After Newtown Shooting, the NRA Museum Is Silent and Somber

Lloyd Grove goes inside the NRA museum in Virginia—and still finds some defenders.

Karen Bleier/AFP, via Getty

It was eerily still Saturday afternoon at the National Rifle Association’s corporate headquarters, just beyond the Washington Beltway down Route 66 in northern Virginia. With its golden eagle digging its talons into a cross of golden rifles in a field of blue, the NRA flag flew at half-staff along with the Stars and Stripes. The parking lot was empty, except for a few visitors to the NRA’s National Firearms Museum on the ground floor. The “home of the NRA gun collection” was as quiet as a crypt.

“They should ban all automatic weapons,” said Army wife and paralegal Petra Biggans in hushed tones. She was moving through the galleries—named for Theodore Roosevelt, Charlton Heston, and other deceased gun enthusiasts—with her in-laws and her 8-year-old daughter, Zooey, a third-grader, who owns a .22-caliber hunting rifle given to her by her officer father (currently deployed in Afghanistan). Zooey is an admirer of Annie Oakley, whose rifle and pistol were on display. “A private person has no business owning an automatic weapon,” Zooey’s mom said. “It doesn’t make any sense. It’s not right. The NRA lobbying for AK-47s? That’s crazy!”

When even firearms fans are questioning the NRA's take-no-prisoners policy of easy access to terrible killing power (including the semiautomatic weapons reportedly used by 20-year-old Adam Lanza to wreak mayhem on a Connecticut grade school before killing himself), you know a tipping point has been reached.

The day after yet another horrific mass shooting in a recent series of massacres perpetrated by madmen—this one perhaps hardest to comprehend, because 20 of the 28 dead were young children—the nation's powerful pro-gun lobby was hunkered down for the coming storm. And keeping its powder dry: immediately after Friday’s carnage, the NRA canceled a Twitter promotion of a country-music concert featuring a golfer turned rapper named Colt Ford. The lobby declined to explain the cancellation or, for that matter, offer any comment at all on the events in Newtown, Conn.

“She watched the news with us—she wants to know what happened,” said Zooey’s mom, a native of Germany who met Zooey’s father when he was stationed there with the U.S. Army. “And the two questions she asked were, who was that man, and why did he do that? It’s hard to explain.” Biggans was standing beside a glass case containing an elaborately filigreed Merkel 303 over-under shotgun once owned by Hermann Göring. “I guess I’ll have to explain that to my daughter, too,” she said with a wan smile.

Army Lt. Col. Jeff Ritsick, who spent two years in Afghanistan, was touring the museum with Phil Fourie, a relative by marriage from Cape Town, where Fourie enters target-shooting competitions.

“It’s just a shame when anything like that happens to anyone,” said Ritsick, 44. “It’s also a shame to the people who actually obey gun laws and supporters of the NRA, as though they’re the problem.” Ritsick, who grew up hunting in Pennsylvania and said he’s not an NRA member, added: “It’s a very complex issue.”

Fourie, 59, pointed out that South Africa suffers from high crime and frequent gun violence despite “our very strict gun laws.”

“If you really want to help,” Ritsick added, “start buying gun locks.” If gun manufacturers were required to sell a lock with every weapon—i.e., a device that prevents firing and requires a key—“the mother [of Adam Lanza] would have had the key theoretically and had it put away somewhere, and the chances of that happening will be reduced. But,” he said, “you’ll never ever stop it completely. As soon as you do it, they’ll find something else.”