At the 145th National Rifle Association annual convention you could see and purchase replica flintlock muskets like Daniel Boone’s, “wardrobe” handguns the size of a cell phone, a carriage-mounted 1883 Gatling gun, historic firearms from the Renaissance down through the latest surge, bullet-splat jewelry, deep-concealment holsters, triple-barrel shotguns, and camo everything—coolers, flasks, four-wheelers, deer blinds, lingerie, infant-wear. There was a motorcycle with a .50-caliber machine gun mounted on the handlebar (sorry, not for sale), all manner of scopes, optics, and laser-sighting technologies (how do the animals stand a chance?), “shelf-stable” food products, bulk ammo, precision ammo, make-your-own-ammo ammo, historical exhibits, mom-and-pop purveyors of cleaning fluids and swabs, and corporate icons with slick, multilevel sales areas worthy of luxury car showrooms. And the flag, everywhere, all the time, the stars and stripes popping from pistol grips, knives, banners, T-shirts, shawls, bandannas, sunglasses, product brochures, and shopping bags. America, America, sweet land that we love. A photo spread for a well-known gun manufacturer featured a whiskery, camo-clad, Viagra-aged Caucasian male standing in ankle-deep marsh with a dog by his side, shotgun slung to his back, and a large U.S. flag in one hand, the pole planted in the muck, as if staking a claim.
A country, a product, a lifestyle. That word shows up a lot in firearms ad copy, as in, “We find peace in the solitude of this lifestyle, and we thrive on all the great outdoors has to offer.” But on this rainy opening day of the NRA convention all the action was indoors, “Eleven Acres of Guns & Gear” promised the banner draped outside the Kentucky Exposition Center, a stunningly nondescript complex of enormous beige boxes that inhaled thousands of humans without so much as a belch. How big is 11 acres? Felt like 100, which isn’t to say that this conventioneer was the least bit bored.
Mingling with a crowd striking for its nearly uniform whiteness, I did lapse into a kind of fugue state from time to time, a retail trance brought on by sheer sensory overload, but with all this American ingenuity and weirdness on display, actual boredom was out of the question. Old people and those less old but morbidly obese trundled about on motorized scooters, their baskets overflowing with corporate swag. The crowd buzz was punctuated by promotional videos, impromptu live briefings on subjects such as “target acquisition” skills, and music, mostly country or guitar-skronk, though I did pass a booth where “Lido Shuffle” was playing.
A guy dressed like Zorro was wandering around, and another guy done up as a frontier sheriff, with a badge on his vest and six-shooters on his hips. Eddie Eagle was here, the NRA’s kid-outreach and gun-safety mascot, a flightless bipedal cousin of Big Bird. Glossy signage pushed a steady visual diet of Americana—cowboys and pioneers, war heroes, the family, Founding Fathers, rugged outdoors individualism, our freedoms and the defense of same, all embodied by photogenic white people, not a brown or black face to be seen. Celebrities signed posters and flacked merchandise, among them stars of cable-TV hunting shows, NASCAR drivers, pro wrestlers, decorated veterans. More flags. History. Freedoms. America and her guns, cultural icons embedded in the brain like saints in the stained-glass windows of a church, Colt, Remington, Winchester, Smith & Wesson, all curated at the Kentucky Exposition Center with the solemnity of high holy relics.
What gun culture lacks in wit—for grown-up delinquent fun and sly-dog subversion you can’t beat a custom-car rally—it more than makes up for in design genius, precision tooling, and a long and honorable tradition of craftsmanship. But something’s happened in the past several decades, a kind of hyper-consumerist fetishizing where categories divide, then subdivide into ever narrower specialties that have little to do with utility. How many variations on the AR-15 “platform”—the civilian version of the military’s M16 assault rifle—can there be? Many. More than many. To infinity and beyond. The AR-15 was used in the San Bernardino and Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shootings, and was featured in a January 20, 2016, post on the NRA’s website titled “Why the AR-15 Is America’s Most Popular Rifle.” “The AR-15s [sic] ability to be modified to your own personal taste is one of the things that makes it so unique,” reads the post, and indeed, walking the floor of the exhibition hall I ended up cross-eyed at all the polymers, alloys, finishes, calibers, stock and barrel configurations, buffer systems, trigger systems, muzzle brakes, and so on, to, truly, infinity and beyond.
I had entered the realms of style; that is to say, the dark swamps of consumer psychology where desire, identity, and aspiration are always bubbling in a subterranean psychic stew. What kind of AR man do you want to be? Or woman, for that matter—take yours in solid pink or “Muddy Girl” camo? There’s agency in a purchase. Most of our buying these days has less to do with need than with serving fantasies and tamping down fears. Clothes do it for us. Vehicles too, profoundly; in my neighborhood in Dallas you can see plenty of gleaming pickup trucks “hauling air,” as the saying goes, driven by men with soft hands and closets full of business suits. But in our terrorized, polarized, ferociously tribalized times it’s hard to think of a more charged consumer item, one as psychologically fraught, as a gun.
For relatively not much money we can buy ourselves a piece of rugged individualism and triumphant history (“For nostalgic hunting or cowboy type shooting the 1886 Classic Carbine or Standard Rifle are perfect”) and raise a big middle finger to ISIS, the feds, the liberals, feminists, whoever we think is messing with us. A gun keeps us in character, the American character, as helpfully illustrated by all those fancy marketing visuals, which might as well be movie stills from the reel of greatest hits playing in every American’s mind. With a century’s worth of Hollywood puffing your product, not to mention the explicit blessing of the U.S. Constitution, gun marketing has to be one of the pig-laziest gigs around. What other consumer item is sanctioned by the Bill of Rights? And by God if the NRA has anything to do about it this market shall not be infringed upon in any shape, form, or fashion, even if a reading of the Second Amendment happens to turn up the words well regulated. Maybe that inconvenient phrase explains why the NRA’s extensive website neglects to include the actual text of the Second Amendment.
At the Exposition Center I kept seeing the word tactical—tactical gear, tactical clothes, tactical categories of guns. What did it mean? “Tactical” as opposed to, uh, strategic? Then I watched a fantastically violent, Tarantino-style promotional video of a “tactical” semiautomatic shotgun in action. A guy in a ghillie suit—he looked like a half-grown Chewbacca—blasted his way through a series of targets that included watermelons, glass globes filled with red liquid, and fully clothed anthropomorphic mannequins, bam bam bam, stuff exploding faster than you can snap your fingers. That’s when I got it, or at least I think I did. This wasn’t a hunting firearm. Not for game, no. Tactical denotes human. The intraspecies encounter.
I’d come to Louisville for guns, but around town I began seeing banners for something called the Festival of Faiths, this year’s edition billed as “Pathways to Nonviolence.” Synchronicity + Serendipity = Karma, or at least a trail that seemed worth following. Friends of friends led to cocktails with some amiable Louisvillians, which led to dinner, which led to a Festival concert presided over by Teddy Abrams, the 20-something wunderkind conductor of the Louisville Orchestra, which ended with all of the evening’s performers—Abrams, a Pakistani rock group, a 13-piece salsa band, an angelic South African vocalist, and Ricky Skaggs and his bluegrass band—jamming like a musical UN while dozens of people who evidently don’t dance very much (I was one) happily danced below the stage.
America is various. It refuses to be all one thing or all the other. The next day I was back at the Festival of Faiths to hear a panel discussion, “Face to Face with Islamophobia,” moderated by Tori Murden McClure, MDiv (Harvard), president of Spalding University, author, and the first woman to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean (America is various!). She began with a series of thoughtful, measured remarks about Islam, the global war on terror, and the abiding power of the military-industrial complex in the life of the country. She discussed “terrorism in context,” and offered numerical markers such as these:
US deaths from terrorism, 2001–2015 (all numbers estimated high end and rounded up): 9/11: 3,000
Military personnel KIA, Afghanistan and Iraq: 7,000
Military contractors KIA, Afghanistan and Iraq: 7,200
Military personnel, postwar trauma (pegged to KIA in the absence of reliable figures): 7,000
Civilians, domestic terrorism: 87
Civilians, overseas terrorism: 350
US deaths in non-terror incidents involving firearms, 2001–2015: 404,496
Estimated civilian deaths from GWOT in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, 2001–2015 (from neutral sources, low-end estimate): 1,170,000
The numbers added up to something quite different from the dominant narrative of the past 15 years about whom and what we should fear and loathe. Another Islamophobia speaker, Dr. Ingrid Mattson, former president of the Islamic Society of North America, talked about the “great closing of the American mind” since 9/11 and its emotional corollary, as performed by people in airports flipping out at the sight of her head scarf. What’s the deal with all these Americans scared out of their wits? Dr. Mattson had a clue: “Follow the money.” Track it through to the books, the think tanks, the TV pundits. Fearmongering can be a great career move for a politician or talking head. It’s exciting. It draws attention. It moves product and boosts sales. There’s big profit to be made in plowing the fertile ground of American fear.
“This country depends on war as a primary industry,” Hunter Thompson said in a 2003 interview, but he might have just as easily said “fear” as “war.” Later in the same interview he commented:
This country has been having a nationwide nervous breakdown since 9/11. A nation of people suddenly broke, the market economy goes to shit, and they’re threatened on every side by an unknown, sinister enemy. But I don’t think fear is a very effective way of dealing with things—of responding to reality. Fear is just another word for ignorance.
So it was that fear and loathing, war and terror, ignorance, body counts, and money-money-money were all banging around in my head when I walked into the Kentucky Exposition Center and confronted those 11 acres of guns. I had found the money, lip-smacking gobs of it, but so what? This is America and this is what Americans do, we sell stuff and make dough, but something in me resisted this soothing reduction to ordinary mercantilism, to the ho-hum everyday. I wandered around arguing with myself in this vein for a while, then decided that what was confusing me was the marketing, for lack of a better, less anodyne word. The casual mashup of stone-cold lethality and sleek retail culture, a Mall of Death sort of upbeat perkiness, with thick dollops of belligerence and bravado. “[O]ur high-performance Brass Jacket Hollow Point rounds deliver massive expansion and deep penetration for ultimate stopping power.” “Shoulder Bones Are Mere Speed Bumps.” “[O]ptimal penetration and expansion through even heavy clothing.” “One-shot confidence.” “Cutting petals.” “Deadly downrange stopping power.” “[E]xpands rapidly to 2X the diameter to carve massive wound channels.”
Should the fact that living bodies are the ultimate subject here give us pause? Yet this kind of verbiage makes perfect sense, once we accept the basic premise. Guns are tools for inflicting deadly force—what’s the point of the damn thing if it shoots marshmallows? It’s easy to envision a scenario where you would want a firearm; where you would feel very much a fool for not having one. The world is indeed a dangerous place. Lots of disturbed people out there, damaged people, fanatics, shitbirds, and scumbags with all the conscience of a starved rat. But here’s the rub: we’re much more likely to shoot our families, our lovers, ourselves than we are that marauding stranger. The numbers bear this out: you bring a gun into your house, the chances of you or a family member being killed by a gun are far greater than the chance you’ll use it for self-defense.
Which could be viewed as statistical proof—as if it were needed—that human beings are flawed. We’re creatures of passion, impulse, mood, and pitifully fragile ego, with barely the patience to drive a mile in our cars without wanting to kill someone. Four hundred four thousand four hundred ninety-six dead in fourteen years, not by war, not by terrorism or at the hands of foreign enemies, but among ourselves. Four hundred four thousand four hundred ninety-six dead, approximately the equivalent of twenty to twenty-five army divisions, or the population of Cleveland, Ohio. Shall we consider this normal. Shall we consider it normal that women’s mortality rises dramatically when guns are around. Or that suicide risk goes up by a factor of something like three to five when a gun is kept in the house. Or that drivers with guns in their cars are more likely to drive aggressively and more prone to road rage. I thought about all this as I sat in Freedom Hall listening to Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s longtime CEO, deliver a phrase so familiar to the membership that they recited it with him: The surest way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.
Good guys versus bad guys, just like the movies. Sometimes it really is as pure as that, pure as white hats and black hats, Clint Eastwood or John Wayne running the dirtbags out of town. But then there’s all the mess and confusion of the rest of life, with our soft and tender egos in the middle of it. Human nature being what it is, most of us contain sufficient good and bad in ourselves that we can recall a crisis in our lives and be grateful that there wasn’t a gun nearby. Or remember to our everlasting regret that there was. Just as I can imagine scenarios where I’d feel foolish and reckless for not having a gun, I can conceive of just as many where I’d be the world’s biggest fool for having one.
But in NRA Land the lines are always bright and clear: us against them, good versus bad, American versus villain. “We, in this room, we ARE America,” insisted Wayne, whose gulpy, cat-coughing-up-a-hairball delivery belied the clench of a man in drastic need of breathing lessons. A listener hoping for nuance or even coherence would be disappointed with his speech, which hacked out a steady drumbeat of fear and alarm. He warned of those “other rooms” where “political and media elites at the highest levels” are conspiring to destroy the Second Amendment, and with it “our core values, our freedom.” “A Clinton White House would be a cesspool for NBC, ABC, and CBS elitists to plan programming and orchestrate interviews to bombard the airwaves against our freedom.” Elitists are “shredding the very fabric of our country,” “seizing and destroying all the freedoms and values we care about most,” and planning to “put the full weight of a weaponized IRS, ATF, EPA, Interior Department, and every other federal agency behind attacks against groups and people they don’t like . . .” If Hillary wins, “it’s game over for everyone in this room, and everything that we all care about.”
It seems safe to say that the paranoid style in American politics is alive and well. All of the classic elements that Hofstadter described in his 1964 essay were on full and florid display at Louisville’s Freedom Hall: conspiracy, persecution, apocalypticism, the characterization of political difference not as a matter of good-faith give-and-take, but a final showdown between absolute good and absolute evil. “We will save freedom!” Wayne shouted in closing. “And America truly will be America again!” He ceded the podium to Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, who, after slamming Hillary for “defending violent felons and crack dealers against law-abiding citizens”—clearly a man born to dog-whistle, is young Chris Cox—announced the NRA’s official endorsement of Donald Trump for president, and Trump himself sauntered onto the stage to thunderous cheers.
In that long-ago essay, Hofstadter took pains to point out that the U.S. has never had a monopoly on the paranoid style. As proof, he cited the one instance in modern history of the paranoid style’s “consummatory triumph,” a distinction that belongs to Germany in the era of the Third Reich. “Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders,” Hermann Goering, the number two man in the Reich, once observed. “That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.”
From Beautiful Country Burn Again. Used with permission of Ecco. Copyright © 2018 by Ben Fountain.