"We need to keep our sense of humor, lest it get too depressing," Stephen Halbrook told the crowd of about 100 at the National Rifle Association's annual convention.
For a moment, Halbrook sounded like an anti-gun activist disturbed by the number of gun-related fatalities in America -- or maybe a protester angry at NRA efforts to quash gun regulations. But he is actually a Fairfax, Va., attorney who handles many NRA-backed legal challenges across the country, talking about the NRA's few defeats as he addressed the group's annual firearms law seminar at the nearby Westin hotel on April 17.
"I think we're seeing a lot of progress," he added later. "We've had astonishing success at getting concealed-weapon carry laws passed. It's important to make society more safe."
Ohio's new concealed-weapon law took effect Jan. 2, and it brought Dan Welsh of Mansfield, in central Ohio, to the convention's show-floor to shop for a new gun. He picked up a pistol with a rosewood grip and gold highlights. "That's for Sunday night show, isn't it?" he joked. Welsh, 51, has been an NRA member for more than 20 years. What was he looking for today? "Something light -- especially if you're going to carry it all day. Of course, I probably won't be carrying it a lot." Welsh already owns several rifles and handguns. Why buy another? "Honestly, now, because it's my right," he said, referring to the new Ohio law. "If I get into a situation I'd want to protect my wife and myself," he added.
From teach-ins and rallies attended by the small anti-gun violence coalition protesting nearby to seminars and exhibit floors crowded by 60,000 NRA members inside the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, mostly reasonable-sounding people on both sides held views that couldn't have been farther apart.
Inside the convention, the fact that people still die of gunshots in America proved current regulations don't work, so no regulation would ever work. Outside, today's gun violence levels proved the need for actual gun control. Inside, criminals were seen as the sole cause of gun deaths and injuries, and incarceration was the solution. Outside, they felt guns led to criminality, and prevention was the answer.
Why do Americans need more guns? Manning his convention sales booth, Sandy Chisholm, president of North American Firearms in Provo, Utah, explained that the firearms industry "is not a need-oriented business. We don't need so many [guns] -- it's that people who are attracted to the product tend to own several of them. It's the same thing [with automobiles]: people don't need so many cars, [or] cars that go as fast as they do." North American Firearms specializes in the smallest, most easily concealed handguns, including a 4-ounce model, selling 50,000 guns a year. If there weren't so many guns, would there be as much violence in America? "I don't think there would be any less crime as a function of reducing the volume of guns," Chisholm said. "It's who gets them." As expected, Vice President Dick Cheney echoed this idea in his keynote speech to the convention on April 17.
More surprisingly, even the police aren't interested in removing more guns from the street, claimed representatives of the Law Enforcement Alliance of America, representing 75,000 police officers and civilians. "They want criminals, when they're arrested, to be given a long sentence," said the group's legislative director, Kevin Watson, watching conventioneers take free "Law Enforcement for Bush" bumper stickers from the Alliance booth. "A gun on the street is no threat to a police officer."
The convention's "4 Acres of Guns and Gear," as the NRA touted it on billboards, was evenly divided between hunting equipment and handguns, all disabled and many tethered to their display stands. By the second day of the convention, a salesperson for Barrett rifles claimed 750 orders. Wares on offer included the NRA's own signature firearm, "The Armed Citizen," for $1,695, and a large black and gold rifle from defense contractor Leitner-Wise Rifle Co. of Alexandria, Va. It would look at home with the military, but company production manager John Craig assured it was a good gun for non-military uses. "The Coast Guard wanted a round that would stop a boat in interdiction," explained Dave Luke, also manning the booth for Leitner-Wise. But they also wanted something to shoot when they got on board the boats. Leitner-Wise's weapon switches barrels easily between .50 caliber and .22 caliber, Luke demonstrated. So what's the civilian use? "Hunters like this in wooded areas because brush doesn't stop the shot," Craig explained. "It's a hog-hunting weapon, a deer-hunting weapon." A .50 caliber bullet is the biggest one an American can own without special permits. Do we need that much firepower? "Big rounds are not new," said Luke. "All of the old weapons from the beginning of weapons were based on calibers larger than this."
Everywhere on the exhibit floor, weaponry was being pointed and clicked to great admiration. Many of the guns featured high-tech sighting devices.
"All these laser beams going by, it's a little disconcerting," said James Weaver, owner of Captain Clothing in Robinson Township, selling T-shirts featuring the slogans "Here's looking at you," above a handgun pointed at the viewer, and "Feel safe tonight -- sleep with a gun owner," complete with an illustrated teddy bear cradling a rifle. Business was "good, really good," by mid-convention, said Captain employee Alice Seuss.
The crowd -- overwhelmingly white, mostly male and middle-aged -- was dwarfed by large, elaborate gun displays. As one handgun salesman at the small STI International booth told a customer: "They say you can't fall in love unless you fondle it."
"Do you want to see what Mommy's gun looks like?" said one young woman to her pre-schooler on a kid-leash, stopping at the Beretta display. The girl, whose head barely crested the counter, reached for the wrong pistol. "No, Mommy's gun is this one," the woman said. The girl found the right weapon. "Don't touch the guns," the mother said finally. "You're too young."
Outside, at the main protest on April 17 run by local groups organized as the Confluence Against Gun Violence, participant Kevin Skolnik said bringing kids to such events was simply "insanity. Yes, it makes sense to train children to have interest in firearms," he said sarcastically.
But Mike Smolask, an NRA member since he was 13, said he'd been around his father's guns since he was very young, learning safety and how to shoot -- not to mention pride. "The whole stigma and the whole secrecy were taken away from it," Smolask said. Now his father and brother carry guns for protection, although he doesn't do so himself. His father has stopped several robberies at his auto shop without having actually to fire.
At the Confluence's teach-in on "Militarism and the NRA" at the University of Pittsburgh during the convention, Valerie Dixon of East Liberty decried the NRA billboards: "In my community, that would excite our kids. They emulate anything they see. NRA to me means Not Responsible at All. They want to have their toys." Dixon's only son Robert was shot and killed in June 2001 by a mint-condition .357 Magnum bought cheaply for drugs, she said. Today, Dixon works with the Center for Victims of Violent Crime and with an anti-violence initiative of the NAACP. The NRA has safe gun-use programs for young people, but Dixon says she hopes to get the group interested in working with one of her anti-violence initiatives. There's no realistic hope of that, she adds. "I have heard nothing positive from them. Just the cockiness of the NRA is appalling to me."
David Meieran, a long-time local gay activist, accused the NRA of more than cockiness. At the teach-in he showed portions of some of the NRA's Web sites and read statements from NRA board members that, he said, show the NRA playing on "fear-mongering and white patriarchal power." The NRA, Meieran pointed out, took credit for the election of George W. Bush, "arguably the most militaristic leader in recent history," and for the appointment of Attorney General John Ashcroft, who promulgated the USA PATRIOT Act. He accused the group of "marketing xenophobia to market survival gear" and painting the world with good guys vs. bad guys rhetoric.
Former rock star (and current NRA board member) Ted Nugent provided ammunition for such accusations at his packed presentation to a young NRA crowd on April 18. "I am proud to be around the greatest members of the human race," he told the enthusiastic group. It was "weird," "goofy" and "retarded" to be against owning firearms, he added. He beseeched the audience to "fix" those people around them who were anti-gun. "If I experience resistance, I bend 'em over," Nugent explained. His proselytizing included bringing a bag of 10 guns into a rural school he visited, which left the kids eager to buy their own and his audience in Pittsburgh applauding. He then accused de facto Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry of getting his economic theories from communism. In Nugent's own theory, it's the "pimps, whores and welfare brats" who take money away from hardworking individuals. "Setting your alarm clock, that's affirmative action," he said.
T-shirts from SOG Armory, available at one end of the exhibit floor, ratcheted the rhetoric further: "Christian American Heterosexual Pro-Gun Conservative. Any questions?" said one. Another posited a 21st-century variant on an old favorite: "Kill 'em all. Let Allah sort 'em out."
"Some people are alive simply because it's illegal to kill them," said another shirt. "My pistol and rifle are only tools. I am the weapon," explained a fourth.
Perhaps the most jarring souvenir T-shirt, however, was available at the NRA's store at the Convention Center: Available in the tiniest kids' sizes, it spelled out NRA with 10 crayons.