Meat for the Media
The main thing was, I couldn't find the right T-shirt. Liza, my baby girl, got all excited when I told her I was running up to Phoenix for the NRA convention. Kids are like that: they get to jumping around and clapping their hands and saying Oh goody, goody, I'm going to get a sussie. Every time I cross a county line somebody wants me to bring back a surprise. Liza in particular likes little sussies from foreign ports. Maybe next year when she turns 26 she'll outgrow it. Meanwhile my mission, should I choose to accept it, is to find this particular T-shirt for Liza. I keep this in the present tense, conditional mood, because they didn't have what Liza wants at the NRA convention, and I've still got to track it down somewhere. Understand this: Liza adores NRA memorabilia. She's got an NRA sticker on the tailgate of her station wagon, and the remains of an old bumper sticker that says, "Nobody ever raped a .38." What she wanted in a T-shirt was one of those that warns, "They'll take my gun when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers." She thought finding one at the national convention of the NRA would be a dead cert. I had my mind on other things and didn't really think much about it. On sober reflection, I should have realized it was a long-shot. Even without the shitstorm of public controversy that followed Wayne LaPierre's "jackbooted thugs" letter that immediately preceded the convention in Phoenix, today's NRA takes pains not to be as blood-and-guts zealous as the mainstream news media and the White House tend to portray it. In fact, if you were to meander into the convention unaware, and didn't immediately venture into the main hall where the vendors' displays were set up, you wouldn't know the NRA from the PTA. Preconceived notions about the organization and its membership tend to get contradicted--not in shocking, dramatic ways, but subtly. It's not, for instance, like you go in expecting everybody to be wearing camouflage and sporting ominous bulges under their jackets only to find them all in black tie and patent leather pumps, it's more a matter of being normal and nondescript. What struck me next was the high percentage of women in the crowd. But I was conditioned to be on the alert for women, since it was one specific woman I was trying to find, and I had no idea what she looked like. Her name is Sandy Froman and she's a lawyer from Tucson, a friend of my friends Art and Katherine. She's also a member of the NRA board. This election and last, she was the top vote-getter of all that 75-member body. How about that? Everybody I asked seemed to know Sandy, and each provided me with enough descriptive data that I could have drawn a composite sketch and come up with someone who looked like either Hillary Rodham Clinton or John Doe No. 2 from the Oklahoma City bombing. No wonder these things never work. When I finally caught up with Sandy she looked like neither, and neither was she wearing what she'd been described in earlier in the day. Funny, she doesn't look like a gun nut. But then they never do. Then again, most of them aren't. Nuts, I mean. We sat over coffee and talked about motorcycles and politics and mutual friends, and then another board member, some gentleman name of Nathan or something, begged our indulgence to interrupt, and they discussed a little NRA business. I feigned disinterest and hung on every word, none of which had anything to do with guns or head shots or political coups or any of that G. Gordon Liddy stuff. It was all about computer software and consensus-building. They reminded me of a couple of ACLU board members I had listened in on, during a similar convention many years ago. In fact that was the over-riding impression I had of the convention, any time and anywhere outside the main hall, where the firearms manufacturers and trade organizations had their displays for the visiting NRA members and the general public. Most of the color commentators and cameramen were in the vendors' hall while the "serious" journalists scribbled notes at the back of the auditorium where the NRA speeches were being delivered. But behind the scenes, and in the smaller meeting rooms where the various committees were holding their annual eyebrow-to-eyebrow think sessions, the tone was one of quiet determination. Serious talk was going on, over serious issues. Civil rights issues. I kept thinking back to that earlier ACLU event, and the parallels held up. I thought of the `60s, of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and a police riot when people were clubbed and kicked and thrown in paddy wagons for exercising their First Amendment rights, of Kent State when college kids died for the same offense. I remembered how the Nixon Administration systematically spied on and sought to silence dissidents. The rhetoric of both sides of that dispute was no less heated and inflammatory than the debate today between the White House and the NRA, with the news media not quite in the middle. This time out the dissidents tend to come from the political right, the forces of government control from the left, and the media tend toward the side of state versus individual liberty. Funny how personal freedom seems to be a matter of hardware rather than principle to some minds. If it's the right to free speech, free press and freedom of religion, high-minded theorists are always on your side. If it seems to come down to carrying a pistol or a hunting rifle, those same high-minded thinkers dismiss it as blood lust. Lost in the shouting are the concepts of personal freedom and individual responsibility. Until I shout "fire" in a crowded theater or knowingly libel an innocent man, government shall not intrude upon my freedom of expression. Why then, so long as I do not shoot someone without just cause, or attempt to overthrow my government by force of arms, should that government prevent me from keeping and bearing arms? The possibility that I might do something illegal with a firearm simply is not justification, either on Constitutional grounds or those of simple justice and common sense, to interfere with the freedom that human beings should recognize is that right and natural order of things. Same as with speech, assembly--thought. And behind the hoopla and the media swarm, the outdoor enthusiasts and hunters and target shooters and just plain curious, this was the serious work and concern that the NRA officers, board members and staff came to Phoenix to talk about. Meanwhile, of course, there was Louise Mandrell to sing for her supper, and the suppers of God knows how many suffering NRA members, at Rawhide, way the hell and gone outside of town on Friday night. If you've never been to Rawhide, and happen to wind up in Phoenix one day, go there once. Go there at about 6 a.m. on a weekday, when there aren't more than a few hundred lost or strayed last night's customers and crew hanging around. Any other time there will be thousands, cheek to cheek on wooden benches at picnic tables, tucking away T-bones and beans and sourdough bread. Sandy Froman and I drove out there in my pickup, skipping the fleet of tour buses that ferried the NRA membership to site. We found the fleet of buses parked as near the front gate at the packed parking lot would allow. They were about a half-mile from the door and there wasn't room to squeeze in a bicycle between there and the door. We gave Louise and the T-bones a pass and kept on talking about civil rights issues. It's tough enough having The New York Times, The Arizona Daily Star, Bill Clinton and Diane Feinstein on your ass, without having to stand in line with 22,000 other sufferers to wait for a lukewarm piece of meat.