Great Read

Alarming news from the NRA — via a calm, steady voice

Cam Edwards moved to this historic town full of old tobacco warehouses along the Appomattox River to trade city life for a 40-acre farm with room for his family and a few heritage hogs.

At 8:30 a.m., he heads to work in a studio in a former insurance office on Main Street and starts scrolling Twitter and Google on his MacBook, before chatting with his producers about the day's news.

By afternoon on a recent Tuesday, he settled behind a clean metal desk, a Charlton Heston action figure standing sentry on a shelf behind him, and began talking into a microphone.

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"Violent crime is going down in this country, while drug overdoses are at an all-time high," Edwards proclaimed. "What are you hearing more about on your local newscast, the national news, cable television, from your local newspaper?"

The question didn't really need an answer. His listeners already knew: Guns, as always, were getting blamed for the nation's ills.

Edwards is the radio voice of the National Rifle Assn., the host of "Cam & Co," on which nearly every issue — large and small — is viewed in terms of how it might affect Americans' right to own and operate firearms. For three hours every weekday, Edwards presents a world in which gun owners must be on constant guard — from opportunistic politicians, rogue courts, tilted media and out-of-context statistics.

His show reaches listeners across the country on SiriusXM satellite radio, the NRA News website and other streaming services.

The NRA launched the show nearly 12 years ago with a promise to deliver the truth in the face of a media industry that it claims is biased to the point that it poses an existential threat to liberty. "Cam & Co" is the longest-running program among an expanding group of videos, commentaries and gun lifestyle programs branded as NRA News.

"Essentially, it's a marketing strategy … to get audiences inside a world in which they will do what you want them to — and sometimes it's to buy a product, and sometimes it's to cheer for a team, and sometimes it's to defend gun rights," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Edwards, 41, came from the world of morning drive-time radio in Oklahoma City. He fills the time swiftly, interviewing advocates from around the country about gun issues in their states. He sprinkles in news reports to highlight heroes and outrages that he usually connects to guns or a lack of guns.

Edwards and his guests have come out against Starbucks for discouraging customers from carrying arms, blamed a lack of love for the 2012 shooting of 20 children and six adults at a school in Newtown, Conn., and mocked celebrities for entering the gun control debate. After mass shootings, Edwards often attacks politicians who — even before the victims' names are known — call for new gun laws. He contends that they are cheapening the debate.

But his guests, who tend to provide the show's hardest edges, also don't always honor that mourning period. After last year's massacre at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., Tony Katz, an Indianapolis radio host, went off on the victims' families. They were showing weakness, rather than grace, when they forgave the shooter, said Katz, who has a weekly segment on Edwards' show.

Katz said he thought his call for revenge against the killer, and perhaps the killer's family, was the more decent and natural reaction.

"Far more natural? I might agree with," Edwards said. "Far more decent? I'm going to have to disagree with you there, because I think, again, this is a testament to their faith."

Later, after the on-air exchange was picked up by the liberal opposition group Media Matters, Katz said on his own show that he did not mean to suggest that anyone should take out the shooter's family. He said he would not apologize.

"It would be wrong of me to say that it is weakness, but I cannot shake the feeling that this quick forgiveness is more rote than heartfelt," he said.

Edwards' methodical tone — infused with sarcasm aimed at the other side — makes him a disarming foe for gun control advocates. He said he doesn't see value in cable television scream-fests.

"I sort of get the impression that when people tune in for the first time, if they're not a gun owner in particular, they think they're going to get some slack-jawed yokel, screaming about the 'libtards' who are coming to take their guns away," he said. "And that's not my show."

Edwards believes that other media organizations don't devote resources to hire reporters who can cover gun issues at the granular level.

He cited the Trace, a news site aimed at exposing handgun violence — started last year with backing from billionaire Michael R. Bloomberg — as evidence that both sides of the gun debate feel underserved by traditional media.

"Sometimes, these sites promulgate very reliable information," said Dan Kennedy, a media critic who teaches at Northeastern University in Boston.

The hard part about news produced by the NRA and other advocacy groups is deciphering what's been excluded or spun, he said. "You kind of have to approach it with a pair of rubber gloves and tweezers."

Edwards and his guests often question whether crimes could have been prevented, if only victims had been armed. Gun control groups accuse him of cherry-picking research to make the case that increased handgun ownership reduces crime.

"Edwards is not really a bomb thrower," said Tim Johnson, who monitors the show as the guns and public safety program director at Media Matters. "He's a kind of constant purveyor of misinformation."

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Farmville's past includes a prolonged resistance to desegregation.

Today, it boasts a quaint downtown of brick facades that mixes a few vacant storefronts with a diner, a bakery and a pawnshop with a big sign in the window advertising guns and ammo, not far from the NRA studio.

"Cam & Co" moved in 2014 from the NRA's main studio near Washington, D.C., about three hours away. It was largely to accommodate Edwards, who had been commuting for more than a year. But the location also drew him closer to his audience, Edwards said.

"To be able to do a show from a place that's — flyover country? Middle America? Just the quintessential small town — I think has real value," Edwards said. "There's a lot of America that gets missed by the media."

Edwards grew up among conservative gun owners in Oklahoma, but his mother, a Kennedy Democrat, never owned a gun. Becoming a husband and a father in his mid-20s persuaded him to buy his first gun for protection, he said. He won't say how many he owns now, calling it a personal question.

"Less than 42," he joked.

Edwards, who wears a baseball cap and sports a copper beard, starts each show by reading the 2nd Amendment. Then the gun news unfolds, with advocates from around the country calling in.

One recent guest, gun lobbyist Jim Wallace, compared new gun permitting rules in Lowell, Mass., to a poll tax levied against African Americans during the Jim Crow era.

"So I suppose, tomorrow, we're going to see a new proposed regulation out of the city of Lowell to ban pet T. rexes," Wallace said, "because nobody's been harmed by a pet T. rex. But, you know, that just might happen, Cam, so we've got to get that law on the books."

Edwards laughed.

"Give it enough time, I suppose," he said. "It seems to me, Jim, there is no easy fix. You guys haven't gotten here in one fell swoop."

On most days, the 2nd Amendment hot spots are everywhere: a clampdown on concealed-carry rights in Virginia, gun stores shutting down in San Francisco, fear of jail time for gun owners in New Jersey.

By the start of hour three, it begins to feel as if there couldn't possibly be any more gun news.

"More of the day's top 2nd Amendment stories coming up," Edwards says. "Stick around."

The commercials are hardly an interruption. The ad from Ruger, a firearms company, promises to donate a portion of all gun sales to NRA lobbying efforts. Another offers discounts on hearing aids for gun owners who've heard one too many shotgun blasts.

In between the ads and news reports, Edwards plays a daily commentary from Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's executive vice president.

"What kind of government cares more about appeasing Islamic terrorists than defending the constitutional rights of its citizens?" LaPierre asks amid black-and-white images of mass tombstones and U.S. monuments on the Web video version of the show. "A government that would disarm us during the age of terror."

Edwards met with his technical director during a break on the recent Tuesday show; he returned to the microphone as the song "Two Tickets to Paradise" blared.

Next up, Chuck Michel, a Southern California attorney whose clients include the NRA and several firearm companies.

"It seems like every day or every week, Chuck, there's something new regarding our right to keep and bear arms in the state of California," Edwards said.

"So you carved out a two-hour block for me?" Michel replied.

They dug into the details of the regulations in Los Angeles and other cities, and the slow pace of court challenges being mounted by the NRA and gun manufacturers, and what that might all mean.

Michel defined the stakes clearly: "An epic battle for the future of the 2nd Amendment."

"It's never about confiscation until it is about confiscation," Michel said. "And that's where we're coming to."

Edwards chatted a bit more with Michel. Then he moved on to the next guest. There was no time to linger. As always, there was another fight over guns waiting.

noah.bierman@latimes.com

Twitter: @noahbierman

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 30, 2016, in the digitalPLUS Magazine section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Second Amendment's First Amendment defender" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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