Not a week had gone by since Adam Lanza stole an AR-15 from his mother's arsenal, killed her, and drove through my hometown to Sandy Hook Elementary School to massacre 20 first-graders and six teachers. Seventy neighbors and friends were crammed into a room at the C.H. Booth Library on Newtown's Main Street, a few doors down from the Honan Funeral Home, which had just prepared a 7-year-old girl’s body for a closed-casket wake.
It was our third meeting since the tragedy. Our numbers were growing. Both Connecticut senators had come to speak to us. Media outlets from around the world were requesting interviews. Our “Newtown United” Facebook page was gathering thousands of followers a day, but we were not united about what to do.
One man passed around a petition for a local ordinance to ban assault weapons in town. Another urged everyone to picket the headquarters of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a lobbying group for gun manufacturers — a sort of NRA mini-me — headquartered ironically here in Newtown, where I had grown up and returned a decade ago to raise my own family.
A representative from Michael Bloomberg's gun-prevention group arrived and handed out literature, accompanied by Stephen Barton, a recent college graduate from neighboring Southbury, who was shot at the midnight screening of The Dark Knight in Aurora, Colorado, about five months earlier. Elizabeth Esty, newly elected to represent Connecticut's 5th Congressional District took the floor, vowing to make "gun control" the guiding mission of the 113th Congress. After the guests left, we resumed arguing.
The next day, NRA Executive Vice President and CEO Wayne LaPierre broke his silence and in a speech that was really more a fulmination, argued that my 26 neighbors would still be alive today if school personnel had been armed: “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun." The message, coming before all the Sandy Hook children and their teachers were buried in the cold December earth, was remarkable for its simplicity and its callousness. LaPierre steamrolled over the deep sorrow the nation was experiencing with a single message: It's not about the guns.
And that's when it really hit me. What the people of Newtown wanted — and indeed all Americans at that moment wanted and still want — was an honest discussion about how something as awful as Sandy Hook could happen, and how to prevent it from happening again. LaPierre made it clear the NRA was going to do everything in its power to thwart genuine debate. At that point I realized I needed to better understand the NRA. So with a few clicks on the NRA website, I became a member.
Those who oppose the NRA are beginning to match their adversary financially. Bloomberg has committed $50 million to the cause, while Americans for Responsible Solutions, founded by shooting victim and former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, is on track to raise some $20 million. Mothers are pressuring stores like Target and Kroger to ban guns from their aisles, gathering neighbors in their homes, signing online petitions, and the like. The venerable Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, whose namesake died in August, continues its state-by-state lobbying. There are families of victims, like my friends Mark Barden and Nicole Hockley, who lost their first-graders Daniel and Dylan at Sandy Hook; and Richard Martinez, whose son Christopher was slain in Santa Barbara. Slowly, they're galvanizing hearts and minds for what they hope will be a reasonable conversation about gun culture run amok.
But the NRA is still ahead of its fragmented opposition. President Obama alluded to this after the Santa Barbara shootings this May: "Honestly this is not going to change unless the people who want to prevent these kinds of mass shootings from taking place feel at least as passionate, at least as mobilized and well-funded as the NRA and the gun manufacturers."
As the NRA's new slogan, unveiled at its annual convention in Indianapolis this April, stated, "Bloomberg is one guy with millions. We're millions with our 25 bucks." After the Sandy Hook massacre, I became one of those millions — and a student of the NRA.
As a Connecticut Yankee and occasional hunter, I appreciate the role of firearms in American life. My grandfather was a U.S. Army captain, worked in the weapons business in Hartford, and owned a Colt sidearm. I own a couple of shotguns and rifles. When I inherited or bought them from hunting buddies — without a background check — I consulted the NRA's website for tips on how to safely secure them.
I have padded through old apple orchards in Vermont listening for the drumming of ruffed grouse. On many Columbus Day weekends I have walked a line of shotguns stalking pheasant, partridge, and quail in the Catskills. I have even written for the Wall Street Journal about stalking wild boar in the cane fields around Florida's Lake Okeechobee and in France's Loire Valley.
Like millions of Americans — and the Lanzas — I have NRA certificates in my house. One says my son qualified at his Vermont wilderness camp as a "sharpshooter" under the Marksmanship Qualification Program with a .22-caliber rifle in the 50-foot course of fire. It is signed by the secretary of the NRA, the camp's instructor, and the president of Winchester Ammunition. This NRA taught him how to store, load, and clean his weapon; how to stand before his target, at the range, earplugs in and eyewear safely affixed.
The organization was founded in 1871 by Union Army veterans who were dismayed by their troops' lack of marksmanship. Their goal was "to promote firearms and hunting safety, to enhance marksmanship skills of those participating in the shooting sports, and to educate the general public about firearms in their historic, technological, and artistic context." This is an organizational aim I understand.
Its political activities, which today overshadow its didactic origins, took off in 1975 when the NRA established the Institute for Legislative Action, "recognizing the critical need for political defense of the Second Amendment." Today's NRA is a $256 million nonprofit. About half of that comes from membership dues, leaving lots of room for contributions from a gun industry hell-bent on ensuring it is regulated as lightly as possible.
This became apparent immediately after my membership became active. My inbox jammed up with emails from LaPierre and ILA Executive Director Chris Cox, warning me that my rights will soon be curtailed, stripped away from me by "gun grabbers" exploiting the horror at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Free stuff started arriving in the mail: a shooter's cap, black with the NRA logo emblazoned in gold. An envelope with a sticker that resembled the ones affixed to cars all over Newtown. Instead of "We Choose Love" or angels and green ribbons, an eagle clutches two rifles against a red, white, and blue shield.
And every month American Hunter magazine began showing up. It served up an unsubtle helping of gun idolatry at the front of the book, with its "Armed Citizen" column summarizing crime reports in which good guys with guns repel baddies. "Standing Guard," LaPierre's monthly rant, follows along with an editorial from the NRA's rotating president.
But American Hunter also offered quality service journalism for outdoorsmen and hunters with headlines like "6 Bow-tuning Tips" and "Gundogs: A Pointer on Flushers." July provided a feature on hunting aoudad rams in the Davis Mountains of Texas. The meat of the magazine is engaging. Most months, legislative bulldog Cox signs off with his "Political Report" column.
The magazine's editorial sandwich of valuable content wedged between ideological tirades neatly illustrates the NRA's methodology. Much as the AARP does for its elderly members, key to the organization's sway over its membership is an extraordinary ability to graft ideology to a basic consumer product — one that costs just $25 a year (or $35 without one of the many available discounts). The NRA membership is more than a marketing tool. It is the delivery mechanism for a dogmatic worldview that its opponents struggle to emulate.
At the end of the Glick Peace Walk in downtown Indianapolis, a Christian youth group bearing a "Honk for Traditional Marriage" sign stood beneath a railroad trellis adorned with a banner advertising the convention inside — thousands of conventiongoers visiting around 600 different exhibits occupying the 400,000 square feet of floor space.
As I entered the midway, a child handed me a flyer for the 3MR fire control system, which claimed to reduce split time and allow for the fastest reset possible on a gun like the one Lanza used to mow down my neighbors' kids. "Has the 3MR changed the way I approach my livelihood? Who wants to know?" it read.
I passed wild boar earrings to game cookbooks, antique Italian firearms to headlamps for hunting hogs. The biggest exhibits were those of gunsmiths like Remington, Ruger, and Beretta. There was an abundance of what the industry calls tactical weaponry, or "black guns," something of a misnomer now that they come in pink and other colors marketed to women and kids.
At the Beretta stand, prominence was given to its new line of ARX 160 assault rifles, modeled after the ones it supplies the Italian army. My own preferred field weapon is a Beretta 12-gauge over-and-under shotgun made in the village of Gardone val Trompia, just outside of Brescia.
Nobody matches Beretta's long-term perspective on the gun business: It's been making weapons for half a millennium. At its headquarters, which I visited last year, it proudly displays a 1526 bill of sale for 185 arquebus barrels to the Arsenal of Venice for 296 ducats. General manager Carlo Ferlito called the spike in tactical arms sales a fad reflecting two basic fears: the possibility that President Obama would enact gun control legislation, and the other, economic.
"When Americans feel under pressure … they tend to want to protect themselves," Ferlito told me. The thinking, he said, is, "Once the policemen do not have money to protect me anymore, because the economic crisis reduced the amount that can be spent on security, I have to protect myself and so I buy something to protect my home and my children." Though Ferlito did not expect the torrid growth in black gun sales to be sustainable, he predicted the category would remain robust in the United States.
Heading further into the hall, I encountered a succession of gun-world celebrities. People queued at the Sportsman Channel's booth to meet R. Lee Ermey, who played Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket. Bass Pro Shops presented Theresa Vail, an expert M16 marksman and the first Miss America contestant to openly display tattoos in the swimsuit competition.
I swapped feral pig stories with a salesman from Lightfield Ammunition, which sells Boar Buster shells. Lightfield also sells Zombie Blaster ammo, "intended for close encounter combat with a Zombie (or several when the apocalypse happens)." Teens lined up at the Bushmaster stand to take selfies with a massive gun that looked like it belonged on a Humvee in Afghanistan.
In many ways, it felt like just another trade show, apart from the occasional snarky asides from fellow conferees ("Obama's done more for gun sales than anybody"), the monumental stand broadcasting the collected speeches of LaPierre, and the acres of guns. Friends whose only knowledge of the NRA is derived from LaPierre’s televised tirades warned me to be careful, as if I were a black man heading to a Klan rally. In reality, fellow attendees were welcoming and, for the record, not entirely white.
Rather, the most distinctive element was a general sense of impending doom, a pervading belief that America is swiftly going down the tubes. This sentiment was particularly evident at the 5th Annual Freedom First Financial Seminar, one of the many sessions taking place off the main exhibition carnival.
Tim Fisher, the director of planned giving for the NRA, kicked off the session. He was having a busy morning; across the street his office was running a seminar on "Creating a Constitutionally Centered Estate Plan." Fisher injected a financial variation of the NRA worldview about trusting government: "You may not have a plan for your assets when you die, but you can bet they has one for you." With that, he thanked the audience and left some flyers that explained how to include the NRA in your last will and testament.
Fisher handed off to Shad Ketcher, a Minnesotan wealth manager who first joined the NRA at 12 with $20 he made from detasseling corn. Ketcher opened a briefcase full of fake money: "Our paper dollars are getting worth less and less." That fearsome preamble began a lecture on the need to include commodities and precious metals alongside traditional investments like stocks, bonds, and cash.
Ketcher talked about rising market volatility and the increased correlation of asset classes. He laid out a rational argument for diversification, ending on a note that aligns nicely with the overall sense of impending doom permeating the convention. Gold, he notes, is an "insurance policy to protect against inflation or disaster."
And that nicely set up featured speaker and session sponsor Mike Fuljenz of Universal Coin & Bullion. He kicked off with a giveaway. The person with the birthday closest to his son's, Sept. 5, would receive a prize. A few hands went up — Sept. 18, Sept. 25. I raised mine — Sept. 6. Fuljenz handed me a baggie with five squares of gold.
He then presented a thesis that gold coins will hold their worth better than other assets. This, he said, may surprise people, given "a bias against gold" in the media. It was a well-argued sales pitch, hewing nicely to the pervasive NRA message that America is going to hell in a handbasket. According to Mike's "Personal Gold Guide," the precious metal offers "protection against a declining dollar" and "a geo-political crisis hedge."
After the seminar, I examined my bag of gold. Each square represented a gram of 24-karat gold worth some $40, for a total value of over $200. Handouts like this are a big feature of the NRA. Nearly every convention stand has an enticing raffle coaxing people to hand over their email addresses. There are free guns, ammo, and trips. All year, NRA members receive promotions and discounts on goods and services. A recent sampling from my inbox includes: life insurance, a wine club, a Visa card, and two protection plans against identity theft.
At the convention, these promotions came to life. The NRA Cigar Club table offered 12-month memberships for $400, promising five premium hand-rolled smokes a month from the finest cigar makers in the world. The NRA Wine Club allows members to "defend basic freedoms with every wine shipment and wine order." On their own, these invitations can feel like spam. Taken as a whole, they communicate a message of belonging to a special cohort of aggrieved citizens who understand something the rest of us do not.
As I walked the floor, I had an urge to ask some of the people I met the questions that I suspect my friends in Newtown who lost their children would want answered. Where do they draw the line on gun regulation? What limits would be acceptable? But I held my tongue. It wasn’t just that I was attending as a member, rather than as a journalist or advocate. It didn’t feel like an environment where genuine debate would be welcome. Come to think of it, that’s worked pretty well up until now.
The NRA's political agenda is pretty simple: It works to perpetuate gun culture in America, and ensure that access to guns is unfettered. And unlike, say, tobacco or automobiles, the constitution gives the NRA an authoritative, to some religious, scripture to which it can continually refer when opposing regulation of the products its corporate supporters sell to its $25-a-head members.
Since joining, I have received countless calls to political action. On the day before a background-check bill failed to pass the Senate in April 2013, LaPierre emailed me that "anti-gun ringleaders in Congress and the national media are waging all-out war on our gun rights" and are "fighting to BAN tens of millions of commonly owned firearms... fighting to register and license gun owners…fighting to create a federal registry of ammo buyers…and fighting to destroy your right to defend yourself, your home and your loved ones."
The bill in question — sponsored by West Virginia Democrat, gun-rights advocate, and NRA lifetime member Joe Manchin and Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey — threatened nothing of the sort. The legislation included language approved by many gun-rights supporters that would have made the creation of gun registries a felony charge with a sentence of up to 15 years in prison.
During the debate over the background-check bill, it became clear to me that the quid pro quo of membership is that you will actively engage, telephone, and badger elected officials. In the weeks ahead of the Manchin-Toomey defeat, the NRA's chief lobbyist, Cox, exhorted us not just to call elected officials and tell them to vote against the bill, but to "forward this email to your friends and family and urge them to take immediate action" and to donate $5 to cover postage for 20 postcards to legislators.
It's not only in Washington that this message is effective. I accompanied a group of Sandy Hook parents to Springfield, Illinois, to help support a state bill that would have imposed limits on high-capacity magazines. Though a draft of the bill hadn't even hit the Senate floor, the NRA and other gun-rights advocates had gotten to legislators. By 11:30 a.m. on a Monday, Tom Cullerton, a former military man who had recently been elected to office, had already received a deluge.
Cullerton, who had only recently been employed as a driver for the soon-to-go-bankrupt maker of Hostess Twinkies, sat hunched, tense as the parents explained how 11 children escaped the Sandy Hook classrooms while Lanza reloaded his 30-round magazines. Nicole Hockley told him to imagine if the shooter had to change magazines after 10 shots: "This can save lives." Cullerton told the parents that "none of that information is getting out there — it's going to be very hard. There were so many calls this weekend."
The bill never passed. Another small victory for the NRA's deployment of its army of pistol-packing mercenaries.
The NRA called my home to offer me a special deal. It wasn't a robocall like the one last year that cycled through Newtown ginning up opposition to a bipartisan gun bill the Connecticut legislature was drafting. The grandparents of one of the children killed in her classroom got that automated NRA message too.
No, this call was of a more personal nature. A salesman with a country twang wanted me to renew my NRA membership on special terms. But before making the offer, he wanted me to answer a simple multiple-choice question: "What do you think is the single greatest threat to your Second Amendment freedoms?"
Was it, he asked, Barack Obama? Was it the United Nations and its Arms Trade Treaty? Or was it the "gun grabbers" Michael Bloomberg, Chuck Schumer, and Dianne Feinstein? I told him I didn't think the black guy in the White House, foreigners, or the Jews in Congress were the problem. Rather, I told him, I worry about my fellow Americans who routinely abrogate their rights by not recognizing the responsibilities that come with owning firearms. Every time I see the headlines about a toddler who kills his little sister with Dad's loaded, unsecured pistol, I worry for my rights. I told him that when I see the horrors inflicted by yet another psychopathic young man who should never have legal access to the kinds of guns our veterans have become accustomed to on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, I worry about my freedoms.
The NRA representative was not calling to have a debate. Dismissing my responses without comment, he got to the point: Act now and the NRA would extend my membership through the end of the second Obama term at a discounted rate. Moreover, say yes and I’d also receive a NRA Damascus-finish locking blade knife and an exclusive digital camouflage flat-top cap.
"Wayne," he said, "wants you to have this."
All for 25 bucks.