Straight Shootin': The firepower at the NRA convention is incredible, just like the rhetoric

Straight Shootin': The firepower at the NRA convention is incredible, just like the rhetoric
Jennifer Silverberg

For a bunch of so-called "gun nuts," the 70,000-plus who start to swarm downtown on Friday for the 2012 National Rifle Association's Annual Meeting and Exhibits sure seem like nice folks — and not that lethal.

Before the exhibit hall in the America's Center opens at 9 a.m., they sip coffee, tease each other, adjust fanny packs, hold visitor maps open as if steering semi trucks.

These NRA devotees are predominantly white, male and over the age of 40. Grandmothers are present in force, too, and a handful of little tykes sit in strollers. The most conspicuous females are the twentysomethings in single-strap sequin dresses, whose attempts to sell raffle tickets in high heels and makeup at 7:30 in the morning seem particularly courageous. (The raffle promised the winner a Nighthawk Custom pistol with "We the People" engraved on the barrel.) There are indeed dozens of African Americans at the conference, all but a few working as cooks, custodians and security.

Megan Gilliland

No one, however, comes "packing heat" inside the convention center. The NRA has serious political juice, but its gun-friendly empire has not extended everywhere: St. Louis bans concealed-carry inside the city's public buildings.

You can't be too sure, of course. One of the 517 listed vendors in the seven-acre showroom is about to start demonstrating how his product — a pair of pleated khakis with a tear-away sheath — is designed to hide handguns. So it's possible that some of those bulging crotches we spy are lethal weapons.

NRA members gather this way every year. Some come for the celebrities (such as rock & roll Second Amendment warrior Ted Nugent, or conservative pundit Glenn Beck). Some come for the spectacle (this year, country crooner Trace Adkins and funnyman Larry the Cable Guy performed). But most come to gape at all the guns, ammo and big-bangin' toys.

Exhibitors include major brands like SIG Sauer, Remington, Benelli and Smith & Wesson. But others are jewelers who weave bracelets out of fake elephant hair, a company that makes "splattering targets" designed to look like zombies, and Missouri's own CMMG Inc. — a weapons manufacturer from Fayette that also sells its own brand of bacon in a can.

One step through the exhibit hall's south entrance and you can feel the bzzzt of the Tasers from 30 yards off. Weaving through the hordes, past the flickering flat-screens and the artisan engraving a shotgun, you at last reach the source of the sound: the Personal Security Products booth.

A blond pregnant lady is bzzzt-ing the company's "Blast Knuckles" (electrified brass knuckles), which her colleague explains are "designed for control, so they won't get knocked out of your hand in a scuffle." One is left to imagine what kind of scuffle that might be. This booth is also hawking hats with Arabic script and the English word "Infidel."

Yep, the 2012 NRA exhibit hall isn't just a gun show. The Cobra Firearms booth is selling earrings made from bullet casings. The Buffalo Wool Co. is selling hats and mittens of bison fur, which is collected from street-sweeper brushes that ranchers mount on their property. (Bison love to rub against it.)

At least a dozen booths are selling guided hunts that collectively offer the chance to bag pheasant, turkey, bear, buffalo, prairie dog, antelope, sheep, goat, moose, cougar, caribou, chamois, tahr, boar, wildebeest, zebra, lion, mountain lion, wolf, wolverine and fish of various stripes.

Wild Rivers Whitetails, a hunting ranch and breeder in Wisconsin, is displaying the highest-scoring set of deer antlers known on the planet, at 561 inches and 88 points. The rack has come from a three-year-old breeding buck. Staff had to tranquilize him to get this set of antlers and collect semen to further his line. The buck is still alive on the property. They've nicknamed him "Ballistic."

Cold Steel Inc. has a booth touting tomahawks, Bowie knives and battle-axes. You may recognize the pudgy, moustachioed founder, Lynn C. Thompson, who's famous on YouTube for using swords to hack through meat slabs, medieval armor, sometimes carpet.

He's spending a lot of the weekend fencing with a colleague in a pen next to Cold Steel's booth. During a break Thompson is asked whether he fears getting hurt. Having caught his breath, he says no.

"I'm a 'master-at-arms,'" he says, clarifying: "It's not an academic degree."

But it turns out Thompson had indeed suffered a wound: His sparring partner's aluminum training sword pierced his glove and cut his hand. Nothing a Band-Aid and some Neosporin can't cure, he boasts, referring to the ointment as his "miracle drug."

"I use rum as my drug," deadpans his colleague, still clad in fencing armor. "It works."

The big bummer about attending Friday's political-speech bonanza — dubbed the "Celebration of American Values Leadership Forum" — is that it requires skipping both the "Dog Obedience 101" and "Advanced Sausage Processing" seminars.

But the speeches are the cornerstone of the annual conference, and the Edward Jones Dome is dressed up for the occasion. Carpet covers the field, and folding chairs face a giant stage and video screen. People shuffling into the space assume the hushed tones of those entering a cathedral. In case you missed the point that "pro-NRA" means "patriotic," the words "Celebration of American Values" carousel around the stadium on a digital screen.

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