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

People swirl around the cases, their faces alive with desire. I manage to piece together from the booming P.A. that there's a raffle happening. Tickets cost $20; when 100 are sold, the owner of the winning ticket gets to pick a weapon from the Not-a-Wall of Guns.

"You just hand them out to the winners?" I ask the man selling tickets. "There's no checking?" Checking for what, I'm not sure; it just seems like there should be checking involved.

His eyes go wide. "Oh, no, no, of course we don't."

Ted Nugent
Ted Nugent
Glenn Beck
Glenn Beck

He describes the process, which basically involves the gun of your choice being sent to your local gun retailer for you to pick up. I imagine what this process would look like back home, should some budding entrepreneur decide to register GunLottery.co.uk. Even the right-wing press would denounce him as dangerous. He'd be living on the streets within days.

"So you're selling these guns for $2,000, essentially," I tell the ticket man, and he laughs. This place is a real money spinner. There's a wheel of fortune, the winner of which takes home a really big knife. And the raffle lasts all weekend. They've already given away 50 or 60 guns, he says.

"How many do you think you'll sell?" I ask.

"Depends on how many tickets we sell. Want to buy a ticket?"

I don't.

"Can you just straight out buy a gun from the wall?" I ask him.

"Well, if you've got $2,000."

*     *     *

The press room is tucked into the upper corner of the convention center, a sterile gray room with neon lighting and three flat-screens. There are good points and bad points.

Good point: It has free cookies. Bad point: It's otherwise no different from the convention floor.

I thought it might be a quiet place to jot down some totally not-judgmental observations about Sarah Palin's shouting, but there she is on all the TVs, prattling on in Alaskan about her hunting prowess. I briefly consider switching the channel to football, but something about the scene—the press Wi-Fi password is "standandfight," and my fellow media members are largely from outlets like blackmanwithagun.com or the Philadelphia Gun Blog—tells me there probably aren't a lot of Watford FC fans here.

I flee, cookie in hand, under the watchful gaze of a man in a black T-shirt that reads "SECOND AMENDMENT: AMERICA'S ORIGINAL HOME SECURITY." I go back down the escalator and get my first glimpse of the conference hall. I pause a moment to take it in—and to finish my cookie. That's when it hits me: I should have taken two.

It also hits me that this place is gigantic. You have to admire the architect who decided Houston needed something bigger than the starship Enterprise for convention-holding. It feels as though the far ends of the hall are shrouded in mist, and I must trek through the night to make it to whatever brushed-steel obscurities it holds.

The center is rammed to capacity, just as Cardiff City Centre on a Friday night, but with way more guns and way less beer. I let the tide carry me out into the sea of cloaked armament. There are no metal detectors, and it's kind of assumed that most everyone has a gun. I'm not sure if that makes me feel more or less safe, but I certainly can't get it out of my mind. I brush past a guy in combat shorts and feel his handgun touch my leg. I briefly long for the Tube at rush hour, where the things that brush against you only leave a rash.

There are guns everywhere, of course, but it's more a shrine to general survival implements: handguns, rifles, assault weapons, silencers, scopes, entire stalls of antique coins for some reason, clothing, endless ways to conceal a weapon, knives, throwing stars, stuffed animals, targets, holiday packages, humongous gun safes you could live inside if you were small and resourceful, and, my favorite stall, the one I'm looking at now.

It's called Zombie Industries. It's a large corner stand with variously attired but universally bloodied zombie torsos, displayed prominently above the polo-shirted workers below. The "director of sales," Nicholas Iannitti, flits around underneath, happily talking about his creations, which retail for around $100 apiece. They're targets to use on a range; that much is obvious. What makes them special is they bleed when you shoot them.

"Our best seller is Chris," Iannitti says, pointing toward a gray-hued zombie high on the wall.

"Any idea why?"

"None at all," Iannitti says. "We're equally proud of all our creations."

The other zombies are either green-skinned or silly caricatures, such as the zombie with a Bin Laden beard and a turban simply called "Terrorist" or a garish clown with an evil grimace.

"Why do they all bleed red?" In all the films and computer games I've seen, zombies bleed black or green.

"We tried out a lot of colors—yellow, green, black—and in the end, red was just the easiest to see down range."

"Anyway," Iannitti adds brusquely, as he considers more deeply why someone with such a silly accent is asking such silly questions. "How do any of us know what color a zombie's meant to bleed? I certainly don't."

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