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.