NRA Convention report

The NRA’s annual members meeting was held last weekend, in Charlotte, North Carolina. Since I’ve been going to these events for the last two decades, I’d like to offer a report on how the Convention has changed over the years, and some thoughts about the NRA’s past and present.

First of all, the annual meeting grown from “large” to “enormous.” This year’s convention drew 72,128 NRA members. It’s now so big that relatively few US cities have convention facilities that can accommodate it. The 2010 meeting was the largest event ever held in the city of Charlotte, and the people of Charlotte were very welcoming, and the facilities were well-run.

The Exhibit Hall, where manufacturers of firearms, hunting gear, and related accessories show off their products to consumers, was a three mile walk, if you went through each row. The shooting industry’s annual trade show (SHOT — Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trades) is even bigger, but you have to be a firearms retailer, or otherwise engaged in the firearms business, in order to be able to attend SHOT. So for most persons, the NRA exhibit hall is the best opportunity ever to examine products close up, talk to manufacturer’s representatives, and so on. As has become the norm in recent years, the exhibit hall was so full most of the day Saturday that it was difficult to walk at more than a slow space. (Friday and Sunday were easier.)

Traditionally, the highlight (at least for me) has been the annual members’ banquet on Saturday evening. Last year in Phoenix, the banquet set the record as “the largest meal ever served in the state of Arizona.” Even then, there were many people who wanted to attend, but could not get tickets. So this year, the banquet was replaced by an evening event at the nearby basketball arena (the Time-Warner Cable Center), which drew 11,754 to hear a Charlie Daniels concert, plus speeches by Glenn Beck and Newt Gingrich, as well as by NRA Executive Vice-President Wayne LaPierre.

A notable addition in recent years is the Friday afternoon “Celebration of American Values” leadership forum. This too took place at the basketball arena. As Jim Geraghty of National Review Online reported, the event now serves as a cattle call for politicians who may have national ambitions.  Speakers this year included Sarah Palin, John Thune, Haley Barbour, and Mike Pence, plus North Carolina Democratic Congressman Heath Shuler. The CAV is a relatively recent addition to the Annual Meeting. Because the Saturday banquet can only accommodate one or two headline speakers, the CAV provides NRA with an additional opportunity to build relationships with leading political figures.

New media were present, with NRA staff twittering the convention for the first time, plus the now-established events for the dozens of “gun bloggers” who attend. The most prominent “new media” at the convention was NRA News, the NRA’s satellite radio program which airs three hours every weekday on Sirius (and, starting today, also on XM) as well as on the Internet. NRA News had a studio on the convention floor, and broadcast nearly round the clock over the weekend. [For NRA News video of the weekend’s speeches, go the NRA News website, and then look in the video archives for May 14 or 15.]

The Continuing Legal Education seminar at the Annual Meeting has been in operation for about a decade and half, a Friday program that provides hundreds of lawyers with eight hours of low-cost CLE, and greatly helps to expand the number of lawyers who have the knowledge to handle firearms cases–whether the case is an administrative law issue for a licensed firearms dealer, or a constitutional defense.

Among the interesting presenters at the CLE was Stephen Halbrook, discussing his draft article for the Northeastern Law Review symposium, in which he commented on this passage in Chicago’s brief (p. 19, n. 9) in McDonald: incorporation “would raise questions whether a weapon generally in common use for lawful purposes in one locale (such as a high-powered hunting rifle with precision sighting equipment popular in rural Illinois) must be allowed elsewhere, precluding a ban on use by Chicago gangs seeking to assassinate rivals.”

Stated another way, Chicago wants the legal option to ban ordinary rifles used for hunting deer and other big game. Rifles which, by the way, are currently owned by Chicago residents, and are lawfully used by them for hunting and target shooting. Chicago’s argument certainly refutes the notion that nobody in the gun control movement wishes to ban hunting long guns.

Throughout the three days of the convention, there are seminars on all kinds of topics, from hunting to self-defense to firearms history. The one I attended was Sniper: Myths and the Media & Winning the Sniping War in Iraq. Major John Plaster gave a very interesting presentation on the sniper war in Iraq from 2004 to 2008, perhaps the most extended sniper conflict in the history of warfare. He explained how the Iraqi insurgents nearly won that conflict in 2005-06, and how the U.S. forces finally turned the tide by changing their tactics, and bringing in substantial additional resources, including forensics teams who could lift fingerprints from recovered insurgent guns.

But the main reason I went was for the other speaker, Stephen Hunter, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist from the Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun. Now retired from newspapers, Hunter is a novelist, and in his most recent mystery-adventure novel, I, Sniper, I am a very minor character. It’s the first time I have ever appeared in a novel, so like a Pirandello character in search of his author, I made sure to say hello to him, and get him to sign my book.

In sum, the NRA Annual Meeting showcased an organization that is strong and getting stronger, largely because of its increasing ability to mobilize the grassroots. Twentyfive years ago, if you joined the NRA, you got a monthly magazine, plus direct mail requests for additional donations, and occasional legislative alerts. Now, the NRA is in touch with its members daily (at least the members who want daily updates) via NRA News, the website, e-mails, blogs, and so on. As the Annual Meeting continues to scale up, the organizers are doing a solid job of giving members the opportunity not only to be part of very large crowds, but also to participate in smaller events with one-on-one conversations.

Throughout the meeting, at event after event, the key word was not “rifle” or “gun.” In Charlotte, as at every convention for at least the last ten years, the word was “American.” This is reflected in part in the genuine veneration which the NRA, at all levels, has for the American armed forces. The NRA membership and staff have a high proportion of military veterans, and at any convention event, a call-out to the active duty soldiers typically leads to a standing ovation.

But more broadly, the NRA considers itself the embodiment of American patriotism, as the direct descendant of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison. This isn’t a point about constitutional originalism, but it is a point about four million people who have never thought that it was uncool to be patriotic, and who very much see themselves as carrying forward the sacred flame of liberty that was lit in 1776, was fought for on the beaches at Normandy and Guadalcanal, and which is based on eternal truth.

Like any social and political movement, the NRA at times defines itself as oppositional–as resisting “the anti-gun mainstream media,” or Bill Clinton, or Michael Bloomberg. But the National Rifle Association of America is incapable of being oppositional to America itself, or of imagining itself to be countercultural. Founded in 1871 by Union army officers, and led in its early days by bipartisan Union Generals (such as retired U.S. President U.S. Grant, a Republican; and Winfield Scott Hancock, “the hero of Gettysburg” and the 1884 Democratic presidential nominee), the NRA has always defined itself as the mainstream of America. Probably the only civic organization whose membership has included more U.S. Presidents than the NRA is the Boy Scouts–and that’s because the Boy Scouts make every U.S. President into their honorary President. In short, Whig history is alive and well at the NRA, and based on the present and past successes of NRA in shaping American culture as a gun culture, that view of history cannot be said to be inaccurate.