For a bunch of so-called "gun nuts," the 70,000-plus who start to swarm downtown on Friday for the 2012 National Rifle Association's Annual Meeting and Exhibits sure seem like nice folks — and not that lethal.
Before the exhibit hall in the America's Center opens at 9 a.m., they sip coffee, tease each other, adjust fanny packs, hold visitor maps open as if steering semi trucks.
These NRA devotees are predominantly white, male and over the age of 40. Grandmothers are present in force, too, and a handful of little tykes sit in strollers. The most conspicuous females are the twentysomethings in single-strap sequin dresses, whose attempts to sell raffle tickets in high heels and makeup at 7:30 in the morning seem particularly courageous. (The raffle promised the winner a Nighthawk Custom pistol with "We the People" engraved on the barrel.) There are indeed dozens of African Americans at the conference, all but a few working as cooks, custodians and security.
No one, however, comes "packing heat" inside the convention center. The NRA has serious political juice, but its gun-friendly empire has not extended everywhere: St. Louis bans concealed-carry inside the city's public buildings.
You can't be too sure, of course. One of the 517 listed vendors in the seven-acre showroom is about to start demonstrating how his product — a pair of pleated khakis with a tear-away sheath — is designed to hide handguns. So it's possible that some of those bulging crotches we spy are lethal weapons.
NRA members gather this way every year. Some come for the celebrities (such as rock & roll Second Amendment warrior Ted Nugent, or conservative pundit Glenn Beck). Some come for the spectacle (this year, country crooner Trace Adkins and funnyman Larry the Cable Guy performed). But most come to gape at all the guns, ammo and big-bangin' toys.
Exhibitors include major brands like SIG Sauer, Remington, Benelli and Smith & Wesson. But others are jewelers who weave bracelets out of fake elephant hair, a company that makes "splattering targets" designed to look like zombies, and Missouri's own CMMG Inc. — a weapons manufacturer from Fayette that also sells its own brand of bacon in a can.
One step through the exhibit hall's south entrance and you can feel the bzzzt of the Tasers from 30 yards off. Weaving through the hordes, past the flickering flat-screens and the artisan engraving a shotgun, you at last reach the source of the sound: the Personal Security Products booth.
A blond pregnant lady is bzzzt-ing the company's "Blast Knuckles" (electrified brass knuckles), which her colleague explains are "designed for control, so they won't get knocked out of your hand in a scuffle." One is left to imagine what kind of scuffle that might be. This booth is also hawking hats with Arabic script and the English word "Infidel."
Yep, the 2012 NRA exhibit hall isn't just a gun show. The Cobra Firearms booth is selling earrings made from bullet casings. The Buffalo Wool Co. is selling hats and mittens of bison fur, which is collected from street-sweeper brushes that ranchers mount on their property. (Bison love to rub against it.)
At least a dozen booths are selling guided hunts that collectively offer the chance to bag pheasant, turkey, bear, buffalo, prairie dog, antelope, sheep, goat, moose, cougar, caribou, chamois, tahr, boar, wildebeest, zebra, lion, mountain lion, wolf, wolverine and fish of various stripes.
Wild Rivers Whitetails, a hunting ranch and breeder in Wisconsin, is displaying the highest-scoring set of deer antlers known on the planet, at 561 inches and 88 points. The rack has come from a three-year-old breeding buck. Staff had to tranquilize him to get this set of antlers and collect semen to further his line. The buck is still alive on the property. They've nicknamed him "Ballistic."
Cold Steel Inc. has a booth touting tomahawks, Bowie knives and battle-axes. You may recognize the pudgy, moustachioed founder, Lynn C. Thompson, who's famous on YouTube for using swords to hack through meat slabs, medieval armor, sometimes carpet.
He's spending a lot of the weekend fencing with a colleague in a pen next to Cold Steel's booth. During a break Thompson is asked whether he fears getting hurt. Having caught his breath, he says no.
"I'm a 'master-at-arms,'" he says, clarifying: "It's not an academic degree."
But it turns out Thompson had indeed suffered a wound: His sparring partner's aluminum training sword pierced his glove and cut his hand. Nothing a Band-Aid and some Neosporin can't cure, he boasts, referring to the ointment as his "miracle drug."
"I use rum as my drug," deadpans his colleague, still clad in fencing armor. "It works."
The big bummer about attending Friday's political-speech bonanza — dubbed the "Celebration of American Values Leadership Forum" — is that it requires skipping both the "Dog Obedience 101" and "Advanced Sausage Processing" seminars.
But the speeches are the cornerstone of the annual conference, and the Edward Jones Dome is dressed up for the occasion. Carpet covers the field, and folding chairs face a giant stage and video screen. People shuffling into the space assume the hushed tones of those entering a cathedral. In case you missed the point that "pro-NRA" means "patriotic," the words "Celebration of American Values" carousel around the stadium on a digital screen.
After the dimming of lights, the pledge and the national anthem, NRA chief lobbyist Chris Cox addresses the faithful. His drawl is relaxed, but his rhetorical guns are blazing.
"Every day a new attack on our values rears its ugly head," he warns those assembled, who now fill up the bulk of the field-level chairs and some of the stadium seats. "Most of these [attacks] seem to come from the Obama administration."
Cox then shows a seventeen-year-old video in which current attorney general Eric Holder (at the time the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia) expresses his desire "to make a part of every [school] day some kind of anti-violence, anti-gun message.... We have to really brainwash people into thinking about guns in a vastly different way."
The crowd jeers.
"Let that sink in for a second," Cox continues. "Let's look at Webster's definition of brainwash: 'To force someone to give up their basic beliefs through indoctrination.' [It's] persuasion by propaganda. Not truth, not facts, not reality. Propaganda."
And Cox proclaims his belief that Obama and his henchman, Eric Holder, are conspiring to disarm the nation. He doesn't mention that the president has signed laws allowing guns into national parks and Amtrak trains.
(According to an essay penned last November by NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre, Obama has hatched "a sinister plot....behind closed doors, to launch a massive anti-gun onslaught when the time is right.")
"Let's state this in very clear terms," Cox announces. "President Obama needs to fire Eric Holder, and in November, we need to fire the president." The crowd leaps to its feet and roars approval.
And they're just getting warmed up. Waiting their turn behind the dais is a bevy of GOP A-listers, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and the presumptive 2012 Republican candidate for president, Mitt Romney.
Of all those names, Romney has perhaps the most complicated relationship with the NRA. In his unsucessful 1994 run for the U.S. Senate against Ted Kennedy, he supported the federal assault-weapons ban, as well as the Brady Bill that required background checks on gun sales. As recently as 2007 Romney reiterated to the late Tim Russert on Meet the Press his support for a ban of "unusually lethal" guns, adding: "I don't line up 100 percent with the NRA."
Nevertheless, the NRA — which can use its clout to make or break politicians of either party — seems to be heading toward a Romney endorsement.
"He's a life member of the NRA," Cox says of Romney during his introduction. A casual listener may interpret that as "life-long member," but would be mistaken: Romney only joined the NRA in 2007, before announcing his first candidacy for president. The term "life member" refers to the fact that he paid $1,000 to the organization and never again has to renew his dues.
In a dark suit and tie, Romney at last glides through the curtain's split to a standing ovation. In his 28-minute speech, he drills Obama but never gets specific on gun policy, promising only to "stand up for the rights of hunters, sportsmen and those seeking to protect their homes and their families."
If Obama-bashing endears Romney to the NRA members, he declines to take a swing at another plump NRA piñata: the national news media.
Leave that, though, for NRA leader Wayne LaPierre.
"For decades, the media and the political elites have lied about us, demonized us and attempted to marginalize our Second Amendment," says LaPierre during his time on the podium. "They've called us everything from extremists to wingnuts to wackos.... [But] we've stared those anti-gun elitists straight in the eye, and we've stared 'em down year after year!"
What LaPierre omits is that these are, in fact, triumphant times for the 141-year-old nonprofit. In short, they're winning the battle of ideas. Most Americans have soured on stricter gun-control laws and would prefer better enforcement of those already on the books, according to Gallup polls from last October.
Further, surveys show most Americans now believe in a person's Second Amendment right to own a weapon for self-defense. Perhaps in a nod to this public consensus, the Supreme Court has issued a pair of rulings since 2007 confirming that right, thereby upending the blanket gun bans of Washington, D.C., and Chicago.
But LaPierre isn't leaving anything to chance. His job is to fire up the base, and at the close of his speech, he hits all the right spots. The distortions of elites, he says, "won't stop us, because we are standing up today for who we really are. We are Americans. We are patriots. We love our country. And in this election, to defend freedom, we are — by God — all in!"
Some people just like blasting a big gun.
The bestseller over at the Barrett booth is its new M107A1 .50-caliber rifle with a 29-inch barrel and ten-round magazine.
Erin Kennedy, the company's spokeswoman, says Barrett will sell the weapon to the military and law enforcement. But for now demand springs from hobbyists, long-range sporting shooters and former soldiers.
"We're on back order," she says. "It's incredible."
Meanwhile, over at Daniel Defense's display, AR-15 style assault rifles — 100 percent American made — reign supreme. A rep for the company says about half the customers want to shoot for recreation, but the other half have self-defense in mind.
"It has to do with uncertainty and economic conditions," the spokesman says. "It's about boosting personal safety. Having an assault rifle is a cheap life-insurance policy."
That may be true, unless you covet something like the titanium .308-caliber assault rifle at the NEMO Arms booth, which retails for $95,904. Vice president Adyn Sonju says her Montana-based company built only one model, simply to show the industry it could sculpt a gun from the unruly metal.
Outside of the exhibit hall and up on the second floor, hundreds of people have queued up for a Glenn Beck book-signing. One of them is an off-duty Chicago policeman. He says he's lost faith in the criminal-justice system and thinks a law like "stand your ground" for Illinois would help matters.
Further ahead in line, the mayor of a small town in Illinois says he thinks concealed-carry would help his state. Further back, a Kansas couple says that laws already on the books ought to be better enforced.
These views — anecdotal to be sure — complicate the picture painted by New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who just last Friday wrote on the Daily Beast website: "The NRA wants to create a nation where disputes are settled by guns instead of gavels, and where suspects are shot by civilians instead of arrested by police."
None of the dozen NRA members interviewed by RFT — all affable and open — seemed to want that. None wished to become the next George Zimmerman, the Florida man accused of shooting the unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin. But each feared to some degree that cops, courts and politicians were dropping the ball on public safety. And they feared that those same parties also backed policies threatening to strip a legit gun owner of the ability to pick up the slack and defend herself.
Of course, it's the NRA leadership that stokes such anxieties. And it's the NRA leadership that presents itself as the only real solution.
"If you want a glimpse of a genuine nightmare for America," Wayne LaPierre began in his aforementioned essay last November on the alleged Obama conspiracy, "just look at what's headed our way."
President Obama's plan to take away your guns, LaPierre predicted, will "succeed unless you recognize it, understand it, and take action now to stop it. The best way you could do so is by carrying your new 2012 membership card in your wallet.... For the sake of our Right to Keep and Bear Arms, it's vital that you renew your NRA membership, upgrade your NRA membership and urge others to join NRA."
Since LaPierre made that November appeal, Smith & Wesson's share price has surged as NRA members heed his warning and stock up while they still can. The same goes for gun manufacturer Sturm, Ruger & Co. which just a few weeks ago found itself so inundated with orders it had to turn down buyers.
All the better for the NRA: Ruger happened to be nearing the conclusion of its "One Million Gun Challenge," wherein the company would donate $1 to the NRA for every gun sold in a twelve-month period in the hope of becoming the first manufacturer ever to build and ship 1 million firearms in a year.
On Friday a Ruger executive presents an oversize check to the NRA with an oversize gift of $1,253,700. It was a win-win. The NRA sowed fear, customers bought guns from Ruger and Ruger endowed the NRA. The cycle was complete.
Asked what gun sales really drove Ruger past its goal, a spokesman says, "That is information we don't release because our competitors would like to know it also."
On Saturday night Mitt Romney receives an influential, if backhanded, endorsement from the headline performer, Glenn Beck.
"Let's get it out who I endorse for president," Beck tells the Edward Jones Dome crowd. "My shoe. Anyone but Barack Obama, including my shoe." Later, he gets serious.
"Mitt Romney is our guy. Haven't been a Mitt Romney fan, [but] I've done a lot of research. I've looked into his past. Mitt Romney is my guy because Mitt Romney is not a communist!"
Beck closes his show with a quick parting joke: "Vote Shoe 2012." Ouch.
Other convention heavyweights proved more charitable. The next day the NRA posts on its site a vaguely insurrectionist interview with board member Ted Nugent, the 1970s guitar god whose hits include "Cat Scratch Fever."
"Mitt Romney is one of us now," Nugent insists when interviewed on the NRA News stage in the middle of the exhibit hall. "And I know it's a hard pill to swallow because of what Mitt has done in the past. But I had a long talk with him."
Nugent says he extracted from the governor a pledge of no more gun or ammo laws, and adds that a vote for anyone other than Romney is a vote for the "vile, evil, freedom-hating" White House incumbent.
"If Barack Obama gets to be president again this November, I will either be dead or in jail by this time next year," Nugent declares. When someone in the crowd chortles, Nugent glares. "Why are you laughing?" he scolds. "That's not funny at all. I'm serious as a heart attack."
Chewing on gum, his hair pulled back in a ponytail, the Nuge fields questions from several conventiongoers. The last man asks, with a deadly serious glint in his eye:
"I joined the NRA many years ago realizing that I desperately want to keep this fight in the political arena. But do you realize the power that you have? That if you say the word, there will be very many of us behind you, in a heartbeat?"
"Boy, do I," Nugent responds. "On all fronts. Let me give you a little insight here: Keep your eyes peeled because I may need you soon. I'll leave it at that."