When the NRA brought its annual meeting to Charlotte in 2010, I covered it for Politics Daily, but even if I hadn’t had the assignment, I might have stopped by. The convention center floor was certainly a spectacle, filled with displays of guns, ammunition, camouflage clothing and more. It would have made an entertaining afternoon out, especially with my husband – the serious gun owner in the family — who loves gadgets of every type.

I knew, though, that having to wade through the signs warning of an Obama gun grab would be a turn off for him. Excuse the weaponized puns, but he would have recoiled from the loaded rhetoric predicting ominous government conspiracies. I advised him that if he just wanted to see the “stuff,” he should stay away.

Compared to this year’s NRA meeting in Houston, the 2010 extravaganza seemed positively quaint in retrospect.

Some of the speakers and the performers – Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and Ted Nugent, to name just three — were the same. But after the mass shootings in Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo., and the Senate’s failure last month to pass gun-control legislation, their words have grown hotter and the division between the NRA and everyone else has grown wider. I’m sure that in Houston, there were still plenty of lectures on gun safety, especially related to children. Reports also showed the dire warnings ramped up a notch.

In 2010, Palin painted NRA members as misunderstood victims, saying, “Those left-wing groups are supposed to be so tolerant of everybody’s lifestyle, but they’re intolerant of our lifestyle.” At this year’s meeting, she accused Washington leaders of exploiting the tragedy of Sandy Hook Elementary to limit freedom. When I look at the grieving parents making the rounds to stir support for gun control measures, I see people whose activism is one of the few things getting them out of bed each morning. They aren’t anyone’s puppets.

Beck in 2010 attacked the Obama administration, telling the crowd, “These are not Democrats … they are revolutionary Marxists.” In 2012, to laughter and applause, Beck excoriated New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I), a strident gun-control advocate. While even my New York friends have grown weary of Bloomberg, and joke that he will bend the rules to run for a fourth term, no one found the humor in Beck’s image of Bloomberg in what appears to be — though a Beck source says the inspiration was Lenin — a Nazi-style salute.

Some gun-control advocates may favor a gun ban for civilians, but their numbers are few and their ideas have zero chance of success. They hardly speak for the majority of Americans, or the gun owners who respect both the Second Amendment and the idea of background checks. The two senators who sponsored the Senate bill — Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) – have been backed by the NRA, as had the idea of expanded background checks, following the shootings at Columbine High School. NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre has since said the checks don’t work and he has changed his view.

I bought my gun when I lived in Arizona, worked late and had a long and lonely drive home into the foothills of the Tucson Mountains. It was pretty easy to purchase and carry a firearm in that Western state, where anyone can witness regularly scheduled shootouts in Tombstone or Old Tucson– using blanks of course.

I find the issue is less political than geographic, wide open spaces vs. urban closeness where a gun may not seem the most harmonious accessory. In Arizona, most people I knew owned a gun; in New York City, that percentage was reversed. Now, in North Carolina, I’m not sure, and being “southern” polite, I don’t ask, though the comments flying both ways across social media after the defeat of proposed Senate bill were anything but cordial. The state’s Democratic senator, Kay Hagan, a co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, has been polling better since her vote in favor of expanded background checks.

When I say I feel safer having a gun around, it’s a statement, not a line in the sand. My husband enjoys trap shooting for relaxation. We don’t think federal officials will come knocking at our door to take them and can’t imagine taking up arms against an overreaching U.S. government, a theory that has gained on the notion of guns for protection, sport or hunting.

In 2010, Beck said, “This country will never fail by an outside force. … This country will only be destroyed if we destroy ourselves.” The NRA’s new president, Alabama attorney James Porter, this year warned the group’s grassroots organizers of a “culture war” that goes beyond gun rights, according to an Associated Press story. Porter has called President Obama a “fake president,” Attorney General Eric Holder “rabidly un-American” and the U.S. Civil War the “War of Northern Aggression.” As he renewed his call against tyranny, he called the NRA members in the room “fighters for freedom.”

With increasing mistrust of our neighbors and leaders, will it soon be impossible to separate friend from foe? Who stands on the other side of this culture war, and will they, too, be armed?


Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3