Dan, who works on a pumpkin farm just outside of Akron, Ohio, is tall, unshaven, and slightly overweight. He wears a trucker hat on his head and a Bowie knife in his pocket, which he shows me unprompted. “The knife has to be closed and secured inside. I know the rules.” I ask if he has a gun with him. “No. Texas has concealed carry but not open carry,” he says. “Inside the center you can carry if you have a permit. I can’t, though, because Texas doesn’t accept Ohio’s permits and, anyway, I can’t get a concealed-carry permit for another three years in Ohio. I’ll have to be 21 years old.”
Dan speaks with a slow drawl. He would make great fodder for East Coast comedians and Washington dinner parties. But boy does he know his stuff. He knows all of Ohio’s gun laws, all of the proposals in Congress and outside, and a good chunk of the rules in other states, too. I mention the Supreme Court and he brings up Heller. I ask if he plans on buying any weapons in Texas. “If I buy here, I have to have the guns shipped back to my home state,” he tells me. I ask if he thinks that’s “reasonable.” Dan shrugs. “It’s not the worst rule,” he says languidly, “but I wonder what they think I’m going to do with it in my truck between Houston and Akron!” Trying to join in with the half-joke, I ask sarcastically how many people Dan has shot back home. He gives me a funny look.
By now, a few other attendees have joined our conversation, listening quietly at the periphery. I ask generally what the group thinks of the protest across the street. There is a pause, and then one of the listeners breaks the silence with an expletive. This reaction is a shame . His wife isn’t pleased either, and she nudges him in the arm to let him know. “Nah,” she says, glaring at her husband, “they’re just exercising their rights like we are.” Another pause. Dan butts in: “Y’see, it’s a bit like the Bible. They have their view of what the Constitution means and we have ours.” He smiles, and then: “Everybody’s read it, but not everybody’s gonna agree!” I suggest that this is a pretty mild pose for an NRA member to take. Isn’t the new slogan ”Stand and Fight”? Again, Dan shrugs.
As we are talking, cars stream past the protesters. Some drivers honk their horns; a few lean out of the window to argue; one woman blows a raspberry. I ask the group what they think motivates the gun-control crowd. After all, I suggest, this conference is a protest too. Right? The answers to this question range wildly. The nudger tells me that the protesters are “misguided.” The nudgee tells me that “they just want to take away people’s rights. It’s as simple as that.” I gently suggest to him that, although that might be what many would end up doing, the motivations of the anti-gun movement are rarely that sinister. Perhaps, I say, they don’t believe the Second Amendment is an individual right? Perhaps they disagree as to its scope? “Well then they’re wrong!” the nudgee declares emphatically. I agree: ”Yes, but it’s not just arbitrary. There are very few people who just randomly wish to strip away Americans’ rights.” I add that not one of the protesters I spoke to the day before said that they wanted to repeal the Second Amendment. He concedes this, reluctantly.
Attendees disagree strongly about what motivates their opponents. Some don’t really seem to care; others verge on a paranoia that I consider healthy in American life. (Paranoia is a bipartisan American trait.) But there is near unanimity when it comes to what they want to do about it. “I think the laws are fine as they are,” says Dan. “We don’t need any more.” Is this indicative? “I’m fine with background checks,” the nudger tells me. “What about private sales?” I ask. “No, maybe not for private sales. That’s not the job of the government. But I’m fine with background checks if you buy a gun from a store.” They all nod. And then they thank me for the conversation and walk in to join the other attendees walking the floor. Inside it is calm, and quiet; a roomful of Dans strolling around and enjoying their Sunday morning.