Was the National Rifle Association playing some sort of joke on the media? In the press room at the NRA’s annual gathering at the Houston convention center was a large cheese plate laid out for the fourth estate’s snacking pleasure. It wasn’t just a proletarian platter of cheddar cubes, either. There was brie and lots of chalky bits that contained herbs and looked like they’d been aged in caves in France. I couldn’t identify all the varieties because, like most journalists, I’m not nearly as sophisticated as I like to think I am. But it sure seemed as if the NRA was subtly reminding the media of the class differences between the cheese-eating liberals who populate newsrooms and the gun owners out in the real ’Merica.
It turns out I was the one making unjustified assumptions. With 5 million members nationwide and 86,000 people attending the convention in Houston, the NRA cuts across pretty much all strata of American life. Shortly after encountering the cheese plate, I walked past a booth on the convention floor for the NRA Wine Club. “Selections include a perfectly balanced, nicely concentrated extraordinary Pinot Noir which is both floral and fruitful, a charming and silky French Bordeaux blend and a versatile California Cabernet Sauvignon that showcases impressions of blackberry, dark cherry and cocoa.” Nice pairings for, yes, a cheese plate.
The NRA offers an incredible array of services to members that have nothing to do with guns—if you ever need a reverse mortgage, the NRA can help. Across acres of convention space, there were civic and charitable organizations doing all sorts of admirable things for veterans, handicapped people, and at-risk youth. You couldn’t walk 10 feet without tripping over reams of gun safety information, and there were almost as many vendors selling gun safes and other devices to secure firearms as there were guns and ammo manufacturers. Yes, there were thousands of guns on display, but this wasn’t a conventional gun show. Live ammunition and guns weren’t for sale, and they were all under glass or attached to display cases for safe handling.
Most people haven’t read anything about the NRA that doesn’t begin and end with its supposed culpability in mass shootings. As the news reports started coming back from the NRA convention, it was clear the media, still reeling from the failure of gun control legislation in the Senate, were out to exact their revenge. NPR went with the headline “At NRA Convention, Dueling Narratives Displayed With Guns.” Dueling, however, implies an equal fight. In fact, there were about 20-40 antigun protesters across the street and some 86,000 Second Amendment boosters inside the convention center. Yet NPR chronicled the protesters in comically florid prose: “As the young woman, raw with emotion, stands in the wind, thousands of people stream by without noticing her, eager to get inside to the convention.”
Though no honest person would contend that the NRA crowd was anything but exceptionally polite and orderly, journalists venturing inside the convention did their best to discredit the NRA by going freak hunting. Some of this was more odd than objectionable—see BuzzFeed’s slideshow “The 20 Most Important Beards at the NRA Convention.” But among thousands of attendees and over a thousand vendors hawking every imaginable gun-related product, finding a few objectionable people was a mathematical certainty. Sure enough, some yahoo was selling a target that looked like a zombie Obama. The NRA quickly moved to ban it from the convention, but not before every media outlet on the planet picked up the story and Al Sharpton let loose on MSNBC.
Amid the hyperbole and irrational hatred of gun ownership, there might have been a legitimate story. Based on the wares at this year’s NRA convention, the gun industry has a faddish and lamentable obsession with zombie- and video game-inspired products. You could say the same of the movie industry, though.
Meanwhile, the media did their level best to prove they were not in a position to look down their nose at gun owners. Guardian columnist Ana Marie Cox took aim at NRA keynote speaker Glenn Beck and misfired badly. Beck “let loose with a metaphor regarding the ‘full armor of God’ astonishing for its cohesiveness, if not its imagery: ‘[W]e will fight by strapping on the full armor of God. We will stand firm with the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit.’ ” Beck says many ill-advised things, but the fact Cox didn’t know he was quoting a well-known passage from Ephesians suggests she’s not the person to put him in his place.
Elspeth Reeve of the Atlantic Wire wrote an even more preposterous account of the convention, illustrated with unflattering animated GIFs and conjuring the image of watching Sarah Palin “barf.” Noted Reeve: “Several speakers devoted part of their speeches to media criticism, saying the big bad MSM had been mean to them. . . . ‘Acronyms,’ Sarah Palin said, like MSNBC, CBS, ABC, ‘one day they will think themselves accursed that they were not in this fight with us.’ ” If that hick Moosetown mayor doesn’t think much of the media, it might be because when she quotes Shakespeare it flies over the heads of writers at one of America’s oldest journalism outlets.
Reeve wasn’t wrong in noting that “our terrible media” was the unofficial theme of the NRA convention. “God forbid that anyone says anything the media elitists don’t want to hear. Those in the media, yeah, you know what I’m talking about, they think they know better than we do. They think they’re smarter than we are,” NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre said a few hours before Palin took the stage. “During the past few months the media’s engaged in a vicious effort to attack the Second Amendment and demonize lawful American gun owners.”
If the media really cared about passing additional gun control measures, it might behoove them to dial back their contempt. Even though new gun regulations failed in the Senate, a number of Republicans in politically perilous positions, such as Arizona senator Jeff Flake, have made it known they’re still very willing to consider expanding background checks and other new gun restrictions.
But as West Virginia Democratic senator Joe Manchin, one of the primary drivers of a recent Senate bill to expand background checks, told the Atlantic last week, the strident posture of gun control advocates is doing more harm than good. He insists “there’s a lot the NRA likes in [the Toomey-Manchin gun] bill.” By contrast, he’s made it clear President Obama and New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s efforts to shame the NRA and gun control opponents have been counterproductive to getting gun legislation passed.
“If you were in a state such as West Virginia or North Dakota or Arkansas, which is a rural state and it’s mostly gone red in national elections, how would you approach that? Would you say, ‘I’m going to beat Joe Manchin up because he didn’t vote the way he should have?’ ” Manchin told the Atlantic’s David Graham. “Or would you say, ‘I’m going to appeal to law-abiding gun owners in the state,’ and give me enough support from my constituents that I don’t have to do hand-to-hand combat with?”
If Manchin wants the gun control crowd to start appealing to law-abiding gun owners, he’s got his work cut out for him. The night before he bemoaned the inability to forge a consensus on new gun measures, his Senate colleague, Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy, appeared on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show and said the following: “The Second Amendment is not an absolute right, not a God-given right, it has always had conditions upon it like the First Amendment has. The idea that the Second Amendment was put in there in order to allow citizens to fight their government is insane. . . . The Second Amendment is not designed to allow the citizenry to arm itself against the government.”
A United States senator went on national TV and denied the plain historical fact of armed rebellion of citizens against an unjust government as the reason for America’s founding, not to mention the clear justification of the Second Amendment. And if you don’t trust a guy like Chris Murphy not to infringe on your constitutional rights, well, clearly you’re “insane.” True to her commitment as a media watchdog, Rachel Maddow forged ahead, uncritical of what Murphy said.
So long as the media and gun control advocates keep brandishing their ignorance, demonizing the opposition, and treating the NRA as a fringe special interest as opposed to one of the nation’s largest and most enthusiastically supported grassroots groups, creating compromise and passing any new gun control measures in Washington seems unlikely. This may compound the vitriol in an already tense gun debate, but for now the NRA is all too happy to offer its critics some cheese with their whine.
Mark Hemingway is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.