At NRA museum, a mix of sadness and defiance


A Sign in the lobby of at the NRA Museum in Fairfax, Va. (Larry Morris/THE WASHINGTON POST)
December 19, 2012

The child’s room is filled with guns. Four rifles hang in a rack on the left wall, including one with a telescopic sight. Four more youth model weapons, along with an old issue of Combat magazine, lie on the Roy Rogers bedspread. Over the bed hangs a Davy Crockett coonskin cap, whose tail dangles next to a gun mounted on the blue walls.

Here at the National Rifle Association’s museum in Northern Virginia — in the “For the Fun of It” gallery — one exhibit is called “A Child’s Room.” And here, visitors can peer into a place uncomplicated by the massacre of first-graders: an imaginary boy’s gun-adorned bedroom, circa 1952.

To understand the NRA’s world view, anyone can drive about 20 miles west of the District to the NRA’s headquarters in Fairfax County and step into the organization’s National Firearms Museum. (The building is not completely defenseless: You need to get buzzed in at the entrance.)

Since last week’s elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., which killed 20 students and six adults, the indomitable lobbying behemoth has been mostly silent. It temporarily shut down its Facebook page, issued a short statement expressing shock about the mass killing, and planned a news conference for Friday.

An NRA spokesperson did not return a phone call seeking comment for this story, but the organization has long championed the rights of hunters, gun owners and collectors. A Washington Post analysis in 2010 showed that the group, with 4 million dues-paying members, had spent $74 million on campaign contributions over the previous 20 years and tens of millions more on voter education. The NRA also teaches people across the country, including children, how to shoot and handle guns safely.


A look at gun homicides and gun ownership by country

Its museum, the Web site says, “is home to the finest firearms collection in the world. Through 15 galleries spanning more than six centuries, this spectacular showcase offers the unique opportunity to view some of America’s most significant firearm treasures.”

Once visitors swing open the glass doors, they can wander past hundreds of guns in sealed display cases. Big signs above the cases read: “American Classics,” “Italian Masters” and “Handguns of Note.”

The museum traces the history of guns from America’s colonial days to the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s. Some of the guns on display — semiautomatics and Sig Sauer pistols — are similar to those carried by Adam Lanza in the Connecticut shooting.

But most others are antiques from previous wars or rare collector’s items with names such as “takedown rifle,” or the gold-plated Colt Combat Commander pistol.

Only one exhibit highlights the criminal side of guns: “Wanted” posters for Osama Bin Laden, organized crime figure James “Whitey” Bulger and several other bad guys.

Absent, of course, is any mention of mass shootings or school rampages. (The museum’s shrine to gun-centric Hollywood films includes a poster from the second “Dark Knight” Batman movie, an inadvertent reminder of this summer’s shooting at a Colorado theater, where people were killed during a screening of the third in the trilogy, “The Dark Knight Rises.”)

On Tuesday afternoon, a handful of people made their way to the museum, located off Interstate 66. NRA members and gun enthusiasts with their kids in tow expressed sadness and horror at Friday’s shootings.

But they also hoped the NRA would not cave to any Obama administration attempt to pass new gun control measures. The real problem, they said, lies not with the proliferation of guns, but with ensuring that mentally ill people do not acquire them.

“The NRA better stand firm. They better stand firm,” said Hal McGinnis, 46, a Houston engineer and Army veteran in town on business. “Any time people talk about banning any type of gun, it’s a very slippery slope. What happens when they ban all AR-15s? Then someone does a shooting with a pump shotgun. Do we then ban pump shotguns? Then we can’t have deer hunting.”

McGinnis, an NRA member for at least two decades, said he’s against more weapons bans but supports more background checks. “I as a gun owner don’t want someone who’s not supposed to have guns to have them. It makes us all look bad,” he said, as he walked toward the display case featuring several modern military-style weapons.

After last week’s shootings, McGinnis braced himself for plenty of media vitriol against gun owners. “The first thing that crossed my mind was, ‘Here we go again,” he recalled. “So now I’m going to be punished because someone else did something wrong.’ ”

But the killings did prompt him to have a school safety talk with his daughter. “I just said to her, ‘Listen, if someone walks into your classroom with a gun, attack them. Don’t die in a corner. Because I can guarantee you that hiding under a desk won’t work.’ ”

Once he finished his museum tour, McGinnis headed out past the gift shop, toward the NRA campus’s basement. He wanted to tour the NRA’s gun range.

Jimmy Ha, 28, a Falls Church Web designer, stopped by the NRA museum Tuesday because he wanted to join the organization. He mainly signed up to get a discount at the gun range. He believes in gun rights, but he worries about the NRA’s rhetoric.

“I’m not always a fan because they’re kind of divisive,” Ha said.

Back in the NRA museum, John Montgomery, a Fairfax City defense contractor, toured the galleries with his three children — two sons, ages 8 and 17, and a 13-year-old daughter. Everyone snapped photos of the guns, often posing in front of them.

“How about a picture of Timothy in front of the Gatling guns?” Montgomery said, as his 8-year-old lit up.

Standing near an exhibit on World War II weapons, Montgomery said the Connecticut shootings weren’t about the guns, but about mental illness.

A longtime NRA member, he expects that gun rights advocates might have to give some ground this time. “I’m not a high-capacity magazine guy,” he said. “They’re not even useful.”

Still, he believes in guns. He’s taught his two older kids how to shoot. And he’s taught his kids what to do in case of a school shooting.

“I’ve told them, ever since the Columbine shootings, just to flee. Flee,” he said.

Earlier this week, he said, when he walked Timothy to school, he gave him another piece of advice in case of a shooting. “I told him,” Montgomery said, “to make sure the teacher locks the door.”

Ian Shapira is a features writer on the local enterprise team and enjoys writing about people who have served in the military and intelligence communities. He joined the Post in 2000 and has covered education, criminal justice, technology, and art crime.
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