Op-Ed

What happened when a 64-year-old liberal attended his first NRA convention

Some men, when they retire, take up fishing, others golf. Not I. Perhaps decades of watching deer romp through my garden subliminally planted the notion. Or binge-watching “The Rifleman” reruns on Saturday mornings. Whatever the reason, I surprised my 64-year-old liberal self recently when I realized I wanted to try a new pastime: shooting.

I learned something quickly: There are not many left-of-center gun owners. The connection between guns, God and conservatism remains a bit of a mystery to me, and — as I found at my first NRA convention — balancing on only one leg of that triad can be stressful.

What better place to shop for your first rifle than among the 15 acres of guns and materiel that recently occupied a corner of downtown Atlanta for three days? I know the NRA’s reputation, but I went to the convention with an open mind, prepared to have my stereotypical notions challenged, and hoping to connect with gun owners who feel, as I do, that it’s high time the organization returned to its roots as a group promoting gun safety, training and responsible ownership. I’d heard, encouragingly, that 90% of NRA members support universal background checks.

Indeed, the attendees were a more diverse group than I’d expected, with the notable exception of race. Amid the three Bs — beards, baseball caps and bellies — there were cute elderly couples walking the exhibit floor hand in hand; mother/daughter pairs; even entire families. I met a teacher from Indiana pulling her young son in a small wagon through the cavernous exhibit hall.

As we chatted, I asked how she related, as both a teacher and a mother of a young boy, to the recent San Bernardino school shooting, where a teacher and an 8-year boy were shot to death.

“I understand, in schools, when your child is killed by someone who shoots, I understand that can be heartbreaking. But we are legal gun owners, we’re the ones who make the right choices.”

As for protecting the innocent from those who don’t? “I think somebody in the school should’ve been armed and able to protect themselves,” she said.

Another conventioneer scoffed at background checks. Even to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill? “Who’s to say who’s mentally ill?” This was a tough crowd.

Looks can be deceiving. No matter their age, gender or social class, every person I spoke with regurgitated the same NRA talking points: self-defense, guns-don’t-kill/people-kill, and 2nd Amendment rights. Three of the sweetest little old ladies from Georgia you’d ever want to meet explained that, as widows, they often drive alone on country roads. “What if my car breaks down?” one asked rhetorically? “I need to be able to defend myself.”

“Is being attacked in your car a common event in rural Georgia?” I asked.

“Well, not as much as where you’re from, I’m sure,” she said, not actually knowing where I was from, but pegging me for a city slicker. The women didn’t believe me when I told them that, to my knowledge, such a crime was virtually unknown where I lived.

One common thread among the conventioneers I met was fear. Real, genuine fear. But that’s no accident. Protecting yourself from crime, real and imagined, is what the NRA is all about. The NRA’s America, unrecognizable to the vast majority of Americans except from television, is a very dangerous place. Lawlessness, crime and violence reign. Rioters rule the streets. Islamic terrorists are coming to your town. Unarmed women are rape bait. Unarmed men are cowards. It is twilight in America and no one is going to defend you. Except you.

At seminars I was told not to expose my home address on luggage tags, to set up a safe room in my house, to make sure my holstered weapon is so comfortable that that I never leave home without it, even to go out for milk, and to cover all accessible windows with bulletproof film. I learned that the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre was the fault of the school itself and the “lyin’ dirtbag media.”

Needing some air, I walked a few blocks downtown to observe a small rally held by Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense. Flanked by mothers holding photographs of their children killed by guns, Stephanie Stone, an African American woman from Atlanta, spoke movingly of the death five years ago of her 14-year-old son, shot three times in the head during a home intrusion robbery. Wait a second — I had just seen a scary NRA video based on this very scenario! Except, of course, in the NRA version the lesson is that fewer gun restrictions, not more, would have prevented this horror. Afterwards, I expressed my condolences and asked Stone how she felt about the NRA essentially appropriating her tragic story for their own, opposite purposes.

I expected — I wanted — her to express the outrage that I felt, but I received no such satisfaction. She noted that several of the moms were gun owners themselves, and explained, “We’re just for some common-sense things” such as waiting periods, universal background checks, an end to pawnshop sales. “We have to keep guns out of the hands of the wrong people.”

Thinking about our conversation in full — gun thefts in her neighborhood, the 18-year-old neighbor who recently bought an AK-47 — I understood one reason for her surprisingly tempered response: The moms holding photographs of their slain children were likely the only people I’d met all weekend who actually did live anywhere that even remotely resembled the NRA’s dangerous America, and could legitimately view a gun in the home as a necessary protection.

The great, tragic irony is that the NRA, in supposedly “solving” a crisis that overwhelmingly doesn’t exist for its members, is in fact contributing to the very real crises of inner-city gun violence that mothers like Stephanie Stone face every day.

I returned home with a new question: Can one be a responsible, guiltless gun owner who keeps up his skills at the range, or does the mere act of joining the gun culture and economy, of bringing another weapon or two off the assembly line, make me complicit?

Perhaps golf’s a better hobby, after all.

William Alexander is working on a book about his indoctrination into America’s gun culture. His last piece for the Los Angeles Times was on correctly using vous and tu.

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