Preserving freedom the NRA way


By Mike Kroll


The National Rifle Association, a group of four million but with political clout far larger, held its 135th Annual Meeting in Milwaukee this past weekend. The weather was wonderful and despite major road construction hassles the NRA expected 60,000 to attend the three and a half-day show that ended Sunday. Billboards in Milwaukee boasted of “acres of guns and gear” on display at the Midwest Airlines Center and that was no exaggeration. Hanging banners in and around the convention sites featured celebrities like Tom Selleck and Charleton Heston and the slogan “I am the NRA” or the theme of this meeting “Freedom's 2nd Army.”

This is a major convention held in a somewhat unlikely state. Wisconsin is not one of the 40-some states that currently permit citizens to carry concealed handguns despite strenuous efforts by the NRA and its supporters. Most recently the Wisconsin legislature fell two votes short of overriding Governor Jim Doyle's (D) veto of concealed carry legislation. But it is more likely that Milwaukee was targeted for exactly that reason. Signs and stickers proclaiming “Dump Doyle” could be found throughout the meeting hall and a seminar on grassroots political organization was conducted Friday morning.

Most of the NRA events were free to NRA members and their families, uniformed police and military or children under 12 accompanied by an adult. Non-member adults needed to purchase a $10 associate membership in the NRA to gain admittance. Once inside the cavernous exhibit hall most every imaginable gun or hunting related product was available to see, handle and purchase (excluding guns themselves).

The exhibit hall was crowded on Friday when Norm Winick and I attended. Interestingly those present looked just like a crowd of Target shoppers, although lily white. We counted only four blacks total as we walked the exhibit floor and one of those was a woman working for the convention center. Both the exhibitors and the attendees appeared solidly middle-class and there were absolutely none of the stereotypical “redneck gun owner types” to be found. While men predominated there were plenty of women and families including young children. Everyone had the opportunity to see and handle everything from binoculars to handguns to trapshooting products and while there was lots of camo gear available for purchase few people were actually wearing such clothing in the exhibit hall.

When I first learned that the annual NRA meeting would be held in Milwaukee I thought this was a reporting opportunity I just couldn't pass up. I fully expected to have difficulty obtaining press credentials to attend the event, but I was mistaken. The NRA staff was friendly, courteous and helpful and the event extremely well organized. As two people who currently do not own guns Norm and I were clearly in the minority in this crowd but neither of us ever felt awkward or uncomfortable.

I grew up around guns and have family members who are active gun owners and sportsmen and I have enjoyed the occasional opportunity to hunt or shoot with my father. Like most people I am not opposed to guns but merely haven't had sufficient interest to motivate my personal ownership of one. I do find guns interesting and enjoyed the opportunity to see and handle so many items that I simply don't otherwise come into regular contact. It is easy to see how so many men and women do become enamored with guns. It is just as evident that guns are an expensive hobby beyond the means of many lower- or working-class citizens. A single name brand pistol can easily cost over $500 and many rifle and shotguns approach or exceed $1,000. And ammunition is expensive as well. A box of 50 rounds of handgun ammunition runs anywhere from $10-20.

While the exhibits are the clear draw for most attendees the real goal of the NRA is clearly more political than retail. It is impossible to walk two feet without being bombarded by the NRA message that Americans' freedom to own guns is continually in peril. The group may have been formed to foster marksmanship but it continues to exist primarily to promote unfettered access and use of guns in America. NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre may have opened the meeting by requesting that everyone present honor and pay tribute to America's law enforcement and armed forces but his real message is that NRA members must continually fight for maintenance of their Second Amendment rights. “If it weren't for the NRA there would be no Second Amendment!”

The NRA covets the single-issue voter and encourages the broadest possible interpretation of the Second Amendment. The right to keep and bear arms is an absolute right and any form of gun control or legislation is seen as an infringement upon that right by the NRA. No one was more strident in making this point than rock star and NRA board member Ted Nugent but I suspect the NRA has been quite successful in drilling this position into most of those attending the meeting. The NRA would love to see all states emulate Vermont and Alaska where anyone can carry a gun (concealed or otherwise) no permit necessary. They favor absolutely no restrictions on the type and number of weapons an individual can purchase and own and they disdain waiting periods of any length and gun or gun-owner registration of any kind.

Over the last two decades the NRA has been remarkably effective politically. Illinois, Kansas and Wisconsin are the only states that still prohibit concealed carry of handguns but Kansans gain that right next January. Thirty-six states are now  “shall issue,” three others are “may permit” and eight others feature limited special permission to carry including California and New York. The NRA presents this as a law and order issue demanding that states permit their law abiding citizens to defend themselves from criminals despite a national crime rate at a 30-year low (even in Illinois and Wisconsin).

For years groups like the NRA pointed to law abiding citizens hunting and target shooting as justification for gun ownership but that has now changed. Many of the guns sold today have little or no value as hunting or sport shooting weapons. Most of the handguns and many of the military-style rifles that are the rage are designed for military or police use-- not hunting or target shooting. But there is no disputing that firing such weapons on the range can be lots of fun and most handgun owners purchase them for self-defense not hunting or target shooting.

No one is going deer hunting with an AK-47 but neither is the NRA apologizing for their members desire to own such weapons. An important point the NRA fails to make is that the original rationale for the Second Amendment wasn't hunting or self-defense from criminals or even a desire to defend America from its external enemies. The real reason the Second Amendment exists is to empower the average citizen to defend against the potential tyranny of their own government. I find it ironic that for most of my life I never took this concern seriously, that is until recent years. Who knows, someday soon an NRA banner may feature my likeness.