Reporters scribble, cameras click, protesters remonstrate, counter-protesters counter-remonstrate: There’s nothing like an embattled-Washington-political-figure-press-conference to brighten up a pre-holiday Friday. And when the political figure in question is advocating that massive new numbers of citizens be armed with guns, the drama is all the more dramatic.
Such was the scene this morning at the Willard Intercontinental, the beaux-arts luxury hotel just steps from the White House, where National Rifle Association chief Wayne LaPierre stepped to the podium to deliver his already-infamous remarks about last week’s elementary school mass shooting in Connecticut.
On TV, viewers saw what appeared to be the ramblings of a single advocacy-group leader with some decidedly non-mainstream views. People hanging around the hotel, though, saw a vastly more baroque display of crazy. "Jesus, look, the NRA is here," said a young father in navy overcoat stepping into the blustery cold outside. "And PETA too."
"Oh, let's avoid them," the mother said, shooing three knee-height girls away from the crowd of about 75 sign-waving protesters.
As the crowd chanted "Shame on the NRA," I found 70-year old grandmother Kate Ricks in a blue windbreaker and bright red mittens wandering up and down the line holding a poster that had been provided by the cell phone company cum social activist network CREDO. "The NRA has been hijacked by extremist groups who are totally nutso," she told me. "It used to be an organization of hunters and people who were rational. Now it's the gun companies."
Ricks wants a ban on assault rifles and automatic weapons and stricter rules for who can get a concealed carry permit. Unfortunately, as she spoke, Ricks quickly veered off message: The bigger problem is the widespread violence on television and in video games, she said, eerily presaging some of the comments from the man she had come to protest. "Some of the pixels on the screen are really gross and they get people into shooting folks," she said.
Inside, some activists were a bit less restrained. Twice, protesters from Code Pink interrupted LaPierre's speech, unfurling signs that blamed the NRA for "killing our kids." Each time, the security guards took them down in what seemed like slow motion. LaPierre slowly shook his head, and it was unclear if he was disappointed at the protesters or at the pace at which they were being hauled out.
Later, I overheard two of the folks who’d checked my ID when I arrived congratulating each other. "Just two. That wasn't bad at all," a woman in a brown suit said. "And that little one? I could have kicked her." She punted the air, laughing.
As it happened, the NRA’s promise of offering “meaningful contributions” for public safety boiled down to a suggestion that every school be protected by armed guards. Streaming out of the event, which was officially limited to credentialed members of the media, one tallish man sighed: "Back to reality!"
By the time the conference ended, most of the crowd had vanished, leaving a rag-tag group of protest types. Sandy O and Pat Humphries, two activist singer-songwriters from Maryland, said that LaPierre's idea of putting armed security guards in every school was ludicrous. Unfortunately, they too veered off message. "I think he should be behind some armed security guards — it's called prison," O said.
A couple feet away, Tighe Barry, one of the Code Pink protesters who interrupted LaPierre’s speech, was complaining about how he had been treated by security. They had corralled him into a room deep inside the hotel, he said, and confronted him with information they had found in his backpack.
“These guys are talking about personal liberties and they're talking about constitutional rights, and they violated a constitutional right of mine,” Barry fumed. “You can't just go through somebody's stuff.”
I asked him how he got inside a press-only event in the first place.
“Magic,” he said. “Trickery.” And then without saying goodbye, he picked up a bundle of 2-by-4s and ambled away.