Inside the NRA convention: amid the guns and gear, a note of defiance

The NRA said it was expected 80,000 freedom-loving patriots in Dallas and the prospect of gun-control protests did little to stifle the mood

Texas makes no secret of its preoccupation with size.” Everything is bigger in Texas ,” runs the country motto.

This weekend, inside the cavernous Kay Bailey Hutchison convention center in Dallas, something predictably big is pas: the National Rifle Association Annual Meetings and Exhibits.

Visitors arriving on Friday were greeted by imposing vinyl flags featuring headshots of NRA notables- Wayne LaPierre, Chris Cox and Dana Loesch. The posters also disclosed the theme for the group’s 147 th summit:” A depict of strength for second amendment liberty .”

The NRA’s framing of its convention to its implementation of strength in numbers- it expected 80,000″ freedom-loving patriots” to attend, it told- came in the face of increased activism by its adversaries. Since the last NRA gathering, the deadliest shooting in modern American history saw 58 people killed in Las Vegas in October. That was followed in November by 26 deaths in a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. The February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, Florida, in which 17 students and lecturers were killed, touched off a national youth-led movement proponents hope will turn the tide in favor of tighter gun control.

The Florida school massacre galvanized criticism of the NRA and its lobbying limb, the Institute for Legislative initiatives. Calls for a boycott of the NRA and its corporate partners led businesses- from hotel chains and car-rental companies to major retailers and airlines- to sever relationships and repeal benefits once extended to its five million members.

” Your second amendment rights are under siege ,” Donald Trump duly said on Friday, addressing the NRA for a third year operating. “But,” he added, in a seeming contradiction,” they will never ever be under siege as long as I’m your chairman .”

Trump’s predilection for Texas-style superlatives served him well.” This is a record crowd, you know ,” he told. “All-time record crowd!” He added:” Can you imagine if we called for a rally in Washington? There wouldn’t be enough room !” That brought thunderous applause.

Outside, a small number of gun-control advocates gathered in protest. Larger demoes were expected on Saturday. But there seemed little prospect of dampening the mood among convention attendees. Soon after the doors to the exhibition hall opened in mid-morning, thousands flooded what was hyped as” 15 acres of firearms and gear “.

‘ I’ve got my AR decked out precisely the way I want it’

This was a true mall of America, where patriotic motifs including the stars and stripes of the US flag and the Revolution-era maxim” Don’t tread on me” were emblazoned on apparel, holsters and handgun grips. A 24 -year-old artist from Austin, Stuart Maue, paraded through the foyer with a figure of Trump made from 50 balloons; he had also made a large-scale Glock that sat in one of the banquet dormitories.

The accessories section was stockpiled with scopes and laser sights and suppressors( silencers ), and even a lingerie holster, in black with hot-pink lace. Outfitters hocking hunting escapades in Alaska or Pakistan displayed eye-popping taxidermy. Down a hallway, the NRA wine club asked attendees to” support with every sip” by signing up for a $29.99 membership that includes two wines mailed each month. Nearby was the Eddie Eagle Zone, where the eponymous mascot posed with kids and handed out informational packets on a gun safety program for children. The official NRA store, in a carpeted lair of its own, trafficked all manner of merch: mugs, belts, shot glasses. Splashed across the chest of a gray hoodie was the line the late actor and NRA president Charlton Heston uttered at the close of his convention speeches, hoisting a flintlock long rifle over his head:” From my cold, dead hands .”

At the heart of the exhibition area were the handguns, traders displaying every conceivable attain, model and caliber. In every direction, white men behaved like children in a plaything store: plucking handguns from display cases, cocking them, aiming them at nothing and dry-firing them with metallic pings that in concert rendered a cacophony.

Alex McCandless, 27, and Amy McIlroy, 26, were a couple from Gunter, Texas, an hour’s drive away. They had dropped by the bustling Smith& Wesson booth to browse the company’s line of AR-1 5 semi-automatic rifles. There is perhaps no firearm that inspires more love and hatred. Variants of what the NRA has called ” America’s rifle” were wielded by gunmen in Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs and Parkland. They were also used in Orlando, San Bernardino, Aurora and Newtown.

Fans like McCandless and McIlroy say the handgun is unfairly maligned. Precise and lightweight, it is a multipurpose tool, they say, for target shooting, self-defense and hunting.

” It’s a hobby. It’s fun ,” McCandless told.” I’ve got my AR decked out precisely the way I want it .”

Attendees inspect the guns in the Sig Sauer booth. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/ Getty Images

The couple admitted that the AR-1 5′ s status as an object loathed by so-called ” gun-grabbers” contributed to their desire to own it. Buying one was an expression of their rights.

” After Parkland ,” McCandless told,” we went out and got a second one, only to be safe .” McIlroy said she wanted” whatever I have to get now to ensure I can protect their own families later “.

The couple are raising a six-year-old and an 18 -month-old.” Maintaining children safe is a big priority ,” McCandless said.” The only thing you can do is be prepared. There are bad people in the world and you’re never going to take every gun away. As far as Parkland goes, it’s terrible and something needs to be done, but I don’t think it needs to infringe on our second amendment rights .”

Sam Smith, 65, from De Queen, Arkansas and another AR-1 5 proprietor, voiced a familiar sentiment:” The handguns are not the problem. It’s the people. Mothers don’t raise their children right any more. They don’t take them to church, don’t whoop their tail when they need it. When morals go forth, human life don’t mean nothing .”

‘Black Guns Matter’

There were occasional flashings of a younger, more colorful NRA. “Black Guns Matter” was written in big block letters on the T-shirt worn by Maj Toure as he hustled through the crowd. A thirtysomething from Philadelphia, Toure has gained renown in firearm circles for conducting pistols trained in cities with high murder rates such as Los Angeles, Chicago and Detroit.

” All gun control is racist ,” he said.” To attempt to not allow someone to protect himself and his family in a high-crime region of a city is racism .”

Keith Pantaleon, a 40 -year-old admirer of Toure’s from New Jersey, told:” As a black man, I hate gun control. The question after 1865 was if black people are no longer slaves and they are people, that means they have the right to own firearms. That’s when the idea of gun control was fabricated .”

Pantaleon appeared around the room and began to meditate the future of the NRA.” It’s not that I want much less white people ,” he told.” I want the NRA convention to be a more accurate representation of the demographics of the United States .”

As Texas- or Trump- might tell, that would be big.

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