My husband really should have cruised through the exhibit hall at the 139th National Rifle Association annual meeting
in Charlotte, N.C., this past weekend. To relax, he'll drive to the Uhwarrie National Forest
and spend the afternoon at the flint-lock range, shooting his .45-caliber, black-powder dueling pistol at paper targets. He's been known to mosey down to the trap range and fire off his Mossberg 500 shotgun, just for fun.
The 280,000 square feet of exhibits at the NRA meeting -- filled with all kinds of guns, knives and appropriate accessories
-- would have entertained him for hours.
But after looking at the list of speakers he decided to stay away. This gun owner and Army veteran was reluctant to whole-heartedly endorse a group with a long list of Republican politicians as members and Glenn Beck
topping its agenda. "Advanced Hand-loading Techniques," sure; a book signing for "To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secularist Socialist Machine," goes too far, even for my politically moderate mate. He wondered, why can't the NRA stick to the hardware and the Second Amendment and stay away from unrelenting attacks on a president who signed a bill allowing folks to tote weapons into national parks? If Obama wore a holster and pistol in the Oval Office, it still wouldn't satisfy the NRA, my husband figures.
The NRA drew an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 members to its annual meeting in Charlotte, but while its literature says nonpartisan, its leaders haven't gotten the memo. A few Democrats were invited to the party – North Carolina Blue Dog House member Heath Shuler and Oklahoma Rep. Dan Boren stopped by. But most speakers followed the lead of Lt. Col. Oliver North, the decorated Marine who got tripped up in Iran-Contra
during the Ronald Reagan years.
At the "Celebration of American Values Freedom Experience" on Saturday night, North, an NRA board member, told a little story about dealing with prostate cancer. When doctors talked about the treatment that helped Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, North said he hesitated. Specter changed his party affiliation, and, North said to applause: "I would rather die of cancer than die a Democrat." Would the Democratic men and women dodging snipers in Afghanistan have gotten the joke?
The other side is dividing America, speaker after speaker insisted – Glenn Beck in particular repeated the theme. Then, each would separate the world and America into us vs. them. At times, it was difficult to tell which was which.
For instance, Sarah Palin
attacked the "shoot 'em up" action films of Hollywood (used as a pejorative), films that glorify violence and abuse. This was just before action-movie actor Chuck Norris, author of "Black Belt Patriotism," joked that the 2010 mid-term elections would be a repeat of the GOP wave in 1994, which took Democrats by surprise: "They didn't even see it coming. Sort of like a Chuck Norris roundhouse kick."
Palin also gave a shout out to the "women and minorities" for whom guns and the Second Amendment, which "protect the weak from the strong," are "so important especially"; there were very few minorities to hear her in the crowd of 9,000.
As is the pattern at Tea Party meetings I've attended, a prominent African-American on the program got one of the warmest receptions. In this case, it was former Ohio secretary of state Ken Blackwell, the author, with Ken Klukowski, of "The Blueprint: Obama's Plan to Subvert the Constitution and Build an Imperial Presidency." He is also scheduled for the National Tea Party Unity Convention in Las Vegas in July. He's everywhere.
I had a conversation with Rick Ector, an African-American whose mission at Rick's Firearm Academy of Detroit is "empowering citizens with the education, training, and mindset to defend themselves in an increasingly violent time." Ector, motivated when he was robbed in his own driveway in 2003, has the tough job of recruiting minorities for the NRA. "There's a perception that the NRA is a white person's organization," he said. "There's a disconnect between gun ownership and being a part of a gun organization." (A guard working one of the events told me he was in that category of African-American gun owners turned off by much in the NRA's message.) There is a reason for that.
And then there's the matter of the First Amendment to the Constitution that's skipped over in the rush to the Second, at least the part about freedom of the press. Journalists – save for Fox News – are Palin's "lame stream media" or North's "New York Crimes and Washington Compost." The NRA enjoyed wall-to-wall coverage and exposure in every media outlet, yet a few of its members expressed disapproval when I chatted briefly with a handful of anti-violence protesters
When I asked several NRA members about the American-ness of bashing the press, the responses were similar to those from Tea Party members I've spoken with. We like "honest" media, I was told, which I took to mean media we agree with. In his keynote speech, Beck had said, "We're American. We can handle the truth." We can also handle different ways of looking at the same things.
I usually stay outside the fray -- observer, not participant; I'm there to listen. But I did cross the line once during the hours I spent getting to know more about the NRA. On Saturday, North lamented that so many people today don't even know one person serving in the military. He asked veterans and those with veterans in the family to stand. So I set down my laptop and stood – in honor of so many, including my brother-in-law, who served in Vietnam, my brother, my husband, of course, and my nephew, who served two tours of duty in the Middle East as one of North's own Marines and died from illness and injury suffered in the first Gulf War. Their parties and politics vary, but before they put on the uniform, no one asked -- and no one ever questioned their patriotism.