Photographs by Charles Ommanney
THE BALD, MUSCULAR MAN in the red shirt pulled a pistol from the front of his pants, where it had been hidden in a specially designed holster. “If I need a gun,” said Steve Wiesner, who was giving a how-to clinic to about fifty people on carrying a concealed handgun on your body, “I push up on the bottom. There’s a gun. It’s that easy. The hardest part of concealed carry is, How do I have an enjoyable day, look like I’m not armed, be legal, and still have access to my handgun if I need it? When you need a handgun is when you need a spare tire. When you have no clue, you’ll need it. That’s why you always bring one and hope you don’t need it.”
We were in the far corner of the massive George R. Brown Convention Center, in Houston, on the fringe of one of the largest gun exhibition and trade shows in the world. Just past the curtain of the how-to-clinic area—where in another hour one could also learn how to draw and twirl pistols, cowboy-style—lay a true-blue spectacle of all things Second Amendment. Or, in the words of the National Rifle Association, which was hosting its 134th annual meeting: “5 Acres of Guns & Gear.” The major firearm companies—Smith & Wesson, Browning, Colt, Remington, Glock, Beretta, Winchester—took up the most space, with hundreds of guns displayed along easy-to-access walls and cases. Almost everywhere you looked, men, women, and children aimed rifles at the ceiling and pistols at the floor; the clicks of pulled triggers filled the air, like the sound of summer cicadas. Large screens showed videos of guns, ammo, and men shooting, while stereo speakers blared rock music and announced things like “Barnes Triple-Shock X-Bullet and expander sabot slug—all copper, for full weight retention and deep penetration!” and “Now that’s what I call sight-alignment trigger squeeze!” Accessories dealers sold camouflage, scopes, and purse holsters. You could buy a BB gun that looked like an automatic weapon or, among the collectors, check out an ancient Leman rifle from Custer’s Last Stand. You could book an African safari or shoot a video varmint at a laser gallery. Men stood at the front of their booths with rifles slung over their shoulders, waiting for a show of interest from passersby. Others gave demonstrations, such as how to eject a clip from a pistol and load another in three seconds. You could buy a book called NRA Guide to Reloading, a CD called In My Land: The Second Amendment Album, and a T-shirt that showed Charlton Heston holding up an old flintlock with the iconic phrase “From My Cold Dead Hands!” across the front.
Those words, now a rallying cry for the most powerful political lobby in the country, were heard and seen often during the three-day convention. The NRA, through one giddy event after another, was not feeling shy. Some 60,000 gun enthusiasts walked the floor of the convention center, while upstairs, in the conference rooms, almost every speaker got a standing ovation. Members gave them to their NRA leadership and also to congressional allies who have helped the organization over the years, such as Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Representatives Bob Barr and Henry Bonilla, and even embattled House majority leader Tom DeLay. They gave them to the oldest living lifetime NRA member (Claude Willoughby, 99) and the youngest (Reagan Adams, born in January). They gave one to Governor Rick Perry. They gave two to musician Ted Nugent. And at the opening ceremony on Friday afternoon, they gave one to former NRA president Heston, who was home ailing with Alzheimer’s disease. “Charlton Heston is watching,” said emcee Charlie Daniels, the country singer, who was standing in front of an image of a 75-foot-wide American flag. “He will hear your appreciation live. Moses, we know you’re listening and watching!” One thousand people stood and cheered.
Daniels got a standing ovation too—and then got round after round of applause as he spoke. He had just returned from an international tour that included Iraq, he said. “I am pleased to inform you that the war is going well.” The crowd roared. “In spite of the inane ravings of Ted Kennedy, the war is going well. Despite the best efforts of the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, CBS, ABC, and NBC, the war is going well.” Then, like many of the speakers would do that weekend, he linked the war with the cause at hand. “The left-leaning political faction in this nation is not only dangerous, they’re silly and unrealistic, a cadre of save-the-whales and kill-the-babies pantywaists who believe that if we’d just leave the terrorists alone they’d leave us alone and that the violence in our streets is caused by guns and not the hand that holds the gun.” At this, the NRA’s most trusted mantra, the crowd again went wild.
When the speakers weren’t mocking their enemies—from Kennedy and the mainstream media to Michael Moore, Bill and Hillary Clinton, the United Nations, and, of course, the French—they were gloating over the NRA’s place in the world and the latest conservative Republican triumphs. Their message: We won. Get over it. We helped beat Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004. We elected the friendliest presidential ally we’ve had since Ronald Reagan. We brought Republican majorities to the House and Senate. We spearheaded the move to allow citizens to carry concealed weapons in 38 states. We beat back the 1994 assault weapons ban. We have done it all, the speakers kept reminding the audience, because of you, the rank-and-file membership: You manned the phone banks; you mass-mailed letters to the editor; you sent us money; you voted out those anti-gunners; you scared the hell out of anyone who doesn’t believe the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms is the greatest freedom in the history of the world.
Indeed, the NRA has fundamentally changed the terms of the gun