A KILLER CONVENTION

THE IMAGE-CONSCIOUS NATIONAL RIFLE ASSOCIATION ALLOWED NO NOISY FIREFIGHTS DURING ITS ANNUAL MEETING. EVERYONE WAS USING SILENCERS.

The middle-aged clerk at the sundry shop touches her brown, feathered hair, gazing appreciatively at the bodies pushing into the main exhibit hall at Phoenix Civic Plaza for the National Rifle Association convention. "Lotta men in town, inn't there?" Well, yeah. Lotta guys wearing tee shirts with slogans like "Political Correctness Offends Me." They've traveled long distances to fondle incredibly expensive, tremendously destructive weapons.

None of the guns are loaded--or even for sale. It's a manufacturers' show. And you have to check your own firearms at the door, to the dismay of the throng of goateed photojournalists desperately seeking a shot of a heat-packing militia nut.

In fact, no one uses the "m" word all weekend. The most heated exchange at the 124th annual NRA convention is between a woman from Wisconsin wearing a khaki NRA safari shirt and her son, who's in the throes of the terrible twos and unwilling to relinquish a family-size bag of potato chips. The kid's shrieks can be heard all over the plaza.

Along with 23,000 gun lovers, about 400 journalists representing every news organization imaginable--from Rolling Stone to French TV to Advertising Age--have come to Phoenix to cover the NRA convention.

There are even some gun-loving journalists, particularly Arizona journalists. Gun lovers or not, they've all come expecting a crossfire, or at least a couple of good pistol whippings.

It's a reasonable expectation. The NRA--winged in recent years by internal strife, nagging debt, the Brady Bill and the assault-weapon ban--reloaded and came out blazing in last fall's congressional election. Within the past few weeks, the organization exchanged public barbs with President Bill Clinton after last month's bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.

A fund-raising letter from NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre Jr., sent a few days before the bombing and referring to federal law enforcement officials as "jack-booted government thugs," drew so much ire, it forced the organization's leaders to the unthinkable. They apologized. (The sting of apology is no doubt soothed by the knowledge that the fund-raising letter is expected to raise more than $6 million.)

In the past, NRA leaders have not been shy about airing dirty laundry at their annual conventions. Second executive vice president Neal Knox, a longtime NRA figure who has been in and out of favor over the years (he's currently in), made a failed attempt to oust then-executive vice president Harlon Carter in 1983--the last time the convention was held in Phoenix.

This year promised to be a doozy.
On April 29, the Washington Post reported a plot by Knox to unseat president Thomas Washington and replace him with first executive president Marion Hammer. LaPierre would be ousted and replaced by chief lobbyist Tanya Metaksa. Hammer and Metaksa--who has been known to say about the spelling of her name, "It's 'AK,' as in 'AK-47,' and 'SA,' as in 'semiautomatic'"--are considered tougher than Washington and LaPierre.

According to the Post, "The bomb that ripped apart the federal building in Oklahoma City April 19 has also blasted open a schism in the nation's most influential association of gun owners."

By the time they got to Phoenix, however, the oozing wound had been dressed, and the NRA powers were intent on keeping it that way. There was a concerted effort to suffuse the convention with cool professionalism.

So reporters spend their time in Phoenix bumping into each other and the swarm of wide-smiling, omnipresent flacks who wear red ribbons on their chests and make sure the large media room is stocked with soda, sparkling water, Danish pastry and lots of NRA propaganda. Even the NRA logo on the media packet and credentials is soft and user-friendly: no eagles, no rifles, just the letters "NRA" arranged in hues of brick, eggplant and moss. Very Nineties. It could be a Kenny G album cover.

There are no attempts at mutiny. Other than Clinton, the only enemy identified is the press. And the sound bite of the weekend--a message from LaPierre to Clinton--is underwhelming: "I'll tell you who we are. We are the people who helped clean out Congress in 1994, and who are going to help clean your clock in 1996!"

Could he have meant to say "Glock"?

The NRA that gathered in Phoenix was as chastened as an unruly teenager in detention.

There was scant evidence of the organization that depicted the rape of the Statue of Liberty on the cover of its official publication, The American Rifleman. Just last month, LaPierre had written in his infamous fund-raising appeal:

"Not too long ago, it was unthinkable for Federal agents wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms to attack law-abiding citizens.

"Not today. Not with Clinton."
And last June, in a special report in The American Rifleman, LaPierre asked, "How long are the American people going to put up with this sort of thing? It is popular at this time to compare the behavior of our uncontrolled Federal agents to that of the Nazis in the Third Reich. It may be that that is a valid comparison, but the Nazis are long ago and far away, whereas the ninja in the U.S. are right now in full-cry and apparently without fear of any sort of control. They move mainly at night. They conceal their faces. They use overwhelming firepower and they make almost no effort to identify their targets. They are scarier than Nazis--who at least never concealed their faces."

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