A sprawling gun show — billed as “14 Acres of Guns & Gear” — was the main attraction at the the National Rifle Association’s annual convention in Houston this past weekend. And even in the aftermath of the carnage in nearby Uvalde, where 19 children and two adults were massacred by a teenager with an assault weapon, NRA members poured in by the thousands to gawk at the gun industry’s latest, sexiest, deadliest wares.
In addition to the expected panoply of pistols, revolvers, shotguns, and AR-15s, the showroom featured one booth with a machine that lets you mill your own, untraceable, gun out of a block of aluminum.
The “Ghost Gunner” is a computer-operated, tabletop, boring and machining device capable of producing “complete, mil-spec and unregistered AR-15 receiver…in the privacy of your own home.” (A receiver is the regulated part of the modular AR-15 — the part that normally requires a serial number, and can’t be bought at a gun shop without passing a background check.) And this machine, while ostensibly aimed at the DIY enthusiast, could also enable a criminal, prohibited from buying a gun, to produce their own, military-grade weapon.
The “Ghost Gunner” is just one, extreme, example of dozens of vendors at the NRA’s big show who catered to the dangerous fringes of the gun-buying public. Their products and paraphernalia were positioned to appeal to “patriot” members of militia movements and even violent extremists like the Boogaloo Bois, who seek to provoke a new civil war. To walk the showroom floor in Houston is to experience a world of gun commerce without guardrails. There are responsible sellers here, of course, looking to connect with responsible buyers, who may want a new rifle for hunting or a handgun to ward off home invaders. But in this crowded marketplace, other vendors push the envelope in search of profits, making grotesque appeals to unwell people — in ways that seem destined to amplify the nation’s crisis of deadly gun violence.
Gone are the days when gunsellers pretended to be selling benign “modern sporting rifles.” At the NRA show, many brands were trading on dark imagery of societal collapse, pitching military-grade hardware to civilians on the theory that they might find themselves in war zone of a future failed state.
Black Rain Ordnance — whose post apocalyptic logo is the biohazard symbol — was selling an AR painted with the Texas flag and militia-friendly branding, calling the rifle the “Bro – Patriot.” The ejection-port dust flap is printed with the words, “LET IT RAIN.” The booth for Kalashnikov USA — with the prepper-friendly tagline “Be Ready. Stay Ready” — featured semiautomatic shotgun called the “Kaos.” Nemesis Arms, a Kentucky-based gun-maker named after the Greek goddess of retribution, marketed what it dubs “the true survival rifle for big boys.”
Several vendors even appealed to the unique aesthetic of the Boogaloo movement, a loose collection of meme-driven violent extremists who are prepping for an impending civil war. They dress in loud Hawaiian print shirts and show up at public events armed to the teeth, ready for the outbreak of a conflict they call the Boogaloo or the “Big Luau.”
An AR- seller called Dark Storm Industries marketed its AR- platform guns with the poster of a menacing, rifle-toting man wearing a tropical button-up shirt. Stag Arms was more explicit, marketing an AR-15 rifle painted in a Hawaiian floral camo it calls the “Aloha.” Nearby, a clothing vendor was selling red-and-yellow Hawaiian shirts with images of AR-15s mixed into the floral print.
There’s a certain honesty to these marketing campaigns. The weapons they’re selling are derived from military guns, designed to empower relatively unskilled marksmen kill lots of people as efficiently as possible. The real-world use case for these guns isn’t hunting, it’s warfare.
In flag-waving speeches the weekend, seeking to deflect public rage from the gun industry, NRA executives held up the rank-and-file members of the association as decent and honorable men and women — first responders, former military, even educators — who simply want to preserve a “human right” to self defense. But down on the show room, products catered to the darkest reaches the armed American id. One T-shirt featured a cartoon of a horny-looking 50-caliber round holding up a sign that read: “I wanna be inside you!!”
Houston’s George R. Brown convention center is a glass-faced, postmodern colossus, built to accentuate its exposed steel beams and air ducts, which are painted in bold, patriotic reds, whites, and blues. The three-story convention center stretches five full city blocks, and the main showroom on the first floor occupies at least four.
The gun show is the focal point of the annual meeting, and underscores the extent to which the NRA now stands as a front group for the firearms industry. The NRA had pitched its annual meeting to firearms companies by insisting “NRA members are your best customers! Can you afford not to be here in 2022?” And it touted the audience of wealthy, avid gun buyers it could bring to its booths Houston.
In the muggy heat of the park across the street from the convention center, I met a 52-year-old veteran named Todd Brannon, wearing an Army-logo shirt with flag-print sleeves. Brannon sported a salt-and-pepper beard and baseball cap, and he was sitting in a lawn chair, taking a cigarette break. But the former tank platoon leader wasn’t here to attend the convention, rather to protest it. He held a sign reading: “Veterans for Sane Gun Laws.”
Brannon was outraged that the NRA carried on with is convention despite the bloodshed in Uvalde, and he drove down to Houston in the hopes that NRA members might “see someone over here that looks like them — and stop and think that what’s happened in our country isn’t acceptable.”
Instead of the “madness” of attempting to fortify schools, Brannon argues, and forcing kids “to go through these drills and imagine a world where they’re gonna get shot in their classroom,” the country should be working to ban assault weapons, which he insists are “designed for soldiers to kill other soldiers — there’s no reason for a civilian to have a weapon like that.”
Brannon recognizes that America’s gun culture has become “seductive” and says “there’s a segment of the population that’s conflating patriotism with the gun.” But he argues this “fetishisizing culture” around firearms should be “embarrassing” to those caught up in it. “If you love guns and want to play with big guns then join the fucking Army,” he says. “That’s it. Enlist!”
The scene on the showroom proves Brannon’s point. But while there’s endless fetishization — of everything from AR-15s and Kalashnikovs to sleek black Glocks and candy-colored pistols — there’s not an iota of embarrassment. Not from the NRA members strolling the floor with blissed-out smiles on their faces. Not from the Houston cops I saw in full uniform holding up short barrelled shotguns, pistols, and even a metal bat covered with spikes. And not from the vendors hawking Chick-fil-A sandwiches or cell service from Patriot Mobile — “America’s only Christian conservative wireless provider.”
The showroom had the same energy as the floor of a Las Vegas casino, except instead of the sound of slot machines, the air is filled with the noise of men and women clicking the triggers of deadly weapons. (The convention featured real guns, but the firearms were all subtly disabled to be incapable of live fire. I was told by several vendors that they couldn’t sell me a gun directly but could have one shipped to a licensed dealer near me.)
I’ve covered guns in America consistently since the Newtown massacre. I’ve shot a Daniel Defense assault rifle at a gun range, and I’ve spent hours at my local Cabelas getting pointers on different models. I’ve written a cultural history of the AR-15, favored by the nation’s mass shooters, from Newtown to Parkland to Uvalde. But nothing prepared me for the orgy of assault weapons on display at this gun show.
Convention vendors hawk more than just guns — including knives, axes, body armor, gun silencers, conceal-carry purses, holsters that clip to a bra, and apparel with slogans like “AmmoSexual” and “The Pew/Pew Life.” Yet one could not walk more than 100 feet before being confronted with a new display wall of assault rifles, mostly AR-platform, tricked out in every color and configuration imaginable.
One of the salient features of most AR rifles is that they’re, long, bulky, intimidating. It’s a small boon for public safety — because they draw a lot of attention. But an alarming number of vendors also touted the portability of their assault weapons. A company called TX Tactical showed me a “Double Foldar” AR-15 pistol. It features both a barrel and stock that can fold up over the AR- body to fit into a small, 10-inch “tactical side-pack,” included with purchase. The company’s website touts “the highest level of concealability possible,” allowing owners to “transport the platform in ways never before possible!”
This notion of taking your AR to town was popular at the NRA gun show. A company called Savior Equipment offered a series of faux guitar cases, fitted with foam inserts, to transport your AR like you were on your way to band practice. One model on the showroom floor also had cutouts for bottle of vodka and a couple of (faux) hand grenades. This same company offered a tactical gun bag branded “Urban Warfare” and another called the “Coffin.”
The right-wing bent of members was assumed, and there was no shortage of political gear for sale, with Let’s Go Brandon hats, T-shirts, and softball jerseys in abundance. You could buy a silver coin minted with the 45th president’s face on it, from a dealer who also sold NRA-logo and thin-blue-line-flag coins. But at least one seller was putting Trump slogans on actual gun gear, selling high-capacity magazines featuring the punisher skull logo and the words “Make America Great Again.”
“Hearts without GOD”
There were few reminders inside the showroom hall that the weapons on display — with the exception of a relatively modest selection of hunting rifles and shotguns — were designed to kill other human beings.
However, I did encounter one vendor that specialized in lightweight bulletproof material, including flexible car-seat covers and window curtains. He also displayed a line of bulletproof skateboards for kids, and even bulletproof school-dropoff signs. For the owner, the shooting in Uvalde presents a business opportunity, as politicians rush to “harden” classrooms as a strategy to deter future shooters. “Schools are going to buying,” he predicts. “There’s going to be billions of dollars in grant money.”
A central theme of the convention speeches in Houston was that school shootings cannot be blamed on the mainstreaming of assault weapons, or on lax gun laws that enable 18-year-olds to buy such weapons, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, without being flagged as a potential threat to the public. Instead, they insisted, the problem is a rising tide of “evil.” This messaging refers to a biblical definition of that word, and appeals to a hard-right Christian conservative crowd that is convinced mainstream American culture is literally on a path to hell.
In line behind me waiting for Donald Trump to speak on Friday afternoon, a loud gentleman named Cecil from Mississippi explained Uvalde as a fall from grace. “We as a nation have turned our backs on God,” he said. “You can’t expect his protection.” And a T-shirt on sale in the convention showroom offered a similar explanation. “The problem is not GUNS,” it read. “It’s hearts without GOD; Homes without DISCIPLINE, Schools without PRAYER; Courts without JUSTICE.”
Inside the convention hall, NRA members could be overheard speaking dismissively about the pro-gun-control demonstrators outside, mocking them as jobless “pissants,” or “idiots” with “nasty signs.” I heard one young man tell another, “Walk by and they’ll call you a ‘murderer.’” The second young man spoke of trolling the crowd by donning a Trump T-shirt.
For three days, these protesters gathered, in the sweltering heat, behind police barricades across the street from the convention centers. In the late afternoon they would jeer at NRA members exiting the convention center and crossing to an underground parking garage. They shouted slogans like, “You are weak men!” and “You’re not pro-life!” or chanted, “Shame on you!” and “Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!”
Janellys Sonera, a 24 year-old Bronx native who lives in Houston, held up a pink cardboard sign reading: “The Govt. should regulate guns as much as they regulate women’s bodies.” She tells me she’s protesting because, “It’s easier for people to get guns right now than it is for them to get baby formula.” She wants new gun restrictions. “People aren’t allowed to drink at 18, but they’re allowed to have guns at 18,” she says, “and it just doesn’t make sense to me.”
Jack Hill, a 72-year-old retired professor from Waco, Texas holds aloft a sign that reads “BAN ASSAULT WEAPONS NOW!” He warns that the MAGA movement is a “cauldron of fascism” and blames the NRA for its stranglehold on the modern GOP, such that “not a single Republican in the United States Senate will move it inch toward any kind of practical, effective gun control legislation. That’s why we’re shouting,” he says, “and that’s why we’re shaming.”
Brannon, the Army veteran, takes a drag from his cigarette and looks across the street at the convention hall with pain in his eyes. “The NRA — they don’t represent the majority of the people’s values, but they do corrupt politicians,” he says.
“Those kids out in Uvalde didn’t know anything about that,” he adds, “but they paid for it.”