Seeing City Paper's story about gun ownership in Pittsburgh reminded me of covering the N.R.A. convention, which was held in Pittsburgh last year. The following story originally was published in the April 24, 2004 issue of Pulp.
Called by the news service Thursday afternoon, I had an idea of what to expect when I attended the National Rifle Association convention at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center on Saturday: a slice of good old boy American pie.
I arrived just after the food was served at the 7:15 a.m. prayer breakfast, which was sponsored by the International Fellowship of Christian Businessmen, and soon got the gist of this gathering of firearm-lovers and Constitution-huggers: God, guns and freedom. I'd been tipped off when I learned that former rocker and NRA board member Ted Nugent would give a talk titled "God, Guns and Rock 'n' Roll."
After bowing in prayer to start the breakfast, which featured several speakers including former astronaut Charlie Moss Duke, Jr., the group of 750 people stood for the pledge of allegiance. As they recited the pledge, a small group of men yelled out the phrase "under God," obviously making the point that they believe the phrase must remain in the pledge. But the way that they said it offended me and I'm sure it offended others. These men, whom I couldn't pick out of the crowd, though they pulled the same trick at the members' meeting later in the day, yelled out "under God!" in booming voices, with emphasis on the word God, making the phrase resemble a curse more than a blessing.
One of the hollerers may have been one of the guys who was wearing a T-shirt that read: "The Second Amendment: The Original Homeland Security."
At the members' meeting sitting up front I saw an elderly Jewish gentleman wearing a yarmulke and I wondered how he felt about the theological conservativism of many of his fellow NRA members. I wondered what Hunter Thompson would do in such a situation. So I went out into the hallway to skip the meeting and, in doing so, ran into a pony-tailed gunslinger with a ZZ Top beard. I decided to interview him. We chatted for a bit and he said he was a Bush supporter and I went on my way. He walked up to me after a bit and said he wanted to add one thing: "I'm not only a member of the NRA, I'm a gun-carrying member of the NRA. And I think everyone should be," he said. Then he added in a low voice: "And I'm packing right now."
The realization hit me like a shotgun blast that not only was this soft-spoken guy packing heat, but thousands of others at the convention also were packing. After all, with 60,000 gun-lovers, you'll have a few thousand who like to keep their firearms close to the family jewels. It didn't make me nervous, because I figured that if one gun enthusiast got too enthusiastic with his piece, there'd be scores of people happy to peg him like a groundhog. The thought comforted me.
In the hallway of the convention center, I saw a picture-perfect scene: two older ladies each knitting a powder-blue shawl, sitting next to each other on some seats next to the wall as the conventioneers streamed past. I sat down next to them and said if I were a photographer I'd take their picture. Then I told them I was a reporter and I'd like to interview them. They looked at me askance and declined, so I spoke with them off the record. They said that the media always gives the NRA a bad rap. I said I knew what they were talking about, partly because my late father had been a member of the NRA and an elder in the Presbyterian church.
"The NRA's about God, guns and freedom, right?" I said.
"That's right," they responded in unison, nodding their heads without missing a stitch.
I sauntered down the hallway and out to the deck to have a smoke. As I was doing so I tried to get a quote from a guy from rural Slippery Rock, who was there with his wife and teenage daughter and son. Like the old ladies, he also didn't trust me to quote him. But he did give me an earful. While he was working in Germany years ago he got his license and became a jäger, or hunter, which is an aristocratic pursuit, he explained."So I became friends with the old bürgers, and we'd get drunk together and they'd show me their SS tattoos. One day one of them took me down in his basement to show me the lampshade that had been made from a Jewess's breast...I asked him how could this happen? He said, 'It was easy. We made them register their guns, then we took their guns away. Then we took them away.'"