigning organization than a highly profitable, multi-division industry, merchandising, and fundraising machine. It has an annual budget of between $220 and $250 million and executives eligible for the Buffet Rule. An election year for them is a night at the blackjack table for Michael Jordan.

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