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 debate. People don’t argue much anymore about whether the Second Amendment applies to civilians or militias. You don’t hear much about “gun control” either; the phrase suddenly sounds antiquated, like “Betamax” or “women’s lib.” And the person given the most credit for that is a man named Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice president and spokesman for the NRA, who in his fourteen years has helped raise the membership rolls from 2.5 million members to almost 4 million. LaPierre, whose giant face (he resembles the late character actor J. T. Walsh) was on an oversized banner that hung from the ceiling next to Heston’s, also spoke at the opening celebration. “Let those who oppose us hear our words here and now, loud and clear,” he thundered. “We did not sweat and fight and struggle for twenty-five years to take back our Second Amendment to give back one bit. Let the enemies of freedom take notice: We in this room have beaten you and beaten you and beaten you for twenty-five years. And even when all of us on this stage are gone, trust me: This room full of patriots is proof that there’s a whole lot more where we came from.”
LaPierre is like one of those old-time labor bosses—an agitator one minute, a smooth politician the next, extolling the NRA’s programs teaching hunters, police officers, women, and children to shoot. He called federal agents “jackbooted government thugs” in 1995 (prompting former president Bush to tear up his lifetime membership) and later accused President Clinton of having blood on his hands after a college basketball coach was murdered (the killer had bought a gun illegally, and, LaPierre reasoned, the president hadn’t done anything about it). Offstage at the convention, LaPierre was always surrounded by fans—shaking hands, signing autographs, having his picture taken with children who, along with their parents, looked at him with adoration. “Good to meet you, sir,” he’d say. “Thanks for being here and helping the NRA. We appreciate it.” When I caught up with him on the trade show floor, I told him he was treated like a rock star. “Oh, no,” he replied. “I tell you, all of us together make this work. They see me out there battling—battling alongside other people. We’re about people. That’s what they never get in L.A. and New York and the big media conglomerates.” A man approached. “How you doin’?” LaPierre asked, shaking his hand. “Good to see ya!”
He looked at me again. “We truly are the mainstream. We truly are the majority. That’s why we’ve had a sea change in this issue the last ten years. The politicians have finally figured this out. Politically,” he said with a smile, “we’re in the best shape we’ve been in in the last thirty years.”
I LIKE GUNS. I grew up on Army bases, surrounded by them. My father, a World War II vet, had a German Luger pistol that was given to him by a surrendering panzer officer in Czechoslovakia. I was fascinated by the gun, with its short barrel and long handle, and would secretly play with it for hours. My father had some old hunting shotguns that had belonged to his father, but they sat unused in a closet. He had tried hunting and found he didn’t have the stomach for it; neither did I. But he taught me to aim and shoot. Most important, he said, squeeze the trigger; don’t pull it. When I was twelve, I followed his advice and won a turkey shoot against a bunch of soldiers. Then, in junior high, I joined the Junior NRA, and every Saturday morning two friends and I would ride our bikes to an indoor range and shoot .22 rifles at targets, working our way up the marksmanship ladder. It was fun. There were moments of Zen when everything went right—breathing, seeing, squeezing—and I couldn’t miss the bull’s-eye. I think the last time I shot a gun, though, was thirty years ago, when some friends and I went out to the Hill Country around San Antonio to blast a .45 pistol. I stopped shooting rifles, I guess, because I wasn’t a hunter, and I never felt a need to carry a handgun in the city, even after a couple of scary run-ins with armed criminals. It just never occurred to me that I would feel any safer packing heat.
When I finally got the nerve to start actually handling guns at the trade show, I found myself once again fingering a Luger. It was a CZ 2075 RAMI 9mm, and it was light and fit easily in my hand. I aimed at the floor and pulled the trigger, which clicked softly, nothing like that old army pistol. The saleswoman told me I couldn’t buy it here, because this was a trade show, but she could help me find a dealer in my area. I thanked her and walked over and picked up a Beretta, a 92FS Vertec Inox Lasergrips 9mm pistol, to be precise. I aimed and pulled the trigger. I accidentally turned on the laser, and a small red light appeared on the floor. Cool. I grabbed a Tikka T3 Tactical rifle, a long, black thing with a super-sized scope, cocked it, aimed at one of the lights on the ceiling fifty feet up, and squeezed the trigger. I tried a Heckler & Koch 9mm that had a flashlight under the barrel, but the trigger was stubborn. The triggers on the SIG Sauers were kind of rattly. I aimed and dry-fired a beautiful brown $12,400 Mauser M 98 .30-06 rifle.
I had expected the convention crowd to be heavy on solo males, camouflage, and red necks, but it turned out to be two-to-one men to women, solidly middle class (jeans and khakis, sport shirts, and running shoes were the unofficial dress code), with plenty of kids. It looked like a Saturday afternoon at Academy. Over at the Smith & Wesson area, a woman in slacks with a nice haircut said to her husband, who had a dazed look in his eyes, “I’m going to have to put a leash on you.” A man picked up a .357, held it, cocked, and sighted. “Ummmm, um, um,” he moaned, putting it back. I knew, I think, what he meant: The Smith & Wessons, especially the revolvers, were beautiful instruments, pure and simple pieces of solid machinery. A woman and her eight-year-old daughter and twelve-year-old son inspected them too. “Mom, look at this,” said the girl, sighting down a .357 revolver. She expertly popped the cylinder out and peered inside. “This one holds seven.” Her mother replied, “I like the .22,” and moved along the wall until she stopped and picked up a smaller pistol. “That’s what I was looking for,” she told her son, “a concealed carry.” Her son picked up a .500 Magnum, which is fifteen inches long and weighs six pounds. “Dang!” he said. His mother laughed.
I asked a guy at the Taurus booth about the difference between revolvers and automatic pistols, and he said that if I was a beginner, which I obviously was, I should start with the former and move up to the latter. I asked him why most people bought handguns. Protection, he said. He showed me a Taurus safety feature, where if you use a special key to rotate a little button a quarter of a turn, you can’t fire the gun. “Tell you a story,” he said, glancing quickly around. “A guy I know carried one of these, had this safety on. Three black guys jumped him, one took it, aimed it at him, and pulled the trigger three times. Click, click, click. The safety was on! So he clocked him, called the cops, and that guy’s in jail.”
There were lots of booths dedicated to hunting. One had a sign that read “The Greatest Cape Buffalo and Hippo Charges Ever Filmed!” and on a video screen a cape buffalo lumbered toward the camera and a man with a rifle. When the beast was maybe ten feet away, the man shot it in the mouth, which exploded in blood. Next came the hippo, straight at the camera. Again, when it was ten feet away, the hunter shot it in the head; after another step or two, the hippo tumped over. There were other shootings on the video too, but they weren’t so dramatic—a hippo retreating and an elephant walking away. An excerpt from the video, called Death by the Ton, played these same four shootings over and over, while Mark Sullivan, the hunter in the video, talked, and Ted Nugent signed autographs. “You can’t find these anyplace else,” Sullivan announced to the small crowd that had gathered. “We let them charge us just so we can kill them dead at our feet. I sell these movies all over the world, and I’m the only professional hunter in the world who does this. And in about a year from now, this great guy right here—we’re gonna even do more than that.”
“I’m gonna kill ’em with guitars,” said Nugent.
Sullivan laughed. “It’s amazing. We will do things nobody has done. There’ll be a law against you.”
“I’ll shoot anything, baby. I’d throw a grenade if they’d let me.”
NUGENT SEEMED TO BE everywhere. The hard rocker played “The Star-Spangled Banner” twice at the convention, at the opening ceremony and again before his seminar, “God, Guns, and Rock ’n Roll,” on Saturday. That afternoon he was introduced by NRA president Kayne Robinson, who said, “We haven’t had a better spokesman anywhere in our entire movement, whether it’s bow hunting or gun hunting or hunting liberals!” Nugent, the long-haired, teetotaling, freedom-loving writer of classic rock songs like “Wang Dang Sweet Poontang” (“she’s so sweet when she yanks on my meat”), came to the stage, which was draped in red-white-and-blue bunting, with an assault rifle in each arm. He led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance (the fourth or fifth time that members had stood and put their hands over their hearts), then strapped on a red-white-and-blue guitar, hit a big, sustaining chord, and said, “This is dedicated to the United States Army and the Marines and the Air Force and the Navy and the Coast Guard and the National Guard and the Cavalry, because those great warriors are over there crushing evil so we can have a National Rifle Association party over here. Never forget that! God bless the war!” Then he played the National Anthem, awash in feedback and noise, just like Jimi Hendrix did at Woodstock 36 years ago. At the end he said, “Thank you and God bless the NRA, God bless America, God bless the United States Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule—the very pillars of a unique and wonderful celebration we call self-government. Do the French suck or what?” The audience hooted and hollered, especially, it seemed, the two young men behind me. “Yeah!” one yelled. “Oh, f— yeah!”
Nugent, whose rock-and-roll star has dimmed somewhat in the past decade, has found new life as a hunting rights advocate and, lately, as an agitator for the NRA. His seminar consisted of him standing in front of the crowd and saying things like “You gotta kill the bad guys” and “I love Americans with photos of dead stuff” and, speaking of Tom Petty, “The dope smoker’s music sucks.” His most practical advice was to go out and get more people enrolled in the NRA. There are 4 million members, he said, but 13 million hunters. Be like him and his family, he urged. “No one is allowed to hang out with us unless they’re an NRA member.” Other ruminations were more extreme. “I’m raising hell for the Second Amendment every day of my life because I love to crush the punks. I like to think I have a crosshair painted on all things Michael Moore, and I just aim for the fat!” Later, he got more specific: “I want carjackers dead. I want rapists dead. I want burglars dead. I want child molesters dead. I want the bad guys dead. No court case. No parole. No early release. I want ’em dead. Get a gun and when they attack you, shoot ’em.” It was the hardheaded American creed, felt by anyone who had ever walked down a sidewalk packing heat, eyeing strangers, and hoping that some punk would give him the pleasure of uttering that perfect phrase delivered by great warriors of the past: Go ahead. Make my day.
Of course, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. At the “Women, Personal Protection & Power Politics” seminar, which was so crowded they had to bring in extra chairs, a series of placards stood alongside one wall of the packed room; the first read “Pick a purse, carry concealed, and still be fashionable with today’s wide choice of holster handguns.” A video was shown that featured several stories of armed citizens fighting off criminals: a clerk in a convenience store shooting at an armed robber, a woman who scared off a rapist with a gun. After the video, moderator Sue King said to the predominantly female crowd, “Most of us have been spared the horror of violent attacks. But that’s us on the screen. You could easily be placed in the same position on the way to your car from this meeting on the way home.”
And then Suzanna Gratia Hupp spoke. She’s the NRA’s trump card when it comes to concealed handguns. The 45-year-old state representative began her talk by mocking the passive way that women often think about guns. “How often have you said Clinton-esque things like ‘Can’t we all just get along?’ or ‘We just want peace and tranquillity’?” Hupp may have thought that way at one point, but she doesn’t anymore. Back in 1991, Hupp, a Houston chiropractor at the time, illegally carried a concealed .38 for protection, but when she went to places that she felt were obviously safe, like a Luby’s cafeteria at lunchtime, with her parents, she would leave it in her car. “We had finished eating,” she told the crowd, “and a man drove his truck through the window and, um, started shooting. My first thought was, it’s a robbery. I expected he’d say something like ‘Put your wallets on the table.’ But he didn’t. He was just simply walking from one person to the next, taking aim, pulling the trigger. Going to the next per son, taking aim, pulling the trigger. It took me a good forty-five seconds to realize—that’s all he’s going to do. And forty-five seconds is a really, really long time.”
The conference room was absolutely silent as Hupp told how she instinctively reached for her purse, where she usually kept her gun. Everyone knew what had happened next. “I realized that a few moments earlier I’d made the stupidest decision of my life. My gun was one hundred yards away in my car, totally useless to me.” George Hennard shot and killed 23 people that day, including Hupp’s mother and father, before he killed himself. Hupp escaped out a broken window. “I gotta tell you,” she continued, “after all these years, I’m still not mad at the guy who did it. We’re talking about a guy who went nuts. …But I immediately—the quote from me in the paper the next day was, ‘I’m mad as hell at my legislators, because they have legislated me out of my right to protect myself and my family.’ I still get angry when I think of the stupid decision that I made to follow a very bad law.” She did something about it, testifying extensively for changing the law so that citizens could carry a concealed handgun. Texas made it legal in 1995, and she was elected to the state House a year later. “A gun is not a guarantee,” Hupp said. “But, by God, it sure changes your life.”
AS ONE MIGHT EXPECT, a gathering of 60,000 pro-gun fanatics will draw a few protesters. Two of them showed up on Friday and four on Saturday—including the two from Friday. On Saturday afternoon Pam Olson and another woman (who asked not to be identified) walked back and forth on a sidewalk directly in front of the convention center taking turns carrying a sign that read on one side “Over 2,000 Children Were Killed Last Year From Gunshots” and on the other “Actually, Guns Do Kill People.” “I used to be a hunter,” said Olson. “But the proliferation of guns is devaluing human life. I’m not saying banish guns. I’m saying there are too many guns. Why do people have to have so many?” At one point a man with a convention badge approached and, pointing up at the words “Actually, Guns Do Kill People,” said, “You’re absolutely right, Miss, and you’re lucky they do. Otherwise you’d be living under Hitler.” A car drove by and another man yelled out, “Guns don’t kill people! People kill people!”
On a corner across from the entrance stood the other two protesters, each carrying a sign. Linda Abdmoulaie’s read “Why So Many Guns, Christians? Why So Many Killings?” She wanted to know why there were only four protesters out on a beautiful, sunny, 80-degree day. Where were the people from groups like Texans for Gun Safety and the Million Mom March? “Where are all the parents of children who’ve died from guns?” she asked. Another protester’s sign read “A loaded gun in the home is 22 times more likely to kill a family member than an intruder.” He said he had been called a faggot ten times that day: “I’ll have to tell my wife.”
Two men in their forties, each wearing convention badges, approached and began a conversation with him. “Basically,” the first summarized, “it boils down to this: You need to trust you and your family to protect yourselves. You can’t trust the government. If you have an intruder or a run-in with unsavory people, you can’t depend on the government. So you have to be prepared to take care of your family.” To Abdmoulaie he asked, “Who’s going to take care of you when you have a problem?”
She replied, “I trust the police.” The man made a face. She tried another tactic: “Besides, Jesus doesn’t want you walking around with a bunch of guns.”
The second man chuckled. “He doesn’t say that to me.”
The first man continued. “Do you know what happened in England and Canada when they outlawed guns?” His voice took on a slightly mocking tone. “How do you spell ‘kumbaya’? ‘Let’s all love each other.’”
Abdmoulaie said, “We’re all good Christians.”
“Yes, we’re all good Christians,” agreed the man. “But we’ve got to protect ourselves.”
Later, on Saturday night, about a hundred more protesters showed up, but they weren’t there about the guns. They had come to protest Tom DeLay, who was giving the keynote address at the Members Banquet at the Hilton, next to the convention center. It was the event everyone was waiting for, the climax of the weekend. DeLay, one of the NRA’s biggest allies, was under siege, and as attendees arrived on the fourth floor of the hotel, they were given adhesive buttons that read “I’m for NRA & Tom DeLay.”
I sat on a couch in the reception area next to a group of people drinking, chatting, and watching the protesters four stories below. “They’re trying to Gingrich him,” said a man sitting next to me. I asked if he thought they’d succeed. “I don’t know. He’s tough.” A woman turned and looked down. “If they can’t get a better protest than that,” she said, “it’s pretty pathetic.” A couple of young men came to the window. “I got a good shot at one,” joked the first. “Get rid of liberals!” yelled the other.
The man next to me, Phillip Meabon, was a retired schoolteacher from Magnolia, a bedroom community thirty miles northwest of Houston. He said he had three master’s degrees and five pistols, all .22’s. He was a lifetime member of the NRA. “There are kooks on both sides of the issue,” he said. “I’m a little right of center, but not too far.” Why, I asked him, is it so important to carry a gun? “Well,” he said, “it’s important, first, because it’s one of my rights. And second, it’s really a whole lot of fun. It’s something to do with my retirement time. It’s my hobby—going hunting, going out with my buddies to the shooting range. You meet the kind of people who think like you do. I really enjoy the people. If you meet each one of those guys,” he said, motioning to the growing crowd waiting for the banquet, “you won’t find a terrible jerk. You’ll find some rednecks, maybe find some felons. But most are good, upstanding citizens.”
Of course, he said, there was also the self-protection angle. I asked if he had ever been in danger. “No. We were vandalized once. But my wife can protect herself now. I taught her. She knows that if she hears someone in the house and she knows it’s not me—she won’t shoot him, but she’ll fire the gun.” At the ceiling? “Through the door. I told her fire through the door. I can always replace a door. The police are there for the after.”
THE BIG GUNS WERE brought out for the banquet. John O’Neill, a spokesman for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, was introduced, and President Bush was there too, at least on video. After his short greeting was played, LaPierre asked the audience of 2,550, “Isn’t it great to have a friend of freedom in the White House?” Then Kay Bailey Hutchison said a few words. “Before I start,” she began, “I wanted to tell you that the AP has reported the French government announced yesterday that it has raised its terror alert from ‘run’ to ‘hide.’” The crowd laughed. “Higher levels in France are ‘surrender’ and ‘collaborate.’”
When DeLay finally spoke, he received an extended standing ovation. He called being the keynote speaker at the NRA convention in his hometown the highlight of his career and made a couple of references to his troubles. “When a man’s in trouble or in a good fight, you want all your friends around you—preferably armed.” The audience laughed. “So I feel really good.” And then DeLay, the feared attack dog of the right, gave the most even-tempered speech of the entire weekend. “We don’t always understand each other,” he said, “and when we disagree, we have a tendency to question the sincerity of our opponent’s position. This is especially true in the debate about the right of the American people to keep and bear arms.” He talked about how people who grew up hunting see guns as a part of life, a way for fathers and sons to spend time together, not a tool for violence. “Our fellow countrymen,” he said, “have no point of reference that gives them any insight to understand why we feel so strongly about the right to bear arms. We certainly don’t have to agree with those who seek to deny us our Second Amendment rights, but we do have to remember that while our opponents’ policy initiatives may be bad, that doesn’t mean our opponents are bad people.”
This moral relativism—from the Hammer, no less—sounded positively Clinton-esque. DeLay launched into his remarks on the Second Amendment. He had been talking smoothly and calmly up to this point, but now, as he read the actual text of the amendment, he began to stutter and misread the words he knew so well. Then he tried three times to pronounce the name of an eighteenth-century Italian jurist named Cesare Beccaria whom Thomas Jefferson had once quoted on the foolishness of gun control. DeLay gave up and moved on. The rest of his short talk revisited the same NRA talking points—“people aren’t killed by guns, they’re killed by people”—spoken haltingly as if read from a piece of paper with really small type. He finished with, “Freedom. God gives it, the Constitution guarantees it, and together we will defend it.” DeLay was given one final standing ovation and then presented with an old flintlock rifle, which he raised high above his head, just like Heston used to do.
An hour later the banquet was over, and a couple thousand NRA members spilled out into the spring darkness. Some had guns in their cars, some had them in their purses, and some had them down their pants. It was downtown Houston. It was Saturday night. Anything could happen.