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Messaging the Shooter

A dispatch from the NRA convention

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I am the NRA.

 

I didn't set out to be. See, the National Rifle Association's annual convention here included a trade show boasting of "4 acres of guns and gear," but only NRA members could get in. If I wanted to see the weaponry on display -- and I did -- I had to join.

 

Fortunately, you could buy a membership right at the convention center counter. It's almost as easy as buying a handgun would be if the NRA had its way. No background check or anything.

 

Still, give the NRA credit for smarts. A less savvy organization would have just charged $10 admission. As it stands, my name on the NRA's membership rolls may help convince some senator to repeal the Brady Act someday.

 

I'll be honest: I like guns. I like the slab-sided menace of the Colt .45 Model 1911A1, the trim elegance of a 1908 Luger. I like the sound of a pump shotgun chambering a shell, and of the words "snub-nosed revolver." I admire the workmanship of a firearm the way I admire the manual typewriters I collect: They're all perfectly machined collections of gears and springs that, when used correctly, create all kinds of mayhem. And once I entered the trade show, I found people much like me, except with shorter hair.

 

The guns on display at the convention were not for sale, though one vendor did offer me a poster illustrating a new line of "civilian and tactical rifles." When I mentioned my significant other might not be thrilled with the wall art, she told me, "I have customers who stick guns down their pants, walk through the front door and hide them. Their wives never know." As I pondered what Freud -- or a safety expert -- would say, a guy nearby offered, "Do what I do: Give the gun to your wife as an anniversary present."

 

In vendor booths all around us, tethered to the walls with cord, were guns, guns anyone could handle. Everywhere was the smooth oily rasping of revolvers being dry-clicked, rifle bolts being drawn back and then slid home, shotguns being pumped, slides being pulled back, magazines ejected and replaced. And nobody was cringing or saying, "Hey! Watch where you point that thing!" There were kids in strollers everywhere, but the only disapproval I heard from mom was a young woman who, as she groused to her husband, found the action of a Beretta too stiff. Kids pointed rifles skyward, drew beads on the convention center's roof. One young girl -- she couldn't have been more than 6 or 7 -- stood by Ruger's display of double-action revolvers totally unattended, grabbing guns and waving them around. It reminded me, somehow, of the Pittsburgh Children's Museum.

 

Gun-control advocates and Second Amendment absolutists alike will caution that guns are not toys. Which is true. They're actually something more pernicious -- consumer goods. And as Tom Diaz writes in Making a Killing: The Business of Guns in America, the gun industry faces the same challenge as Whirlpool or General Motors -- trying to expand a flat market.

 

The problem for gun manufacturers is that a well-made gun will outlive its owner, no matter how he dies. In the words of an industry observer Diaz quotes, "Without new models that have major technical changes, you eventually exhaust your market. You get to the point where 90 percent of the people who might want [a gun] have one already." So gunmakers introduce new product lines, just like Detroit.

 

But while cars have gotten safer, guns have gotten more dangerous. As Diaz writes, "Just as tobacco industry executives loaded cigarettes up with addictive nicotine...so have gun industry executives steadily increased the lethality of guns and ammunition." And status matters just as much in gun sales as anything else, Diaz writes, except that in the gun industry the trendsetters and tastemakers are the military and police. Visitors to the NRA convention this year could pick up a catalogue for arms maker FN, which features a combat shotgun that isn't even available to civilians. Then again, it used to be you couldn't buy a Hummer, either. Or a laser sight. Now they're status items.

 

As with Hummers, part of a gun's status comes from the fact that liberal scolds don't want you to have it. That's why "from my cold dead fingers" is such a popular slogan. Gun-control rhetoric often makes things worse, provoking gun owners to commit rash acts that endanger themselves and their loved ones. Like voting for George Bush.

 

This is where the NRA comes in: providing the political cover that allows people to purchase guns, and turning those purchases into political statements. Outside the trade show, the NRA was staging a live broadcast of its Internet news program, NRA News, which offers pro-gun perspectives that the media ostensibly "doesn't want you to hear." The anchors were complaining about Michael Moore, whose anti-gun documentary Bowling for Columbine apparently still rankles.

 

Interestingly, though, one of Moore's most intriguing insights is that Canada has the same rate of gun ownership as the United States, but only a fraction of the crime. The film contends that Canadians are neither as fearful nor as desperate as Americans. Moore blames the American media for hyping fear of violence, and lauds Canada's superior social security net for eliminating incentives to commit crime in the first place. Guns don't kill people: Crappy government does.

 

Both sides of the gun-control debate seem to miss that side of Moore's argument. They both fetishize the gun as either the cause of, or answer to, society's ills. And that often prevents either side from seeing the larger picture.

 

The Republicans know this, which is why Dick Cheney delivered the NRA convention's keynote address last weekend. The Bush administration may have lied about Iraq; it may prevent us from ever having affordable health care. It may lock up more and more of us for less and less reason. But as long as we can keep our guns, some of us will vote Republican anyway. You know, just in case government starts oppressing us.

 

I walked out of the NRA convention a little dazed, probably the only guy with Diaz's book and the Smith & Wesson catalog in my complimentary Heckler & Koch bag. It occurred to me that if guns could appeal to the commercial instincts of a wimpy liberal like me, maybe we liberals are aiming at the wrong target. Maybe we ought to stop wasting our ammunition on curtailing guns -- an effort that never seems to lead anywhere and which alienates blue-collar voters who ought to be our allies -- and start training our fire somewhere else.

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