Yesterday, when Mitch McConnell walked onto the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference, he had an antique-looking rifle in hand, which he showed off before handing it to his Senate colleague Tom Coburn and delivering a speech.
This delighted the CPAC crowd and attracted plenty of attention from the media: Jonathan Martin of the New York Times hypothesized that McConnell’s gun was there to ward off boos from the crowd, MSNBC’s Ronan Farrow obsessed over “what kind of a statement” McConnell was making with what he called the “surprising” move. McConnell’s primary opponent, Matt Bevin, slammed it as a “desperate ploy” (desperation would be an odd sentiment for an incumbent leading his challenger by literally dozens of percentage points).
This reporter was kind of surprised and entertained too (being a product of Second Amendment–phobic Massachusetts, of course). But the reaction has something to do with the fact that no one said what McConnell was doing with the gun — he was giving it to Coburn in recognition of the latter’s receiving the NRA’s “Courage under Fire” award. The American Conservative Union, CPAC’s sponsor, reached out to McConnell a couple weeks ago to ask him to present the award.
The confusion stemmed from the fact that the public-address system, which announced McConnell’s title and explains each panel and award ceremony, didn’t say anything about the award, and just announced McConnell as if he were coming on as a normal speaker (with a gun). NRA president David Keene, who was onstage for a panel before McConnell’s speech, was supposed to announce the award, but for some reason didn’t (he’s been under the weather).
It wasn’t McConnell’s idea to walk on stage with a gun, in other words – that’s what the award is, and the ACU asked him to do it. Phyllis Schlafly was handed the same award at CPAC in 2011, her group’s website touts:
Of course, McConnell and his campaign staff surely didn’t mind the attention he got, but to characterize it as any kind of interesting scheme is ignoring that this was just an entirely normal part of CPAC. McConnell was a fitting choice to present the award to Coburn: The two have a very close relationship as, respectively, the leader of the Republican Senate conference and one of its most well-loved, iconic members. On Coburn’s recent announcement of his retirement, McConnell issued a heartfelt statement about the senator (who’s leaving office because of medical issues). That was all kind of confused when it looked like McConnell was just taking the stage to give a normal speech and for some reason had brought a gun.
The applause before and after McConnell’s speech, too, seems evidence enough that Jonathan Martin’s theory is clever but overwrought — McConnell may have gotten extra cheers for packing heat, but he was clearly not about to be booed otherwise.
As an aside, the gun presented was a Pennsylvania Scout percussion carbine, the smaller and more easily handled variant of the 18th/19th-century Pennsylvania rifle, once a staple of the American frontier.