It was one of those gas stations close to a highway on-ramp in a seedy part of town, the kind that makes you regret cutting through the city instead of taking the bypass. I was pumping gas and trying to stay alert, sizing up everything and everyone around me. My eyes kept falling on a black man standing outside the convenience store. He was dressed in baggy jeans and a puffy vest, clothing with plenty of room to hide a weapon. Just a few seconds earlier, he’d nearly been hit by a car as he strolled into the parking lot. He had reacted angrily, slamming his hands on the hood. For a moment, something in his body language made me think he might pull the driver out of the window and attack him. But he skulked off, and now he was just hanging around.
The station was crowded, cars almost piled on top of each other, the ground covered in oil stains, the whole scene illuminated by sickly yellow light. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a well-heeled young couple strolling past a Latino man who was leaning against his car.
“Why don’t you gimme your purse,” he said to the woman.
“What?” she replied.
“I said gimme the purse!” Lunging for the bag, he said, “Give me your fucking purse!”
I raised my black semi-automatic pistol and shouted “Hey! Hey!” No one reacted. The three of them scuffled for a few seconds before the purse-snatcher reached for a pistol tucked in his beltline.
I fired. The boyfriend dropped. The purse-snatcher turned toward me and I fired again. He dropped. Two bodies on the ground, the woman screaming. Had I just shot an innocent person?
“Put the gun down!” someone yelled.
I turned to find myself staring down the barrel of another pistol. The man wielding it was leaning over the hood of his truck, a few yards from where I was standing. I put up my hands and slowly crouched until I was kneeling. Then I placed my pistol on the pavement, half expecting to hear a shot meant for me. The police pulled up a few seconds later and arrested me. From the back seat of a squad car, I saw them taking a statement from the man with the baggy jeans and puffy vest who’d had me on edge to begin with.
I was, in the words of National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, a “good guy with a gun.” I stood my ground. Now I was on my way to jail.
Fortunately, this whole scene, with its concoction of racial presumption and animosity, played out not in real life but in virtual reality—although I’m sure it occurs in various forms around the country all the time. I was at the NRA’s booth at the Shooting, Hunting, and Outdoor Trade Show, or SHOT, at the Sands Expo Center in Las Vegas. SHOT is hosted annually by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), a nonprofit trade organization that happens to be headquartered in Newtown, Connecticut, the site of the Sandy Hook massacre. The NRA rep who fitted me with the virtual reality headset told me that only about 20 percent of people who carry concealed weapons have proper training. For as little as $13.95 per month, I learned later, I could purchase the NRA’s Carry Guard insurance, which would supply me with legal protection if I were someday to shoot the wrong person while standing my ground.
Carry Guard policies are managed by Lockton Affinity, a third-party insurance company, which severed its connection to the NRA in February, but this is some seriously effective fear-marketing, nonetheless. First, the NRA scares the mostly white people who buy guns into arming themselves against imagined brown-skinned thugs, in an era of falling crime—the overall crime rate in the United States is less than half of what it was in 1991, according to the Brennan Center for Justice; then it scares those same white people into worrying about their own inadequacies; and, finally, it scares them again with the prospect of legal prosecution in a country that the NRA paints as increasingly hostile to gun owners. Even if you shoot the right person, as it were, you still might be sent to prison or bankrupt yourself with legal bills. What’s a couple more bucks on top of the ammo and NRA dues to ease your troubled mind?
Since the 1990s, the NRA has been enormously successful at stoking white Americans’ fears about their darker-skinned fellow citizens while simultaneously cultivating paranoia about left-wing politicians seeking to take away their guns. Barack Obama’s presidency was a watershed event in this dynamic. During his eight years in office, the NRA’s membership grew from three million to five million. The organization’s combined political spending during election cycles increased from about $6 million in 1998 to nearly $60 million in 2016. According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of gun owners who cite “protection” as their top reason for owning a gun grew from 26 percent in 1999 to 67 percent in 2017. During roughly the same period, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, firearms manufacturers increased their annual output of handguns more than fourfold, from 1.3 million to 5.6 million. Firearms imports also surged, from about 900,000 guns in 1999 to over five million in 2016.
What these figures reveal, perhaps not surprisingly, is that the fortunes of the firearms industry are deeply intertwined with the political activism of the NRA. And it is a worrying time for both. Fear of federal-level gun control is the NRA’s strongest asset, and fear just isn’t selling like it used to. The industry is in the midst of a steep decline that has come to be known as the “Trump Slump.” Only a few firearms companies are publicly traded, so it’s hard to track the performance of the overall industry, but most indicators, including requests to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which are required on most purchases, suggest that business was strong until Trump’s election. Last September, the parent company of gunmaker Smith & Wesson released its first-quarter 2018 earnings report: Net sales were down 37.7 percent from the previous year, and shares had lost a quarter of their value. The company had to cut 200 jobs later that year. At Sturm Ruger, another major gunmaker, the picture was equally bleak. Profits were down by half, and net sales were down by more than 25 percent. In February, Remington, which manufactured the Bushmaster AR-15 rifle that Adam Lanza used in the Sandy Hook massacre, filed for bankruptcy. “Nothing was worse for the gun industry and the NRA than getting Trump elected,” Richard Feldman, a former NRA lobbyist and author of Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobbyist, said. “I’ve been very nervous for a long time over the [gun] issue being the province of the Republican Party, and now we see it coming to a head, because the NRA got in bed so hard with Trump.”
In response, the NRA has redoubled its attacks on the media and seized on the specter of “the resistance” to Trump to make sure that fund-raising revenues remain high. “They use their media to assassinate real news,” says Dana Loesch, an NRA spokesperson, in a video the group published in June 2017, narrating over b-roll from what viewers are supposed to understand as violent leftist rallies. Loesch, a TV-ready 39-year-old who ran a parenting blog called Mamalogues before launching a conservative radio show on Glenn Beck’s TheBlaze, has become the NRA’s most recognizable and vituperative celebrity mouthpiece. “The only way we save our country, and our freedom,” she says in the video, “is to fight this violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth.”
You don’t have to be a media critic to parse the message: The NRA was casting virtually everyone but gun-owning conservatives as enemies of the state, seemingly encouraging its audience to arm themselves against their fellow Americans. Women’s March Co-President Tamika Mallory, a single black mother from New York, published an open letter on the group’s web site calling on the NRA to take the video down. “The video you sponsored,” she wrote, “suggests armed violence against communities of color, progressives, and anyone who does not agree with this administration’s policies.”
“I’m here to tell you: Not a chance,” replied Grant Stinchfield, Loesch’s angry-white-male counterpart, in an NRA TV video that called Mallory out by name, along with Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson. “We don’t apologize for warning America about chaos creators who want to impose their will upon us through their violence and lies.”
As a military veteran, big game hunter, and gun owner, I had been aware of SHOT for a long time, but I had never attended. This year seemed like an opportune moment to get a closer look at the relationship between the NRA’s rhetoric and the $8 billion business of selling guns. Given the NRA’s resurgent animosity toward the media, and because, for the first time in the 40-year history of SHOT, the NSSF had decided to bar general-interest media, I chose not to tell anyone I was a journalist.
The show is the largest of its kind in the world, with upward of 1,600 exhibitors. The booths, laid out amid 645,000 square feet of floor space and 12.5 miles of aisles, feature shotguns, hunting rifles, pistols, and every possible configuration of AR-15—the iconic semi-automatic rifle made infamous by its use in mass shootings—including a silly-looking zombie-apocalypse novelty model with a minichainsaw mounted where a bayonet ought to go.
Manufacturers show off their new hardware at SHOT and make deals with distributors and retailers who bring the products to the public. It is not an event of the type politicians refer to when talking about “the gun show loophole.” The display guns are all nonfunctioning, and no money changes hands. You can’t buy so much as a T-shirt. It is also not an NRA show, although when it comes to policy positions, the NRA and the NSSF are almost identical. “Given the obvious fact that the NRA’s members are also our customers,” wrote NSSF Senior Vice President Larry Keane on the group’s web site, the “NRA’s and NSSF’s respective legislative positions are often aligned.”
Like the industry it showcases, SHOT has grown exponentially from its humble beginnings in St. Louis in 1979, when there were fewer than 6,000 attendees. Now there are more than 60,000. Several acquaintances who have been to SHOT many times told me that the show has changed significantly over the years, and that the most noticeable change is the footprint of the law enforcement and military section. Twenty years ago, the “black guns”—industry slang for military-style rifles—and tactical equipment were cordoned off in a special area, and access was restricted to attendees and exhibitors with official law enforcement and military business. The show mostly catered to hunters and sport shooters. Now, though, the law enforcement and military section is the show’s flagship, occupying a cavernous space near the entrance from the Venetian Hotel on the main floor. There are no longer any special requirements to enter, and the extent to which tactical firearms dominated the entire show made it hard to tell where the law enforcement and military section ended and everything else began.
In dozens of booths spread throughout all three floors of the show, AR-15s and other black guns were ubiquitous, stacked one atop the other on white handiboard panels in a dizzying array of configurations that looked like they came straight from the armory of SEAL Team Six. The marketers responsible for the visuals leaned heavily on paramilitary imagery. Troy Industries, from West Springfield, Massachusetts, had a flatscreen in their booth running a video of two plainclothes men raining automatic fire on unseen targets from the roof of a brick building. They were not wearing SWAT uniforms, helmets, or anything that would identify them as police, but I assumed they were supposed to be law enforcement officers battling some enemy of the public. Even after more than a decade of militarization of American law enforcement, the video still managed to shock me. I could not fathom what kind of situation would merit such extreme force.
Daniel Defense—a Georgia-based manufacturer of AR-15s known for high-quality hammer-forged barrels, whose marketing slogan is “Manufacturing Freedom”—occupied a space about the size of a large apartment, which must have cost a small fortune since booths cost $35 per square foot. Life-size, backlit photos of what appeared to be special forces operators patrolling a rainy jungle on horseback or rappelling from helicopters decorated the booth. In 2005, Daniel Defense founder and CEO Marty Daniel, a former garage door installer, landed a $20 million military contract to produce rifle accessories for U.S. special operations command. In 2016, however, the bulk of Daniel Defense’s $73 million in sales came from civilian sales; the operator photos were meant to seduce hobbyists as much as professionals.
The same had to be true for the branding of the companies manufacturing backpacks, knives, optics, and magazine pouches. The paramilitary aesthetic extended to products that had nothing to do with guns. Viktøs, an apparel company based in Wisconsin, ran a billboard-length ad for flip-flops next to one of the escalators, with the tagline GEAR FOR YOUR DAILY GUNFIGHT. At one of the many booths promoting AR-15 accessories, I found a poster from a Florida-based custom AR-15 manufacturer called Spike’s Tactical that showed a squad of thickly muscled dudes in the foreground, backs to the viewer, dressed in jeans, black T-shirts, and ratty ball caps. Each of them wore body armor and carried some iteration of an AR-15. They stood in front of a concrete Jersey barrier, facing down a mob of ruffians wearing ski masks and bandannas who appeared to be burning down a city. None of the rioters carried firearms. The text at the top of the poster said: BERKELEY—PORTLAND—CHARLOTTESVILLE—BOSTON—>NOT TODAY ANTIFA.
The Spike’s poster threw all of the paramilitary fetishism at SHOT into troubling relief. I’d heard passing comments all week about the threats posed by Black Lives Matter and the so-called antifa, and I wondered how we had reached a point where conservative white Americans fantasize about taking to the streets, bristling with weapons, flanked by fellow vigilantes, prepared to violently confront other Americans who are exercising their First Amendment rights to assembly and free speech. It was one thing for the NRA and the gun industry to promote concealed carry of small pistols to defend against muggers and rapists, but it was another thing entirely to promote group vigilantism at a time when the country’s racial and political tensions are actually getting people killed.
The poster appeared to draw inspiration from the inflammatory Loesch-Stinchfield videos of the previous summer, but there was plenty of other possible source material: news footage of militia types setting up sniper positions during the Ferguson riots; the armed groups that showed up in Charlottesville, Virginia, under the auspices of public safety; the men who defended Cliven Bundy during a standoff with federal agents near Bunkerville, Nevada. They all carried tricked-out AR-15s like the ones in the Spike’s poster, and I can only imagine some of them must have been itching to use them.
For many gun enthusiasts, owning an AR-15, a few handguns, and a bunch of tactical paraphernalia is a mode of cosplay, like taking on a biker persona or becoming a die-hard amateur triathlete. But embracing the “black gun lifestyle,” as Viktøs describes it on its web site, strikes me as inherently more sinister than riding a Harley and wearing a cutoff denim vest with patches from the local motorcycle club. It seems like only a matter of time before fantasy and reality merge in a black-gun bloodbath. I’m not talking about mass shootings—although those are related—but organized violence involving groups of people opening fire on their fellow citizens. I’m talking about Chekhov’s gun proving true with America’s growing arsenal of AR-15s—a 2016 NSSF retail survey found that nearly 20 percent of all new rifle sales are some variation of the AR-15, and that there are about 15 million of them in circulation. If you own the weapons, and if you’re filled with enough rage, all that’s missing is an enemy.
Timothy McVeigh did not act alone when he bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people, including 19 children in day care. He had three co-conspirators. They were radicalized by the right-wing response to the Ruby Ridge and Waco disasters. “The government is afraid of the guns people have because they have to have control of the people at all times. Once you take away the guns, you can do anything to the people. You give them an inch and they take a mile,” McVeigh said to a Southern Methodist University reporter at the siege in Waco, Texas, in 1993, sounding like a more measured Stinchfield. “The government is continually growing bigger and more powerful, and the people need to prepare to defend themselves against government control.”
I asked a rep at the booth where I saw the Spike’s poster if he thought antifa posed a real threat that people like me ought to worry about. “I don’t see any reason to be upset or afraid or nervous about anything,” he said. “They’ll do their little riots and make their little marches, but it doesn’t really last.” In other words, the Spike’s poster was just about selling guns.
The NRA of Loesch and Stinchfield would have been utterly unrecognizable to the organization’s membership as recently as 50 years ago. From its founding in 1871 throughout most of the twentieth century, the NRA was largely a firearms-safety and marksmanship-training organization. The NRA kept its members informed about legislation affecting gun owners, but it had no official lobbying arm, and it was a political nonentity. But with the passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968, everything began to change.
The Gun Control Act was a response to the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy and to the riots that were sweeping through the country, from Newark to Watts. The rising profile of armed militant groups in the counterculture movement gave urgency to the legislation. None of those groups caused more panic in the white mainstream than the Black Panthers, who had staged an armed protest at the California Statehouse in 1967. The stunt spurred the California legislature to ban open carry of firearms. There was “no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons,” Governor Ronald Reagan said on the day of the protest, words that would be heretical in today’s gun rights movement.
A year later, the Gun Control Act created the Federal Firearms Licensing system, which required gun dealers to be licensed and regulated interstate commerce in firearms, banning mail-order sales and creating a list of “prohibited persons” who would not be allowed to purchase guns. The blacklist included ex-convicts, fugitives from justice, and the mentally impaired. The bill also included a rudimentary background-check system.
The NRA had been embarrassed by the fact that Lee Harvey Oswald purchased the Carcano model 91/38 infantry rifle that he used to kill JFK from an ad in the back of American Rifleman, the organization’s magazine. Testifying about mail-order sales, then-NRA Executive Vice President Franklin Orth said, “We do not think that any sane American, who calls himself an American, can object to placing into this bill the instrument which killed the president of the United States.”
By that standard, Orth would have had to consider many of his peers insane. One of those men was Harlon Carter, a former border control officer from Granbury, Texas, who had served as an NRA board member since the 1950s. As a teenager during the Dust Bowl, Carter had gotten into an altercation with a Mexican youth named Ramon Casiano whom he suspected of stealing the family’s car. As the story goes, Casiano pulled a knife and Carter shot him dead with a shotgun. Carter pleaded self-defense, but a jury still convicted him of second-degree murder. The case would later be thrown out, but the event left Carter with a visceral commitment to the right to bear arms in self-defense and an equally visceral distrust of anything resembling government gun control. In a letter to a friend in 1969, he called the Gun Control Act “another drop in the water torture provided for good people by big government without a particle of effect upon bad people.”
Carter successfully fought to shift the organization’s priorities from training to Second Amendment activism, and the creation of the ATF in 1972 drew even more NRA members into the ranks of his hard-liners. Three years later, the NRA formed the Institute for Legislative Action—an official lobbying arm—and made Carter its director. By 1977, he had risen to become the group’s executive vice president, and over the next decade, along with his handpicked ILA director, Neal Knox, Carter would reshape the NRA into the hard-core lobbying organization that we know today, founded on his maxim: “No compromise. No gun legislation.”
Under Carter’s leadership, which lasted until 1985, membership rose to three million, and the organization became a formidable presence on Capitol Hill. But gun control would remain a marginal issue nationally until the 1990s, when a series of actions at the state and federal level accelerated the NRA’s rightward slide toward the Republican Party. Ironically, Bill Clinton and his running mate, Al Gore, were both seen as relatively pro-gun Southern Democrats in the run-up to the 1992 election. Clinton even got an A-rating from the NRA during his campaigns for Arkansas governor. The piece of gun legislation that would brand Clinton as an enemy of gun owners was the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, or the Brady Bill. The bill improved mandated background checks with law enforcement for all firearms purchases and paved the way for the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which finally came online in 1998. The ILA vehemently opposed the bill, calling background checks an unconstitutional violation of privacy rights. Ronald Reagan wrote an op-ed in The New York Times in 1991 advocating for the bill, which had been in the pipeline since 1987—a level of Republican support that seems unlikely today.
But Clinton would bear the brunt of the NRA’s ire when he signed the bill in November 1993, the same year as the ATF’s botched assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, which left 86 people dead, including four ATF agents. That November, the Federal Assault Weapons Ban passed the House of Representatives, after a spate of mass shootings involving an AK-47 and TEC-9 semi-automatic pistols, and a surge in urban gun violence related to the crack trade. Clinton signed the ban into law in September 1994, aided by a joint letter of support from former Presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan. Both bills were short-term defeats for the NRA’s fledgling lobbying arm, but they were also radicalizing events. For lobbyists like Wayne LaPierre, who had become executive vice president in 1991, the humiliation of the dual defeats was offset by their potency as red meat for fund-raising appeals.
In March 1995, the NRA took out a full-page ad in numerous national publications accusing the ATF and the attorney general of “storm-trooper tactics.” The text described the ATF as a “bureaucracy whose mission is to make gun ownership by definition a suspicious act, and gun owners by class suspected criminals.” Around the same time, LaPierre and the NRA’s in-house marketing firm, Ackerman-McQueen, cooked up a series of notorious fund-raising mailers. In one, LaPierre wrote, “If you have a badge you have the government’s go-ahead to harass, intimidate, even murder law-abiding citizens.” Another accused the Clinton administration of giving “jack-booted government thugs more power to take away our Constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property, and even injure or kill us.” (The “jack-booted thug” mailer, close on the heels of McVeigh’s terror attack in Oklahoma City, so incensed former President George H.W. Bush that he made a public show of tearing up his NRA membership. “Your broadside against federal agents deeply offends my own sense of decency and honor; and it offends my concept of service to country,” he wrote in a public statement.)
The Gingrich Revolution in 1994 ushered in a gun-friendly Republican Congress and set the stage for future victories that would leave no question as to the NRA’s political clout. Urban crime was reaching its peak, providing the NRA with an opportunity to capitalize on fears about drug dealers and crack-addicted home invaders. While the NRA started to push concealed-carry culture, struggling gun companies soon realized the enormous consumer appeal of handguns for personal defense.
Ten years later, in 2004, the NRA lobbied successfully to defeat renewal of the Assault Weapons Ban, and in 2005, it lobbied Congress to pass the Protecting Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which put to rest “public nuisance” lawsuits brought by U.S. cities against gun manufacturers. Those lawsuits, which sought to hold gun companies liable for the extra policing and emergency servicing expense that resulted from gun violence, were costing gun companies enormous sums. Former Glock CEO Paul Jannuzzo worried about his company “bleeding to death with legal bills.” The new law made it almost impossible to sue gun companies for anything that happened once their guns left the factory. Freed from the restrictions of the Assault Weapons Ban and bolstered by a congressional shield over the gun trade, manufacturers significantly expanded production of semi-automatic handguns and black rifles, among which the AR-15 has emerged as the undisputed king.
The NRA has never hesitated to use its fund-raising fear machine, with the gun industry reaping the benefits. Obama’s tearful speech after Sandy Hook, and the renewed bipartisan talks of gun control that followed, presented an especially lucrative opportunity. In 2013, NRA membership dues grew by more than 60 percent, from $108 million to $176 million, and American gun companies manufactured 800,000 more rifles and one million more handguns than they did in 2012. The 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, had a similar effect, especially after Obama renewed his push for expanded background checks.
Following seven years of extraordinary gun-industry growth under Obama, dubbed “the greatest gun salesman in America” by Ammo.com, the promise of a Hillary Clinton presidency was almost too good to be true for the NRA. Bill Clinton had done more to galvanize the hard-core gun rights movement than any person or event in modern history. The threat of his return to the White House as First Gentleman would have been enough to unleash a stampede on the gun stores even if Hillary had not campaigned on a promise to follow through on Obama’s moderate gun control proposals and to restore the Assault Weapons Ban.
The NRA went into an organizing frenzy. It raised record amounts and spent money as fast as it came in—$30 million on Trump’s bid to defeat Clinton alone. Gun sales soared, with Smith & Wesson doubling its profits and Ruger’s sales growing by almost 20 percent. Ruger’s CEO, Michael Fifer, whose company gave $4 million to the ILA that year, wasn’t shy about the reason for the growth: “For the very first time ever, we have the nominee of a major political party, one with a very reasonable likelihood of winning the presidency ... actively campaigning against the lawful commerce in arms,” he said. In March of that year, at the Conservative Political Action Committee’s annual conference, Wayne LaPierre was more direct: “She hates us and is coming after every bit of our freedom.”
Monday during SHOT week is Industry Day at the Range, when manufacturers truck their wares to the Boulder Rifle Pistol Club, south of Las Vegas, so the gun media can get intimate with them. In the beige scrubland of the Nevada desert, with jagged mountains in the distance jutting up like the teeth of car keys and red-dirt berms all around, I could’ve squinted and imagined myself on a forward operating base somewhere in southern Afghanistan. This illusion was aided by the gun-guy fashion so popular in the age of the AR-15: Everywhere around me were bearded, shaggy-haired men, nearly all white, in military-style cargo pants, desert-tan boots, dirty ball caps with velcro where you’d expect a logo, Oakleys, even the occasional kaffiyeh. Velcro, I should point out, was not limited to hats—it was on the breasts and shoulders of jackets and on the rear panels of backpacks, too. Velcro with no patches is the ultimate in special-operator chic: It means you are sufficiently “sterile”—unidentifiable—to maintain operational security.
Altogether, this look, which draws inspiration from the gear worn by special operations forces and military contractors who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last 17 years, is known as “tacticool.” T-shirts, patches, and hats inscribed with the Arabic word كافر, or “infidel,” are common accessories for this get-up. Aside from the paramilitary finery, there wasn’t much else about these men that would make them stand out—this was a professional trade event, not a gun show at a county fairground in the Ozarks. Which is why I was a little surprised when I saw a guy walking around with a hat that said MAKE ZIMBABWE RHODESIA AGAIN.
Some of them may have been veterans, but if I had to bet, I’d say the overwhelming majority had never served. Like CrossFit and Tough Mudder, the “black rifle lifestyle” appeals to nonveteran men who yearn for an inviolable claim to masculinity. Few things grant instant masculine cachet like wartime service, especially during wartime. But if you haven’t actually been to the “sandbox,” then dressing up like you just got home from a deployment and arming yourself like you’re still over there is the next best thing.
Or maybe it’s even simpler: The gun at the center of today’s gun culture, the AR-15, is visually indistinguishable from the service weapon that Americans have seen in the hands of troops on the nightly news for nearly two decades, that they’ve wielded while blasting away on Call of Duty, and that they’ve seen in movies like American Sniper; the outfit goes with the gun, like chaps and engineer boots with a Harley.
As with bikers, there’s a certain attitude to match the getup, equal parts red-blooded patriotism and kill-’em-all nihilism. In popular culture, its most vivid incarnation is John Rambo, the disillusioned Vietnam veteran who purifies an American town with violence in First Blood, the 1982 Sylvester Stallone movie. Perhaps because of this fraught relationship with patriotism, there were a slew of flags and government-rejecting symbols amid the tacticool. The Gadsden flag, a Revolutionary War design featuring a coiled timber rattler on a yellow background with the words DON’T TREAD ON ME, which has become a symbol of the Tea Party movement, was among the most popular. Molon labe, Greek for “Come and take them”—a phrase believed to have been used by King Leonidas of Sparta at the Battle of Thermopylae, when Xerxes of Persia demanded that the Spartans disarm—was also a popular signifier. The half-skull symbol of the Marvel vigilante antihero Punisher was everywhere, too.
American flags were also common, usually displayed on rubberized patches worn on velcroed shoulders or on the velcroed fronts of hats. The star field was often moved to the top right corner, to resemble what a flag would look like flying in the wind if you were running toward the enemy. These flags came in many variations, including standard red, white, and blue; olive drab and black; and a black-and-gray number with a blue stripe across the center for “Blue Lives Matter,” a countermovement calling for killings of law enforcement officers to be prosecuted under hate crime statutes.
With all of these thoughts humming through my head, I sidled up to one of the range bays and asked to shoot. It had been a long time since I had fired a full 30-round mag of 5.56mm, and I have to admit: It felt good. I had fun with the handguns and shotguns, too. It was my first time firing a handgun fitted with a suppressor, more commonly known as a silencer; the recoil was light as an air gun’s. I was dazzled by the improvements in optics, which are trending toward red-dot reticles with huge fields of view that make it easy to put rounds on a target in a hurry. A company called Burris Optics had one on display that combines a magnifying scope with an unmagnified red dot on the side—you line up distant targets through the scope, and if someone pops up in the close foreground, you turn the rifle 45 degrees and use the red dot. These weapons were lighter, smoother, and sexier than anything I ever carried in the military.
The AR-15 is a civilian variant of the M16 and the M4 carbine combat rifles, which have been the standard-issue personal weapons for U.S. military forces since Vietnam. I carried an M16A4 for the better part of my six years in the Army National Guard, including a tour in Iraq. Late in my service, my unit switched to the M4, which was cool because it was about a foot shorter with the telescoping stock collapsed. The AR-15s you most commonly see these days are virtually identical to the M4. The only significant difference is that my M4 had a three-round-burst mode in addition to semi-automatic, which meant that I could shoot three rounds with every squeeze of the trigger instead of one. Soldiers rarely use the three-round-burst mode, though, because it burns through ammunition too quickly.
I knew that rifle better than the average teenager knows an iPhone. I could take it apart to clean it and put it back together in a few minutes, and I could put rounds on a pop-up target the shape of a human head and torso out to 300 yards with plain iron sights. Shooting a small, high-velocity round, and with a buffer spring in the stock designed to absorb shock, the recoil is so light that you can place the buttstock on your forehead and shoot without getting a headache. That would be dumb, but you could do it. Try doing that with an M14—the weapon that preceded the M16, and which fired a 7.62mm round that was about 50 percent bigger—and you’d probably knock yourself out. Superlight recoil means rapid target acquisition and devastating rates of accurate fire. Add a 30-round magazine, or better yet, a 100-round drum, and you’ve got a precision killing machine. All these qualities, along with its widespread availability, make the AR-15 the weapon of choice of today’s mass shooters.
My M16A4 wasn’t perfect—the action tended to collect a lot of grime and sand, and the gas-operated reloading mechanism blew carbon back into the breech, all of which led to jams—but it was a dependable and versatile tool that I came to love and respect the way that only a soldier can. I didn’t know how much I missed it until I picked up one of its cousins that morning at the range. I slapped a magazine in the well, ripped the charging handle back, flipped the selector lever from safe to semi, and started plinking steel targets out to 100 yards as fast as I could line them up. Dopamine flooded my system, and I glowed.
The AR-15 had come a long way. One of the first ones I tried, from a company called Battle Arms Development, was made of a blend of carbon fiber and titanium and felt like it weighed no more than a baseball bat. Compared to my M16A4, which was almost nine pounds empty, this sub-four-pounder was a dream. I asked the rep running the bay, a tall and lanky guy with a short beard, if using such lightweight materials made his company’s rifles less durable than the heavier competition. “I’m not going to give you the sales pitch. Come back at four and if it’s still running, it’s still running,” he said over the racket, never losing his enthusiastic grin. It was about ten in the morning. I took him at his word.
Earlier, I had drifted toward the popcorn-like sound of rounds cycling on full-auto. Ascendance International was exhibiting its trademark frangible bullets with a full-auto AR-15. Frangible bullets are made from compressed copper powder instead of lead, so when they hit something solid like a wall or a car door, a company rep explained, they turn to dust. But when a frangible bullet hits flesh, he said, it “shreds everything inside of it.” The advantage for law enforcement officers and soldiers is clear: In a gunfight, there would be low risk of ricochet or punching through exterior walls and injuring noncombatants. For the average user, who presumably won’t be shooting at people, the upside is less exciting: They’re easier on steel targets. I listened patiently to the spiel, eager to get my hands on the full-auto AR.
As soon as I did, I immediately understood why the military got rid of full-auto M16s after Vietnam. A shoulder-mounted, lightweight weapon like an AR is inaccurate on full-auto, which is why new military-issue weapons are limited to semi-automatic and three-round-burst. This is also why bump stocks are a joke in the serious shooting world. Bump stocks are accessories that allow shooters to simulate automatic fire. You hold the rifle to your shoulder, put your finger in the trigger well, and then pull the rifle forward until you trip the trigger. As long as you keep pulling forward, the blowback of each shot will reset the trigger, and you’ll keep firing until you run out of ammo, which will happen in about nine seconds. You can achieve the same effect by holding the stock an inch or so away from your shoulder and pulling the foregrip forward instead of squeezing the trigger. I’d imagine the novelty wears off quickly at 50 cents per round and $15 per 30-round mag.
Slide Fire, the original manufacturer of the bump stock, did not attend SHOT in 2018. Neither the company nor the NSSF gave an explanation for its absence, but it probably had something to do with the fact that twelve of the rifles Stephen Paddock had in his hotel room at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas on October 1, 2017 were fitted with bump stocks. Paddock smashed his room’s window and used those modified rifles to kill 58 people gathered at a country music festival below. It was the worst mass shooting in American history. Multiple states have initiated legislation to ban the devices in the months since the shooting, and Donald Trump’s Justice Department is currently considering a ban. Even the NRA called on the ATF to review the legality of bump stocks. Some of the molon labe types are upset at the NRA’s moderate stance on the issue, but to the majority of the shooting community, bump stocks are a distraction from the battle to avoid another assault weapons ban or an even larger slate of gun control measures.
They have reason to worry. On March 9, Florida Governor Rick Scott, a Trump supporter and NRA ally, signed new gun controls into law in response to the shooting in Parkland, Florida. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, named for the high school where 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz used an AR-15 to kill 17 students and school officials, raises Florida’s minimum age for purchasing guns to 21, requires a three-day waiting period for firearms purchases, bans the sale of bump stocks, and, controversially, sets aside $67 million to arm teachers. The NRA immediately filed a lawsuit against the state on Second Amendment grounds, arguing that 18-year-olds are considered adults “for almost all purposes and certainly for the purposes of the exercise of fundamental constitutional rights,” and therefore should not be prohibited from purchasing rifles. Federal law already prohibits licensed dealers from selling handguns to anyone under the age of 18, but Florida’s new law makes it only the third state in the country, along with Hawaii and Illinois, to raise the minimum age for rifle purchases to 21.
The bill has largely been viewed as a politically calculated response to the increasing momentum of student protesters in Florida who are calling for an all-out ban on assault weapons. Similar student movements are spreading around the country. It remains unclear how long the energy of the youth protests will continue, but one thing seems clear: In the continuing gun control fight, the AR-15 will be the skirmish line.
Maksim Netrebov, a gun industry analyst from New Jersey, told me that after Sandy Hook, “almost every gun was sold out, and AR-15s which used to cost $500 were selling for $1,500-plus. That attracted a lot of people into the business, but by the time they got started, that boom was done and over with.” Anticipating a Clinton win, manufacturers kicked production into overdrive and foisted large inventories of guns onto distributors, who passed them on to retailers on credit. “Now they have stockpiles of guns that are selling slower,” and often for less money, Netrebov said, making it harder for stores to repay distributors and harder for wholesalers to repay debt from investment banks. “This is a deep phenomenon,” he said, comparing the gun slump to the collapse of the housing market in 2008 and plummeting oil and gas prices in 2016.
As powerful as the NRA seems, it does not represent anything close to a majority of American gun owners. Pew estimates that 30 percent of adults own guns; with about 250 million adults in the United States, that means 75 million gun owners, and only five million of them belong to the NRA. It’s reasonable to assume that a large percentage of American gun owners who do not currently pay dues to the NRA still support its views. But it is equally reasonable to assume that many gun owners are indifferent to the NRA and that others disapprove of the organization. Twenty-nine percent of gun owners think the NRA has too much influence on politics and policy, again according to Pew.
Just as the gun industry has become disproportionately dependent on the AR-15 and semi-automatic handguns, the NRA has become dependent on a winnowing demographic of gun owners. Nationally, gun ownership is at its lowest point in 40 years, with some studies placing the rate as low as 22 percent. According to research from the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center, 23.5 percent of Americans under age 35 owned a gun in 1980; by 2014, that number had fallen to 14 percent. Hunting households have declined by more than half in the same period. A Harvard and Northeastern study in 2016 found that 3 percent of the American population owns about half of the 265 million firearms in circulation. These “super owners” own an average of 17 guns each, with handguns making up 71 percent of the increase in total guns in circulation between 1994 and 2015. The astonishing boom in the gun market since the turn of the century didn’t result from expanding the rolls of gun owners, but rather by convincing people who already owned guns to deepen their arsenals. “When I look at our survey, what I see is a population that is living in fear,” Deb Azrael, one of the gun study’s authors, told The Trace. “They are buying handguns to protect themselves against bad guys, they store their guns ready-to-use because of bad guys, and they believe that their guns make them safer.”
As a group, gun owners are disproportionately old, Republican, male, white, rural, less educated, and not wealthy. The NSSF and the NRA will tell you that minorities and women are fast-growing markets. But the demographics of gun ownership remain lopsided, and when it comes to the hard-core activist element of the NRA, the scales tip decidedly in the direction of cliché demographic markers that describe Trump’s core supporters and the audiences for Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. The youth movements inspired and led by the Parkland students are, demographically speaking, a better representation of the political and commercial future of guns, because they are a better representation of the demographic future of the United States. Not only has the NRA’s rhetoric failed to scare them into begging for armed teachers, they’re defiantly rejecting calls to “harden schools,” and they’re focusing their protest on inhibiting easy access to the weapons of choice for mass killers. The NRA doesn’t seem to note the irony that young survivors of a terrible mass shooting are impervious to their brand of fear, or perhaps they do, and that’s why they’re getting more extreme.
At a time when the NRA ought to be thinking very seriously about its generational succession plan, it is entrenching itself deeper among the old guard. Research shows that young people were increasingly ambivalent about guns before Parkland, but the NRA’s response seems to be pushing them toward revulsion. As for their attitudes about the NRA, a Quinnipiac poll in June 2016 found that only 19 percent of Americans aged 18–29 had a favorable opinion of the organization, compared to 51 percent of people 65 and older. Young, anti-gun activists are dominating the national conversation about gun control, outflanking the NRA and national politicians in a new media landscape that is their native terrain. Instead of taking these kids seriously, the NRA’s proxies on social media and on cable and talk radio have mocked them, or worse, accused them of carrying out a “false flag” operation on behalf of Democrats. Conspiracy theorists have labeled them “crisis actors,” suggesting that they’re playing up their pain for political or personal profit. “The national press believes it is their job to destroy the Trump administration by any means necessary,” Bill O’Reilly said in a quip that was sure to please the people who write Dana Loesch’s scripts. “So if the media has to use kids to do that, they’ll use kids.”
In 2001, J. Warren Cassidy, Wayne LaPierre’s predecessor at the NRA, famously told Time, “You would get a far better understanding if you approached us as if you were approaching one of the great religions of the world.” The comparison obviously describes the members’ zealous obedience to the leadership, but it also has a financial connotation. Churches are tax exempt just like nonprofits, and in the church of the NRA, the gun is an idol, inviolate in the sanctuary of American myth. Its power to coax money from the pockets of the faithful is truly awesome. The rank and file donate generously to the NRA out of a sense of deep faith, and the industry goes along out of fear and financial self-interest; it is less like a partner than a well-fed hostage with Stockholm Syndrome.
On the same day that I went into the Carry Guard simulator, I had walked over to where the NRA had stationed some of its policy wonks to field questions from the SHOT show attendees. I spoke to Daniel Sheppard, a grassroots coordinator with the NRA’s ILA. I asked him about concealed carry reciprocity laws—which allow gun owners in states with lax concealed carry statutes to carry concealed weapons in states with more restrictive regulations—and a few other hot-button NRA issues. Then I asked him about the drop in gun sales under Trump.
Sheppard laughed. “That’s kinda the downside,” he said. “We feel a bit of a pinch, too. People don’t donate as much when they’re not afraid.”