The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Inside the NRA’s annual meeting: Guns, ammunition, family and politics

Members of the National Rifle Association gather in Dallas with a shared camaraderie for gun rights. (Video: Lee Powell, Whitney Shefte/The Washington Post, Photo: Associated Press/The Washington Post)

DALLAS — Joe and Connie Henderson packed up their car in Arizona earlier this past week and drove nearly 1,000 miles across desert and high plains to the National Rifle Association’s 147th annual meeting here. The couple came to their first meeting for two reasons: both to check out the latest firearms and to stand up for an organization they believe is under attack.

“We really wanted to be able to see this someday,” Joe Henderson said, gesturing to a massive convention center filled with guns and ammunition. “We really wanted to come because of all the negative press.”

The annual NRA convention is a huge trade show, where firearms enthusiasts ogle the newest products: holsters, scopes, rifles, cowboy boots, commemorative coins. It is a massive marketing opportunity for the NRA, with mammoth photos of its leaders hanging throughout the convention center, offers of discount membership, T-shirts and other swag for sale and booths set up to promote perks such as its wine club.

There are seminars on firearm safety and Second Amendment law. And there is a major political element to the event, with the president and vice president this year asserting their support for an organization that since a February school shooting that left 17 dead in Parkland, Fla., has been directly challenged by students, activists, corporate America and politicians.

About 80,000 people are expected to attend the meeting, which runs through the weekend. Some said they were here just to see guns and wanted nothing to do with politics. Others said they believe the minimum age to buy high-powered firearms such as the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle should be raised to 21, a proposal the NRA has rejected.

The allure of the AR-15: ‘I know I don’t need it,’ says one recent buyer, but that’s not the point

Many said they wanted to come this year to show solidarity with the organization and affirm their right to bear arms, which many believe is threatened. They also want to loudly reject what they say is the assertion that anyone linked to the NRA is complicit in mass shootings.

“It just makes me angry when people try to demonize gun owners and NRA members,” said Scott Glenn, a retired law enforcement officer from Salida, Colo. “They try to look at all of us like baby killers and we’re not.”

Glenn and his wife, Lynn, have been NRA members for 18 years. Lynn Glenn is just getting into firearms and purchased a brown purse with a pocket for a concealed weapon. She roamed the floor to see what type of gun she might like to purchase and thinks she probably will get a .38 pistol. The couple sat at a table near a rack of .22 rifles in candy colors: red, purple and yellow.

Scott Glenn is disabled, and he wants Lynn to learn how to shoot should the couple have to defend themselves. He thinks what many here said: Before additional gun-control laws are added, the ones on the books must first be enforced. His Second Amendment right, he said, is not up for debate or interpretation.

“The Constitution says ‘shall not be infringed,’ ” he said. “What part of that don’t they understand?”

In the main hallway of the convention center, attendees looked at the “Wall of Guns,” a case with firearms that were being raffled off. Red sirens flashed atop the case.

“We’re giving away firearms! You could be our next winner!” a man said into a microphone. Tickets started at $20 and went up to $2,000. Orange cards from the Friends of NRA volunteer workshop sat on the case. “Join our team!” they read, with five questions that included, “Do you feel targeted as the bad guy?”

Nearby, children and adults sat at an air rifle range, shooting air rifles and pistols at targets. “Did you shoot that thing automatic?” a man asked a boy of about 5, who was putting safety goggles into a bucket.

For Brandon Theabold, firearms are a family affair. He and his wife have eight children between them, ages 8 to 21, all of whom are familiar with guns. He wore a T-shirt with letters constructed from guns, ammunition and the NRA logo that formed the word “coexist.”

“This is tradition. It’s my heritage,” said Theabold, who traveled from Queen Creek, Ariz. “This is something we can do as a family. . . . It teaches responsibility, teaches safety, it teaches so many things.”

For the Hendersons, attending was more of a political statement. The couple stood near a large-screen television, watching President Trump’s address to the convention on Friday. They applauded when he said that “Second Amendment rights are under siege” and called on members to vote Republican.

“We do need to stand up. We do need to vote more Republican. We do need to get rid of the people who want to get rid of our rights,” Connie Henderson said.

Art Manasse of McKinney, Tex., didn’t watch Trump’s speech.

At NRA event, Trump embraces its agenda in campaign-style speech

“I’m not really here for the political stuff,” he said. “I just wanted to see the show. It’s too much of a soap opera.”

The meeting was just a half-hour drive, so Manasse popped down to check out the latest products and bought a mug and two T-shirts. One read, “Don’t stomp on my flag or I’ll stomp on your a--.”

Manasse is a hunter, and he prefers to use a bow rather than a gun. He signed up for the NRA to stay informed about firearms, but he complained that the organization sends out too many fundraising solicitations, mail and emails.

“Way too much mail,” he said. “Save a tree.”

Dennis Stewart, of Dalton, Tex., spent 23 years in the Army. His opinions deviate from the NRA on a few issues. The organization stopped short of endorsing a ban on bump stocks, devices used by a gunman who killed 58 people at a Las Vegas country music festival in October to make his firearms behave more like automatic weapons. Stewart thinks bump stocks should be illegal, that civilian background checks should be as robust as those in the military and that the age to own rifles such as the AR-15 should be raised to 21, with exceptions for people in the military or law enforcement.

“The drinking age is 21,” he said. “There’s no point in buying an AR at 18.”

Across the hall stood a huge set for NRA TV, the organization’s media outlet, which broadcasts 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and has become a staunch and open defender of the Second Amendment — against all perceived enemies.

“I think they’re spot on and refuse to give up our rights,” Glenn said.

Michele Rivera thinks NRA TV can be “a little aggressive” but that they are speaking to like-minded people.

“To your average Joe, they’re going to look at that and say, ‘That’s crazy,’ because they don’t have the same mentality,” Rivera said. “This is how we feel.”

Rivera and others said they are horrified by the recent spate of mass shootings. She believes that schools should be better protected with security measures such as armed guards.

She was excited to come to the convention so she could meet up with people who have the same beliefs as she does; she said she feels as though there are not many where she lives in New Jersey. She gets very angry when people try to blame the NRA or its members for shootings. Many people, she said, just don’t know gun owners.

“They just see us as crazy gun people, and we are the farthest thing from that,” she said.