A Gun-Dumb Brit's Journey Into American Gun Culture

To conquer his fear of guns, a British immigrant takes a road trip to gun lovers' mecca: the NRA Convention

The AR-15 is lighter than I expected.

It's an intimidating chunk of rough-hewn black metal and rubber, but it sits softly in my hands. I bring it to my shoulder and, making sure I'm not pointing it at anyone, peer down its sights. I'm not sure what to do, so I start to copy the man next to me, a big, bearded guy with his baseball cap turned backward. He's turning the rifle around, upside-down and side to side, admiring what I assume is some facet of the workmanship.

I perform a similar inspection, but I have no idea what I'm looking at. It's definitely a gun. It appears to mean business. There's a place where the magazine goes; I recognize that much from the movies. I can see where the bullets come out. After that, I'm lost.

Ted Nugent
Ted Nugent
Glenn Beck
Glenn Beck

People swarm around Backward Hat and me as we perform this ritual inspection, thousands of people on their way from one gun to another, families on day trips, herds of young men in combat shorts that bulge under the weight of concealed carries and gun-company promo materials.

"It's not so bad, is it? How does it feel?" Fred, my gun Sherpa, has a glint in his eye. He thought we should get the big one out the way, so we're standing at the Bushmaster display, in the middle of the NRA Annual Conference in Houston.

"The one that the liberals hate," Fred says, barely concealing his contempt. He's draped in a freshly pressed suit, face clean-shaven and hair freshly cut. He might work for something called, as his press pass announces, but Fred wouldn't look out of place slickly anchoring a nightly newscast. "They've got a real hard-on for this gun. It's just a gun."

"I kind of like how it feels in my hand," I tell him, lying. The gun's entirely deactivated. It can't even be switched to "fire" from the safe position. A thin yellow cable prevents anyone from holding the trigger down, and there's a gaping hole where the magazine should be. But despite all these clearly necessary precautions for displaying a semiautomatic rifle in a place containing tens of thousands of people, my palms are slick with anxiety. I need to leave. Now.

"Put it up to your shoulder when you look down the sights," Fred says, grinning. "Take your finger off the trigger. That just shows people you've never held a gun before."

The far end of the rifle does fit snugly on my shoulder, but I still can't get comfortable. The model of gun that was used in the Sandy Hook killings and divided my new country is perched on my shoulder, and I can't keep my finger off the trigger.

*     *     *

It doesn't seem that long since I moved from Cardiff, Wales, to suburban Dallas, but it has been two years now—two years of bemusement at tank-sized pickups, non-ironic cowboy hats and differences in language, part of my never-ending quest to clumsily discover every British word that doesn't apply here. And, of course, there's the difference in gun culture.

Before that AR-15, the first gun I held was an American friend's handgun, which I quickly handed back, half-paralyzed by some vague but very real fear. Before that—before I moved here for my wife's job—the closest I'd come to seeing a real gun was those arcade shooters, with their plastic cartoonish guns and their imaginary lasers.

As you may have read on your most liberal friend's Facebook page, there are basically no guns in the United Kingdom and basically no gun violence. In 1996, after a school shooting, the U.K. moved to ban or monitor every gun in the country. You can get hunting rifles on a five-year renewable license, but it will require references. There's a central database of gun owners. The whole place is basically one long Glenn Beck nightmare, right down to our strangely logical name for "soccer."

Given this backdrop, I was drawn to Houston by the chance to shed some light on Americans' fondness for guns—more than one-third of households have one, although that number is falling—and to talk British to some serious Americans. Plus, as much as guns scare me, I was fairly certain I wouldn't get shot. "Journalist shot by NRA member" would be tough to spin, even for the guys who spin school shootings.

I arrive at the George R. Brown Convention Center on a Friday afternoon, the air and the mood outside heavy. The center is an industrial-looking monstrosity, outfitted, temporarily I assume, with 30-foot NRA badges, as if the building itself has been deputized. The closer I get, the more slogan-blaring T-shirts invade my sight lines, some funny ("Reduce noise pollution! Use a silencer!"), some gross (see previous parentheses). Protesters dot the sidewalk. Some are pro-gun folks wielding placards depicting President Barack Obama with a crudely stenciled Adolf Hitler mustache. The others are anti-gun, largely in pastels for some reason, muttering things incomprehensible toward an uncaring convention center.

I move inside and am hit immediately by a flash of bright yellow bursting from a huddle of noise and movement, heralding something called the Wall of Guns. It's not a wall. Several gigantic wooden cabinets are filled with everything from camouflage shotguns to revolvers to assault rifles I recognize from Goldeneye (the Nintendo 64 classic, not the film).

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