Oliver North led the opening prayer at the annual NRA national convention in Dallas, Texas, over the weekend, as he has in previous years. “Heavenly father, when our day is done, let it be said of us that we were a people who fought the good fight, who finished the race and kept the faith,” he preached. On Monday, the NRA announced that North, a central player in the Iran-Contra scandal and cover-up, would become the organization’s new president. Going with a man best known for helping the government sell weapons to Iran in exchange for cash to fuel violence in Latin America seemed like an odd choice – the NRA hardly needs more controversy these days. In a new ad announcing the news, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre proclaimed: “Oliver North is a legendary warrior for American freedom!”
Gun-control activists have aggressively challenged the idea that the NRA is fighting “the good fight” in recent months, and 2018 may mark a turning point for the organization. This year’s convention highlighted the anxiety that NRA members face at a time when mass shootings have made their hardline opposition to gun control increasingly toxic.
Nevertheless, last Friday, scores of attendees sauntered under gigantic banners in Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center featuring LaPierre, NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch and gun lobbyist Chris Cox. They came to Dallas to celebrate the almighty gun.
There was the Wall of Guns raffle, whose winner was able to “choose from more than 40 firearms!” Vendors peddled their wares in the main exhibition hall: handguns, knives, semi-automatic rifles, tiny pink and purple pistols for the ladies. There were booths representing Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University and the NRA wine club. For the first time, U.S. Customs and Border Control had sent representatives to the convention to recruit new agents. In a taxidermy booth, a dead elk laid beneath a dead bear, blood dripping from its nose.
Throughout Friday morning, NRATV blasted propaganda in between guest speakers. The spots celebrated the police and proclaimed that the NRA is “freedom’s safest place.” The media, Hollywood celebrities and spoiled athletes who don’t respect the police were blamed for a host of evils, primarily their unfair attacks on the NRA and freedom-loving gun owners. “This is a lemon,” one ad intoned, over an image of a lemon. “Some might tell you this is journalism. They might even scream, ‘Journalist journalist journalist! But this is a lemon.” (The spot was a spoof of a CNN ad about the state of journalism; in the NRA version the unfortunate fake lemon journalist was blended into truth lemonade).
Appearing onscreen, Gov. Matt Bevin of Kentucky blamed mass shootings on everything but guns, pointing to a combination of porn, violent video games, song lyrics and medically assisted suicide. The aforementioned Cox, the chief political strategist for the NRA’s Institute for Legislative action, cited the “horrible tragedy” in Parkland and said, “We all grieved for the families.” Violence is a complicated problem, he noted, and fixing it requires an “open and honest exploration of our culture … but to be clear, it does not require taking away law-abiding people’s freedom!”
No weaponry was allowed inside during Friday’s leadership forum because the president and vice president were scheduled to speak. Mike Pence came onstage to the tune of AC/DC’s “Shook Me All Night Long,” telling the crowd, “I’m a Christian, I’m a conservative, and I’m a card-carrying member of the NRA!” He repeated a popular party line: “The quickest way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun!” The vice president promised to “end this evil and protect our liberties at the same time. That’s the American way!”
At around 2:30 on Friday, President Trump took the stage as “Proud To Be an American” blasted and the crowd chanted “USA! USA!” The president knew how to move this crowd, despite bumbling right off the bat. “Your rights are under siege, but they will never ever be under siege as long as I am your president!” The speech quickly moved from guns to the president’s re-election efforts and a push for Republican support during the 2018 midterms.
Trump spoke about topics beyond the Second Amendment, including tax cuts and unemployment. He mocked the Iran deal in his best version of a nondescript Middle Eastern accent to pantomime Iranian protesters chanting, “Death to America.” He complained that all you hear in the media is “this phony Russia witch hunt.” He made fun of John Kerry for falling off his bicycle in 2015.
“You know what gets you nuclear war? Weakness gets you nuclear war,” Trump told the assembled attendees.
On the issue of guns, he pointed to the 2015 ISIS attack in Paris, which left 130 dead and many more wounded. “If one person had been there with a gun aimed at the opposite direction, the terrorists would have fled or been shot, and it all would have been a whole different story,” he said.
He also renewed his call to arm teachers. “We support the Second Amendment. Every day … talented people, by the way, these teachers, they love their students. They’re not gonna let anybody hurt their students, but you have to give them a chance.” (Teachers’ unions oppose the measures).
“You know, some people told me the NRA is controversial, they’re not very popular right now,” Trump said, just a little over three months after meeting with Parkland students inside the White House. “You know what I said? ‘Bye-bye, and I got on a plane.”
Sixty-one-year-old Judy from Gun Barrel City, Texas, a nurse who declined to give her last name, wandered outside the convention wearing an American flag T-shirt and matching earrings shaped like cowboy boots. She spoke of her fondness for President Trump: “Well, he really understands where the common man’s at,” she said.
Jay Hart, who on Friday wore a red MAGA hat, loved Trump’s speech. “He makes you feel good about being an American. I think that’s what it’s really all about. You should feel good about yourself, and he’s that kind of president to me. He just makes me feel good. He makes the American people feel good.”
In a letter welcoming attendees to the convention and addressing the contentious Second Amendment, LaPierre did not sugarcoat the oft-talked-about dire threat to freedom, or to President Trump’s re-election, which he presented as one and the same. “We know our freedom is but one election away from being destroyed, and we know that the upcoming 2018 elections may be the most critical test of our freedom we will face in our lifetimes,” LaPierre wrote in the glossy brochure. “If they capture the Congress, they’ll spend the next two years destroying the President and plotting to capture the White House once again.”
The “they” in question are not merely Democrats, but, the media, academics and billionaires like Michael Bloomberg, George Soros and Tom Steyer. Their endgame, in the NRA’s view, is socialism. “And then they’ll come after us and our freedom, to pervert our great nation into their European-style socialist utopia,” LaPierre wrote. “Our Freedom. Our America.”
But the NRA should probably worry less about old white billionaires and more about the millennial activists called to action by the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 people dead and 16 injured.
Before I walked among the true believers inside the convention center, I wanted to hear what the other side was saying.
“My generation, and even younger, we’ve had enough,” 19-year-old Waed Alhayak, executive director of StudentsMarch.org, told me. “We’re the post-Columbine generation. We’ve witnessed tragedy after tragedy. And every time, we hear ‘thoughts and prayers, thoughts and prayers.’ At some point, we just got pissed off.”
Over a million people participated in March 24th’s March for Our Lives, and some of the most visible Parkland students – David Hogg, 17, and his sister, Lauren, 14 – are readying the release of a book on the subject.
Still, the NRA runs one of the most successful lobbying efforts in the country. “The gun lobby has had free airtime to control the narrative for three decades,” said Professor Jonathan Metzl, director of the Center for Medicine, Health and Society at Vanderbilt University, who studies gun violence. “They’ve controlled politicians and made the other side feel like resistance is futile. It’s been like a one state-run television channel.”
After Parkland, Loesch, the NRA spokeswoman, released a video through NRATV in which she issued a threat to anyone who dared to challenge the NRA. “To every lying member of the media, to every Hollywood phony, to the rolemodel athletes who use their free speech to alter and undermine what our flag represents … Your time is running out. The clock starts now.” Loesch also participated in a townhall with Marco Rubio and Parkland survivors. “We’re creating unrealistic expectations and, in the process, nothing happens,” Rubio said. Both the Florida senator and Loesch were pilloried for getting bested by teenagers.
Fred Guttenberg is a parent whose daughter didn’t make it home from Stoneman Douglas. Fourteen-year-old Jaime Guttenberg was killed inside her school on February 14th.
“Jaime was my little girl,” Guttenberg told me by phone in the days before I left for Dallas. “She was the energy in any room she went into. Silly, crazy, highly competitive. A dancer,” he said. “Tough as nails. She stood up for other kids who were bullied.”
Guttenberg heard about the shooting from his best friend – a cop – who called him crying. As the day progressed, they heard nothing from Jaime, but hoped she’d left her phone behind. “But no phone call ever came. When the lockdown ended, a bus delivered all the kids, but my kid didn’t get off,” Guttenberg said.
He was driving in a car behind his wife when he got the call that Jaime was dead. “Off the side of the highway I had to tell my wife that my daughter was murdered,” he said. “It’s been a nightmare.”
Just over two months later, on April 22nd, Brennan McMurry and James Shaw Jr. went to a Waffle House in Nashville. McMurry and Shaw sat at the counter and watched the cook stack clean dishes precipitously high, and they joked about the plate apocalypse to come. When the gunshots rang out, McMurry thought it was the sound of plates breaking at first.
“Then we see the smoke – it’s glittery, gray smoke, there’s people running,” McMurry told me. They both took off. McMurry pushed some women into one bathroom and hid in another. After a few minutes, he came out and saw the bloodied injured and dead. He wishes he hadn’t made eye contact with a man who was gone. “Of course, he was dead. But his eyes were still open,” McMurry said.
He didn’t know at that point that his best friend had disarmed the shooter with his bare hands. “Why are you limping?!” he asked when he saw Shaw.
James Shaw has famously refused the title of hero, even though he rushed the gunman and wrestled the firearm from him, throwing it behind the counter, saving his own life and likely many others. He’s claimed his motivation was self-defense. “He was going to have to work to kill me,” Shaw told media outlets. Regardless of what propelled him to act, the story presents a counter-narrative to the NRA’s adage that the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.
Like Shaw, McMurry shrugs off any compliments about their heroism. “We were just trying to get out … let’s be completely honest,” he said.
He doesn’t know what to say to the parents of the kids who didn’t make it out that day. All the victims were people under the age of 30. “They’re probably looking at me like, ‘Hey, you got to go home; my son or daughter didn’t.’ I just don’t know what to say to them,” McMurry told me.
Neither Guttenberg nor McMurry are looking to take everyone’s guns away. McMurry believes in the Second Amendment, but he also thinks that “The guns that create mass destruction, that are used in combat and war … I don’t think the common citizen needs that.” Guttenberg does not think the government should confiscate all guns, but points to the outsize influence of the gun lobby in American politics. “We need common-sense gun control. I want to break the back of the gun lobby. They’re co-conspirators in the murder of my daughter. If the NRA thinks we’re going to go away, it ain’t gonna happen,” he said.
“None of this is about the termination of the Second Amendment,” Guttenberg said. “Citizens will get to keep their rights. But what about Jaime’s right to free speech, or her right to believe in the Second Amendment? Those were terminated. Every single one of her rights.”
All the NRA members I spoke with at the convention expressed sympathy and horror about the nightmare Guttenberg and others are going through. But most think the gun control they assume liberals want, and the rumored “slippery slope” that will ensue, is not the solution to the problem of mass shootings or other gun-related deaths from suicide, homicide or accidental shootings.
Dr. John Lott, an economist who works for the Crime Prevention Research Center, had a yellow rubber duck laid out on his table at the exhibition hall, to illustrate his point that if you take away people’s guns, they’ll be sitting ducks for criminals.
“Every single place in the world that’s tried to ban all guns has seen an increase in murder rates,” he said. (According to Factcheck.org, that doesn’t seem to be the case: Homicides in Australia, which instituted strict gun control after a 1996 mass shooting, have declined over the past 25 years.)
The celebrity activist Alyssa Milano was among those who appeared as part of a counter-programming effort in Dallas over the weekend.
“I want to be clear. I don’t want to take your guns away,” Milano told me. “I think this is a narrative the gun lobby has used successfully in disputing the facts and silencing those that want common-sense gun laws. If we focus on the facts – actual facts – we should collectively be able to reach sensible gun resolution that makes everyone happy. But our political views are so calcified it seems both sides focus on hyperbole that fits into their narrative.”
On Saturday afternoon, I was back at my motel in Dallas, an orange-stucco building on the side of a busy highway, when I overheard a man freaking out.
“I dropped my gun and it went off!” I heard him say. He was trembling as he tried to explain to the front-desk clerk that when his firearm slipped and fired, the bullet pierced his headboard. He was terrified that it had hit someone in the other room.
“I don’t know what happened … it just slipped … and then it went off,” he said, looking scared and ashamed.
“My heart was beating so fast. I was so scared,” the woman at the front desk of the motel told me. She had heard about the “big gun convention in town,” which the man had attended.
Thankfully, the adjacent room was vacant. The man made it clear that he regretted the accident, which happened in a split second – he doesn’t even know exactly how. “I just really wish that hadn’t happened.”