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.
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 AmmoLand.com, 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).
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."
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?"
"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."
I wander off, pushing aimlessly down rows and between booths. After some perambulation, during which I observe every rifle ever imagined, some swords, an ax and a VW Campervan with a chain gun on top, I decide to make my exit for the evening. But just as I'm ready to leave, I'm swept back in by the sight of a man's dream dying.
He's standing in a booth with machetes and swords and spears, basically all the weapons you're left with in video games when the real pixel-killers are out of ammo. He's wearing a 10-gallon hat, and his face has a gray-and-white handlebar mustache so fulsome it could shelter an entire family. He is purchasing what I think, from my extended playing of Soul Calibur II, is a halberd.
The weapon—a giant medieval ax, basically—is on display as one glorious piece. But this clerk! This clerk separates it and hands it to him in two pieces, with the business end tucked safely into a bag. The man looks confused, then crestfallen. As resigned to his fate as a man with a mustache and weapon that size can be, he walks out of the hall, head down. His hope, it seems, was to gaily parade his killing implement throughout downtown Houston, past the ranks of police outside and past the baseball game going on at Minute Maid Park. Or maybe in the baseball game, to put the Astros out of their misery? We'll never know. His dream, like so many, was crushed by the laws of the nanny state, and he's heading home. I'm not far behind.
* * *
It's Saturday morning, and I'm back, ready for another day of occurrences I don't understand conducted by people who don't understand me. (My accent's still thick enough it takes at least three tries to order "water" in restaurants.) As I make my way, I notice several new road closures. Police are in the intersections, directing people and cars alike. After a few minutes' walk, it becomes apparent what the fuss is about:
There's a Cinco De Mayo parade, and it's heading straight for the NRA convention.
It's an explosion of color against the gray Houston landscape. A float is decked out in green and red streamers. Up and down the street, Hispanic families wave at the extravagantly dressed populace on slow-rolling display. I'm just waking up, so I'm slow to piece together the wonderful dissonance happening before my eyes, but it eventually it hits me. I spend the rest of the walk imagining the committee that plotted this route, presumably late at night and after a few drinks too many, a decision made of either ignorance or mirth. I'm rooting for mirth.
The main float turns away at the last minute, and despite some confused looks from NRA badge-wearers, the powder keg of racial hilarity is defused. One man, neat white beard prominent under his sunglasses, shouts something at the float, but it's drowned out by the kind of fast-paced Spanish-language song you hear in one of those scene-setting shots in a film set in Mexico.
I pass more protesters—today, Obama is a "puppet of the British government," which gives us a level of respect I never even knew we had—and soon I am back on the packed convention floor. I skim around the side of the stalls, following a loud crackling noise I could hear yesterday above all of the aural chaos. Eventually, I find the source: a stall selling "personal defense equipment." Mainly, this means stun guns of extraordinary strength, which flash intimidatingly and emit a noise akin to the electric fence from Jurassic Park.
I approach one of the sales guys, who's handing out stun guns to people without looking at them. I ask him what the best seller is.
"Definitely the flashlight Taser," he says. "It's got a flashlight at one end and the Taser at the other."
Logical enough. How many volts would that carry?
"About 2 million. It'll incapacitate an attacker for 10 to 15 minutes."
"That's a pretty long time. It must be some serious equipment."
"It really is," he says. He picks one up and presses a button, and a deafening burst of electricity fills the air. "It's the perfect non-lethal defense."
There's a guy next to me, can't be more than 20, swishing one around and grinning. He's about a foot away. This feels considerably less safe than standing around a bunch of assault rifles.
"What's this?" I ask the salesman. I'm pointing at something that resembles a phone case.
"It's a Taser iPhone case."
I probably should have expected that. It's a miracle of engineering, really, a normal-looking pink iPhone cover with a flip-off top concealing a stun gun. I picture the epic battles my phone and I have as I try to wrest it from my pocket while driving and listening to the superior music of my homeland. I imagine the consequences of throwing the best part of a million volts into that mix.
"Six hundred and fifty thousand volts," the salesman says proudly, "and 20 hours additional battery life!"
Would be pretty useful if someone tried to steal your phone, I guess. They'd never see that coming.
* * *
I retreat upstairs to the press room to restock my reportorial supplies (read: more cookies), passing the Not-a-Wall of Guns, the P.A. still blaring, "WAAAAAAAAAAAALL OF GUUUUUUUUUNS!" It's here that I end up sitting next to the media arm of AmmoLand.com.
Aside from the AR-15 they want so badly for me to hold, my Sherpas up the Mount Everest of guns are useful for something else: getting people to talk to me. My media badge and accent are a left-right combo of untrustworthiness for most people I approach. But at the Ruger stand, our first port of call after the Bushmaster display, I'm having the safety features of a Ruger SR45 demonstrated to me when a guy starts waxing lyrical about the safety of this particular gun.
"Best gun I ever bought," he says without prompting. "I got kids, and none of them are gonna be able to fire this. It's got a double trigger for safety!"
He motions for me to tilt the gun and look at the trigger, which my finger is wrapped snugly around, much to Fred's dismay. Sure enough, it has a second trigger in the middle, raised up from the first. Two triggers! I'm not sure what this means, exactly, but I assume it shoots two bullets at once, possibly in different directions so I can kill two bad guys at the same time.
I sense my opportunity to get a gun enthusiast to open up, surrounded as I am by the only media he can trust. I strike with all the subtlety of an untrained Brit brandishing a Ruger.
"What did you think of the recent gun-control reform bill?" I ask. We're just a few weeks removed from the disintegration of the president's plan for universal background checks.
"Ain't gonna change nothing," he says. "None of that crap would have stopped anything happening. You know, they interviewed guys in jail who went there 'cause of gun crimes. Less than 2 percent got their gun legally. Obama needs to try to help the good guys."
"How are the bad guys getting their guns?" I ask, earnestly.
"I could go to any high school in Houston and get any gun I wanted. I just got to know the right people. It's easy."
I sense the mood starting to turn. My Sherpas have to leave—AmmoLand isn't going to populate itself, I guess—so I offer my goodbyes. Popping outside for air, I see the anti-gun protestors stationed across the road in front of a huge piece of modern art. It's a weird series of white and blue shapes outlined in black, giving them a comic-book feel. In front of it stands a podium and behind that stands a lady calmly reading from a book.
A large man stands about 3 feet from her, shouting into her face. The woman, middle-aged with graying brown hair and glasses, is reading names and ages, slowly and deliberately. Spittle flying, the gentleman is shouting at her, his NRA badge riding the waves of his gestures, up and down, up and down.
"THIS HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE NRA! YOU CAN'T CHANGE NOTHING!"
A policeman saunters over, intimidating in his sunglasses and no-fucks-given demeanor.
"I could do with your help, officer," the lady says. "This guy's giving me some hassle."
The policeman suggests the guy move along. He does, muttering under his breath. The lady, satisfied, returns to reading names.
"What's she doing?" I ask a young dreadlocked woman standing next to her, clearly associated.
"We're occupying this place," she says, gesturing toward sleeping bags hidden inside the art display, "and we're reading out the names of 4,000 victims of gun violence."
"Over what period of time?"
"Four thousand from Sandy Hook up until last week."
To our side, the names of minors and adults alike, from around the whole country, are being read out in the order they died. The giant yelling man is hardly out of sight, and another badge-wearing storm cloud is already forming.
* * *
The speeches happen in the convention center's auditorium, a room so surprisingly sprawling it feels like a really boring version of Doctor Who's TARDIS. Still, going by the numbers, it's not big enough.
The keynote event of the weekend—it's named "Stand and Fight," after the Wi-Fi password, I guess—is two hours away, but it's long sold out. People have plunked down $15 to sit in the overflow hall and watch on a screen. And the keynote himself is right now signing books upstairs, where a line is taking up most of the second floor.
The media platform is raised in the middle of the crowd, which is pretty rude if you consider the speaker and his disciples' feelings for the press. Before the big speech is the window dressing; Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's executive vice president and chief shit-stirrer, rallies the crowd. Colonel Oliver North offers a prayer. The music is cued. The lights dim. A huge "G.B." is projected onto the screen, rapidly replaced by a very large, stylized drawing of what I think is an eagle. Glenn Beck, looking more frail and graying than I remember, takes the stage.
"I usually don't make any notes when I'm giving a talk," he says. "I might write something down on a napkin, maybe. Not tonight. Tonight, I've got some things I need to say."
We're fighting not only "for our country," but also "for our souls," he says. The audience is hushed. Beck, it turns out, has a rifle. He raises it above his head. He's on the verge of tears, as he has been throughout the speech. You can hear his voice break, especially when he mentions Sandy Hook.
"After the Sandy Hook massacre, the government went in, seized the opportunity, exploited these families and pushed for more control over our lives. It's immoral."
Applause sweeps through the auditorium. Beck takes a moment to collect himself.
"The only way you can control a free people is to lie! The bigger the lie, the longer you deny reality, the more apt people are to believe it."
It's when he says "they've accepted the media lie that the NRA is malicious" that things start to turn. Thousands of eyes turn toward the media. I get the same feeling I had holding that AR-15, only this time they're holding the metaphorical Bushmasters, and I'm the intruder at the bottom of their stairs.
The next day, I come back for more. I talk to a group of elderly men leaned up against a streetlight. They've come all the way from Tennessee, and they're a lot more interested in my views than they are in telling me theirs, which are largely attacks on the recent gun-control measures.
"I'm from outside the gun debate," I tell them. "I'm a neutral. Really, I have no idea what I'm doing here."
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"You better learn quick, boy. There are some bad people in this country."
I've heard this several times over the weekend, and at this point, I start to ask myself, in haltingly perfect English: Do I need a gun? How am I going to stop someone who breaks into my house? Does it matter that a new gun would instantly become my most valuable possession in that house, followed not that closely by my tea kettle?
I limp up the escalator for one last date with madness, a speech by Ted Nugent. He's calling the speech "Freedom Is Not Free," which I immediately recognize as one of the musical numbers from Team America: World Police. It's a ballad satirizing the overuse of the word "freedom" in political rhetoric. I hum it to myself and wonder how to compute what I'm witnessing: a speech by Ted Nugent that unwittingly has the same name as a song that expertly satirizes the likes of Ted Nugent. Eventually, it hits me: Satire just died in a conference hall in downtown Houston.
I leave the auditorium before the speech starts, past the "WAAAAALL OF GUUUUUNS" that never runs out of guns and into the street. I realize as I leave that, no, I'll never squeeze the trigger of an AR-15, that I'll never own a handgun. I probably won't even buy a stun gun. There's just nothing for me here, I think as I make for the door, although I will admit: There's something about those halberds.