Houston, Texas — “You may all go to hell,” Davey Crockett is reported to have said upon losing his final election bid. “I will go to Texas.” This weekend, 70,000 of the now 5 million members of the National Rifle Association did precisely that, pouring in from all over the country to enjoy what Governor Perry described as a state in which the people “believe in freedom, personal responsibility and the God-given right and peace of mind to defend yourself and your family.”
In speeches and on T-shirts, Crockett’s line was a popular one here in Houston. But his declaration came as part of a statement confirming that he was “done with politics for the present”; here, leadership struck precisely the opposite note. CEO Wayne LaPierre claimed in his keynote speech that gun rights were “never more on the line than right now and through the 2014 congressional elections.” The message? The NRA might be feeling good about its defeat of the Toomey-Manchin bill — and the president’s wider agenda, which still includes an “assault weapons” ban and a limit on the size of magazines — but that is no excuse for complacency. There is work to be done.
Round Two is on the way, and they’re coming after us with a vengeance to destroy us. To destroy us and every ounce of our freedom. It is up to us, every single NRA member and gun owner, all Americans, to get to work right now to meet them head-on with an NRA strong enough and large enough to defeat any and all threats to our freedom.
This is strong language. Certainly, LaPierre has a responsibility to make the severest possible case for his outfit and, in doing, so he often ranges into hyperbole. But he is tapping into both a deeply felt belief here that the president is personally hostile to gun owners, and a suspicion – unspoken, yes – that gun-rights advocates were lucky this time around. When something bad happens, executive director of the NRA’s legislative arm Chris Cox argued, President Obama and his ilk “rush to microphones, rush to cameras . . . gather in war rooms on Capitol Hill, and scheme on how to use that suffering to further a political agenda.” The unuttered last sentence: “. . . and they almost succeeded.”
More than one attendee pointed out to me that Barack Obama and Bill Clinton are different animals. “Obama is in this one for the long haul,” a young woman from Washington State complained. The news that Joe Biden plans to take “trips around the country to stump for the expanded background checks and gun-trafficking laws that failed to pass the Senate last month” appears to substantiate her suspicion. How effective this will be is anyone’s guess. Still, among the veterans is a sizeable number only too keen to tell me that they’d never owned a gun until this year. The president’s uncanny ability to sell guns continues in force, but presumably he will want to add some legislation to his salesman’s legacy.
The politicians that lined up to contribute to the convention can be easily written off as the product of safe, “conservative” red states. Rick Perry, in particular, was introduced to a video that seemed custom-built to irritate, rather than to convince, his critics. “And why was Marco Rubio absent?” I wondered to nobody in particular, as in quick succession Rick Perry, Scott Walker, Paul Ryan, Bobby Jindal, and Ted Cruz took to the stage to rile up the crowd. But they must know what they are doing — or at least they must think they know what they’re doing. Come 2016, potential opponents will not hesitate for a moment to note who lined up behind the NRA after Newtown and who addressed its conference in the wake of Toomey-Manchin’s defeat. For those with an eye on a future political career, the political calculus must be that voters will not care. Again, time will tell.
Much, too, will be made of the handful of protesters who assembled across the street. A quick Google search shows that most outlets summing up the shindig have opted for some form of the “Both sides of gun debate on show in Houston” story. But this is a false equivalence. The real story here is that 70,000 people turned up to protest on the pro-gun side while just 30 or 40 people turned up against. That “intensity gap” we hear so much about is real — and how. The NRA has added half a million new members this year; the very best that one can say about the gun control movement is that it is nascent.
I have read a lot of progressive criticism this weekend. The NRA’s enemies have, predictably, decried what they call the “insurrectionist” theory of the Second Amendment, pointing to the convention’s “Stand and Fight” theme as well as the more bombastic of speakers’ statements. As is well known, I consider the notion that the primary role of the right to keep and bear arms is to defend oneself against the government not just to be historically correct and philosophically imperative in a free country, but to be desirable too. And this view, as critics charge, is generally uncontroversial among conference attendees. Josh Marshall is absolutely correct, for example, when he claims that you hear “militia-style rhetoric” here. But what you don’t see — and won’t see — is actual violence. There may be guns everywhere on the showroom floor but this is a peaceful place to be; full of normal Americans from all parts of the country who are jealous in the defense of their liberties. When he wasn’t ranging into extravagance, Wayne LaPierre was remarkably effective in selling this message. As I noted on Friday:
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.
Nothing I saw over this weekend disabused me of this notion. Any group that combines millions of normal Americans and the defense of an unalienable right will be difficult to demonize effectively. “I have always supported measures and principles and not men,” Davey Crockett wrote in 1830, five years before he gave up on politics. “I have acted fearless and independent and I never will regret my course. I would rather be politically buried than to be hypocritically immortalized.” Given their no-compromise stance, the National Rifle Association’s members might take this as their mantra. But, for now at least, the chances of a political burial look slim.