On the third floor of Houston’s massive convention center, far above the noise and rabble of the gun show at the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting, a luxury hospitality suite was closed to normal NRA members. It was reserved instead for the gun lobby’s biggest donors, who belong to its “Ring of Freedom.” Here, grandees could escape from the masses, sink into plush leather couches, belly up to the refreshment tables, and marvel at a surreal pair of massive taxidermy installations, including one of a grizzly bear felling a moose.
The NRA loves to bash “the elites” — in Hollywood and the media — whom they blame for whipping the nation into what they describe as gun-grabbing hysteria after a mass shooting like the one that left 19 elementary school children dead in Uvalde, Texas. The organization holds itself out as a stalwart defender of the everyman against “the world’s most powerful, deceitful and ruthless opponents,” as NRA honcho Wayne LaPierre put it in a Saturday address to NRA members.
But at its annual meeting in Houston, the NRA hosted a high-end shadow convention for its own elite members and backers — many of them executives of gun manufacturers and sellers. These “Ring of Freedom” events underscore how the NRA has transformed itself from a pro-second amendment organization, focused on the liberty interests of its members, into a front group for gun industry itself.
The NRA today is best understood as a stalwart defender of gun commerce. The NRA doesn’t sell weapons, but it sells the fear that sells the guns — always warning its members against a rising tide of violence, from which they must be prepared to defend themselves with deadly force. Meanwhile, its lobbyist go to the mat in Washington and state capitals across the country to block restrictions on the kinds of weapons that dealers can sell, and to open up new markets — including by passing conceal-carry laws, so that Americans gun consumers don’t just purchase a gun for the home, but plunk down on another to take to town. When school massacres occur, the NRA predictably pushes to expand guns into another new market — the classroom — a move that could turn the nation’s more than 3 million teachers into gun buyers.
The mass of NRA members at the annual convention are motley crew. They dress in camo shorts and “Let’s Go Brandon” hats. Some sport bushy gray beards, tattoos, and T-shirts with the sleeves torn off. The more fashionable are outfitted in trim fitting tactical gear, but most would not look out of place at a NASCAR rally. Most have little interest in the political meetings and training sessions on the top floors of the convention hall. They’ve come to check out massive gun show that the NRA’s commercial partners have assembled on in the convention showroom on the first floor.
But if you look closely, you’ll also identify a rarefied group of NRA convention gowers who dress like they’re ready to take in the Kentucky Derby, decked out in tailored jackets and southern cocktail finery.
The NRA welcomes such well-heeled members into its Ring of Freedom if they pony up at least a thousand dollars a year. These individuals get to rub elbows with the gun lobby’s mega-donors, who give more than $1 million lifetime, and are inaugurated into the “Golden Ring of Freedom.” These folks, mainly firearm industry CEOs, are bestowed gold blazers, which mark them in the convention hall as VVIPs.
The annual meeting in Houston featured a slate of private events for these grandees that was not publicized to rank-and-file NRA members. The Ring of Freedom elites were invited to arrive a day early, stay in a special bank of rooms at the luxury Marriott Marquis — replete with a rooftop “lazy river” pool in the shape of the state of Texas and its own private “sky bridge” walkway crossing to the convention center, neatly avoiding the crowds of protesters on the sidewalks below.
A schedule obtained by Rolling Stone indicates these NRA bigwigs began to celebrate, on Thursday, just two days after the Uvalde massacre, with a morning clay pigeon shoot, and an “NRA Ring of Freedom Corporate Partners’ Luncheon.” (The attendees weren’t disclosed but the NRA lists among its “Top Ten Industry Allies” the likes of Ruger, Smith & Wesson, Taurus, and Glock.)
Friday morning in the George Bush Grand Ballroom of the convention center, the NRA hosted its Ring of Freedom Celebration Breakfast. A bouncer stood at the door to keep average members at bay, but from the door NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre could be seen on a large screen, feting Larry and Brenda Potterfield, founders of Midway USA, an online gun shop that was the lead sponsor of the convention. He bestowed on them the “NRA Defender of Freedom” award.
At noon, there was the Annual Women’s Leadership Forum Luncheon, attended by NRA members who looked like they were on their way to a high end wedding reception, held at a roped-off room of the Marquis.
Amid the Friday night speeches, when even Donald Trump and LaPierre performed rituals of mourning for the children of Uvalde, the Potterfields — Larry in his gold blazer — were trotted out on stage to underscore the power of cash at the NRA. They held an enormous check for $21 million, representing the sum of donations to the NRA from the dealer’s long-running “round up” program, which lets buyers send some pocket change from every purchase to the rifle association.
That night, in the ballroom of the nearby Hilton, the NRA staged a dinner and auction to benefit its lobbying arm, NRA-ILA. Attendees, dressed to the nines — including one woman who wore boots that appeared to be fashioned of actual zebra skin — and swigged Perrier as they picked up their wristbands for a closed-door event billed as featuring “Second Amendment leaders, industry executives and special guests,” to bid on auction finery including “engraved firearms, fine art, hunts and one-of-a-kind items.”
On Sunday, the NRA’s “Grand Ole Night of Freedom Concert” was canceled after all the artists pulled out, out of respect for the victims of Uvalde. The NRA was mum on whether its planned “Cigar and Bourbon Reception,” scheduled to follow the concert, went forward.