Downstairs, there are tens of thousands of guns to pore over. But there will be time for that over the weekend. Here, on the third floor of Houston’s convention center, attendees at the NRA’s annual conference pack themselves into a vast hall for the annual “leadership conference.” All the tickets have been sold long in advance. There’s not a seat to be spared.
The event flits between a somewhat predictably muscular defense of the right to bear arms and expressions of understandable indignation from a group that feels as if it has been unfairly targeted after the shootings at Sandy Hook. Wayne LaPierre’s speech is particularly effective. Group by group, LaPierre asks the audience to stand up: “Stand up if you’re a teacher”; “stand up if you’re a cop”; “stand up if you’re a homemaker.” And so on, until everyone in the hall is standing. We’re not extremists, he implies — we’re you. The NRA’s executive director, Chris Cox, fresh off of his recent legislative victory helping to defeat Toomey-Manchin, points out that the NRA is the nation’s premier gun-safety outfit, taking the phrase back from those who have turned it into a euphemism.
Among the speakers, there is obvious jockeying for 2016 credentials. Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum, and Ted Cruz all appear. (Jindal’s speech, which veers into the autobiographical and touts his record as governor, is the most obviously political.) Paul Ryan and Scott Walker cannot attend but they keep their hat in the ring with pre-recorded video messages. And, in between making his case for better protection of schools, former congressman Asa Hutchinson cheekily reminds the audience that he’s running for governor of Arkansas.
The Constitution gets huge cheers each time is it is mentioned, and one can’t shake the impression that this crowd sees support for the right to bear arms as a proxy for the entire bill of rights — and perhaps liberty itself. Rick Santorum makes this idea explicit, pushing back against the president for his professed intent to “fundamentally transform” the country. A video message from Mark Levin expands on that idea, setting the Second Amendment in its rightful historical context.
There are no moments to rival Charlton Heston’s famous “from my cold dead hands” promise. But make no mistake: This is a confident outfit. Judge Jeanine Pirro gives a rousing performance, full of outrage and flair; Rick Perry is introduced to the sound of aggressive rock music and a video of him firing a rifle that almost — almost — descends into self-parody; Ted Cruz, responding to the vice president’s campaign to resurrect a gun-control bill, challenges Biden to a public debate on how to stop crime.
The villains of the piece, of course, are Barack Obama and Michael Bloomberg. The heroes? Well, the people in the room. Beyond Ted Cruz explaining that we should come down like a “ton of bricks” on those who violate gun laws and frequent references to NRA gun-safety provisions, there is little detail here and a lot of self-congratulation. But that is unsurprising. After all, this is a rally — and it’s time to corral the troops for the next fight.