“Life. Liberty. And the pursuit of any maggot who threatens them.”
Emblazoned across a Herculean sign hawking a tactical holster, these were the words that greeted me upon entering Nashville’s Music City Center on Friday for the National Rifle Association’s annual conference.
But I was here for the actual big guns; a who’s-who of NRA brass and GOP hopefuls that the official convention program billed as “one of the most popular and highly anticipated political gatherings in America”—the NRA-ILA Leadership Forum.
Here, several of the Republicans auditioning to be their party’s nominee found a lot to agree upon, particularly the fact there is a lot to be afraid of out there.
But the reason for attending, aside from scaring the bejesus out of the conference-goers, was to court the right-wing, ultra-motivated voters that make up much of the NRA’s most loyal members.
One by one the contenders told tales of government tyrants and a bevy of other reasons conference-goers should be terrified defined the day, including, but not limited to, the urgent need to protect the Second Amendment from “Obama-Clinton” policies, radical Islamists, and criminals.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker garnered some of the biggest cheers when he shared his thoughts on the difference between national security and safety.
“When I see that video of that Jordanian burned alive in a cage, when I see those Christians from Egypt and elsewhere that are beheaded, that’s something you feel … I don’t know about all of you,” he said. “But in America, where my children are gonna grow up, I want a commander in chief who will look the American people in the eye and say that radical Islamic terrorism is a threat, and we’re going to do something about it.”
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who signed the controversial “stand your ground” law in the Sunshine State in 2005, reminded attendees (as if they needed it) about the importance of having a gun to defend themselves.
“Each year, law-abiding gun owners are forced to defend themselves with a firearm more than 2 million times,” he said. “That’s a proven fact, and it’s the kind of evidence that we need to remember and to repeat.”
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal even warned that the blowback Indiana and Arkansas have received in recent weeks—as a result of their “religious freedom restoration” acts—was evidence of another emerging assault on, well, assault rifles.
“We saw Hollywood liberals and editorial columnists form a new unholy alliance with some of the biggest corporations in our country,” Jindal said, categorizing opposition to the acts as an affront on free speech. “They came together to bully the elected representatives of the people … My friends, if these large forces conspire to crush the First Amendment, it won’t be long before they join forces again to come after the Second Amendment.”
Yes, indeed, the world outside the halls of the Music City Center is a scary, scary place. But none of those threats were of immediate concern to convention attendees.
There’s just no reason to be afraid of anything in the presence of all those guns.
As NRA-ILA Executive Director Chris Cox would advise the thousands-strong audience during his opening remarks, the media in attendance at Friday’s forum were on “the safest assignment in America today.”
To Cox’s credit, the only shots fired throughout the four-hour-long forum were of the rhetorical variety, most often aimed squarely at the likes of Michael Bloomberg, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton. Utilized on several occasions by more than one forum headliner, a strategically placed hyphen between “Obama” and “Clinton” might as well have been a bull’s-eye.
As I made my way toward the press office amid a congregation of predominantly white males of the Baby Boomer generation (and older), several of whom sported enviable beards and a few with superbly groomed handlebar mustaches, I happened to overhear a conversation between a pair of Music City Center concierges who were busily clearing tables and rearranging chairs.
“Have you been up to that exhibit hall yet?” the elder staffer asked his young counterpart.
“Maaan, they got everything up there—all kinds of guns, knives, bows and arrows, crossbows, armor …”
But back to the speeches.
Ben Carson, world-renowned surgeon-turned-fringe candidate, had a different kind of speech. He opened his remarks by lamenting that some had gotten the wrong impression about his “enthusiasm” for guns. He stressed that his position on guns had not evolved, but rather that he had learned to better express himself.
“When I was a youngster, I was always excited to see guns, and as I got a little older and approached the teen years, I saw a lot of guns. They weren’t necessarily carried by people who were law-abiding citizens, either,” Carson said in a soft-spoken tone that was in sharp contrast to the often booming voices of his fellow speakers. “I remember seeing people lying on the ground with bullet holes, waiting to die. I remember both of my older cousins, who we lived with, were killed … There was a lot of carnage that I saw.”
Then, as a surgeon, Carson recalled spending many nights operating on gunshot victims.
“And all of that is horrible,” Carson lamented, just before pivoting—enthusiastically—to a line much more worthy of the crowd’s roaring approval. “But I can tell you something. It’s not nearly as horrible as having a population that is defenseless against a group of tyrants who have arms, and that’s what we have to always bear in mind in this nation.”
And then there was Senator Ted Cruz, who more than fulfilled his role as the convention’s rhetorical Rambo.
Putting out an already familiar call to his “grassroots army” to “reignite the promise of America,” Cruz continued to hone his stump speech, touching on everything from the 47 Republicans who signed the infamous letter to Iran (he wishes he would’ve made his signature larger, like John Hancock, so the Ayatollah could read it with no need for reading glasses) to the first battle of the Texas Revolution (when Texans made the famed “Come and Take It” flag, daring Santa Anna to try to reclaim a cannon).
“This weekend, Hillary Clinton is announcing for president,” Cruz said to… not applause.
“Well, I tell ya, if Hillary Clinton is going to join with Barack Obama and the gun-grabbers and come after our guns, then what I say is, ‘Come and take it,’” Cruz growled. “If they’re going to come after the Constitution, what the American people, what we say together is, ‘Come and take it.’ … I am both humbled and proud to stand with you as together we bring back, we revive, that shiny city on the hill that is the United States of America.”
Guns, armies, Iran, revolution, the Alamo, and Reagan? Yep, target destroyed.