Despite a resurgence of COVID-19 cases, the National Rifle Association is moving ahead with its massive annual conference in Texas next month—and major gun manufacturers are having second thoughts, with some even asking NRA officials to call off the event entirely.
According to text messages between high-ranking executives obtained by The Daily Beast, multiple gun makers are pulling out of the conference and quietly trying to pressure the NRA to cancel it.
Most of the largest American gun makers have taken steps to drop out, from informing the NRA that they won’t be attending to canceling travel plans. These companies include Benelli USA, Browning, FN Herstal, Kimber Manufacturing, Savage Arms, Smith & Wesson, Springfield Armory, Sig Sauer, and Sturm, Ruger & Company, according to people with knowledge of internal communications at these companies.
In these texts, some of the companies said, with rising COVID cases among their employees, they had already begun encouraging work from home, pulled sales reps from the road, and forced mask-wearing on company grounds. None of these companies returned calls and emails requesting comment.
Meanwhile, the American arms of Italy’s Beretta and Germany’s Heckler & Koch have already positioned themselves to skip the convention, out of concern for the health and safety of staff, but appear to be waiting on the NRA to cancel it to avoid drawing the ire from the powerful industry group and the public, two people familiar with the situation and another source briefed on the matter said. Neither company responded to The Daily Beast.
Two executives at Vista Outdoor, an industry powerhouse that owns several of the most popular ammunition brands—like CCI, Federal, and Speer—told friends they will not go either, according to two people familiar with their decisions.
The most popular clothing outfitter in the gun world, 5.11 Tactical, confirmed it will no longer be going and has additionally canceled plans to attend “all national trade shows for the balance of the year out of concern for the health and wellbeing of our employees, customers, and partners.”
O.F. Mossberg & Sons, a manufacturer known for its shotguns, is the lone company that confirmed to The Daily Beast that it still plans to attend the convention in Houston on the weekend of Sept. 3.
Attendance at the annual NRA event is considered mandatory in the tight-knit gun industry and has drawn more than 70,000 people each year for the past decade. Cramming that many people into an indoor space poses obvious health risks with an airborne virus that is not yet contained and has mutated into a more infectious version.
There’s added pressure to attend this year because the NRA already canceled last year’s meeting, citing the pandemic, and the NRA is currently celebrating its 150th anniversary.
There’s also political pressure for the gun organization to press ahead with the convention, as the NRA and the gun industry has increasingly hewed to the right where conservative political rhetoric has largely declared the pandemic over. As further evidence of the feedback loop that’s pumping misinformation to American gun owners, floor plans show that the conspiracy-spewing Newsmax will be the only prominent media with a booth on the show floor—located right at the entrance next to the NRA’s own stand.
None of the people who spoke to The Daily Beast would speak on the record, with some citing fear of retaliation in an industry that has increasingly become guarded as incidents of gun violence—and calls for additional government controls—have risen over the decades.
As one former industry insider put it, the tension between the NRA and gun makers is heightened, because these companies are stuck in a maelstrom they helped create. For years, they’ve catered to the farthest corner of right-wing politics—now dominated by science-denying Trump fans who are skeptical of vaccines, reject CDC warnings about the seriousness of the coronavirus, and consider medical masks an infringement on personal freedoms.
The NRA does not appear eager to publicize gun maker concerns about the event and the coronavirus. The organization did not immediately provide comment to The Daily Beast’s inquiries as of Friday afternoon, but their website offers this generic statement:
“As many uncertainties around COVID-19 restrictions persist, the National Rifle Association rescheduled its 150th Anniversary celebration to help members and exhibitors make the necessary plans to attend. Approximately 850 exhibitors will provide an exhibit hall that offers attendees a one of a kind experience with thousands of firearms on display from all their favorite manufacturers.”
All of the companies mentioned above are still listed on the publicly available exhibits roster for the NRA’s 2021 annual get-together with one notable exception: Heckler & Koch.
H&K, the Mercedes Benz of the gun world, had planned to attend and still includes the NRA convention in Houston on its website’s list of upcoming trade shows. But the NRA’s website shows that the company is missing from the exhibitor list.
But no matter how many vendors and manufacturers ultimately show up, the NRA is openly predicting a significantly smaller showing at this annual gathering and celebration, as Texas and the country continue to struggle with newer COVID-19 surges and the Delta variant.
The gun rights organization is anticipating attendance that is tens of thousands fewer than past years, and NRA devotees from America’s most influential Republican family appear to be keeping a distance, as well. Neither former President Donald Trump—a past speaker—nor his son Donald Trump Jr. are currently slated to speak at the annual gathering, and people close to the Trump family said that neither were scheduled to appear at this time. A person familiar with the matter said that Trump Jr. is not expected to attend this year’s annual meeting due to scheduling conflicts.
Other prominent Republicans, however, are still scheduled to attend. Texas Republicans Sen. Ted Cruz and Governor Greg Abbott, who just tested positive this week for COVID-19, are still listed as confirmed speakers for the 2021 NRA-ILA Leadership Forum during the multi-day gathering.
As of Thursday, a Cruz spokesperson said the senator still planned on speaking. Abbott’s office did not respond to an inquiry regarding whether the governor would still attend.
As for the other entertainment for the group’s 150th anniversary, the NRA booked, for its “Grand Ole Night of Freedom,” singer-songwriters Lee Greenwood and Don McLean, according to a schedule for the Houston gathering. Representatives for both artists did not respond to messages seeking confirmation of their upcoming performances.
City officials in Houston are cautiously welcoming the influx of business but warning about the consequences.
Carolyn Campbell, the communications director at the city’s tourism agency, the Houston First Corporation, noted that locals have adopted additional safety measures at the George R. Brown Convention Center. She said the conference zone was the first in the country to install the Integrated Viral Protection company’s Biodefense Indoor Air Protection System, which claims to filter out and eliminate 99.999 percent of the SARS-CoV-2 virus by using a heated filter that still keeps the ambient air cool. On its website, the company claims it is “the only device proven” to do so in a single pass.
As proof the NRA event could still move forward, a city official noted that Houston this past week hosted the oil and gas industry’s annual Offshore Technology Conference as well as the National Association Petroleum Engineers meeting, albeit with vastly fewer attendees.
But a city council member, Tiffany D. Thomas, expressed concern that Gov. Abbott’s decision to exert an iron grip over regional governments and prevent local mask mandates severely limits Houston’s ability to keep its own citizens safe.
“Imagine thousands of people coming into this space. Regardless of Houston First and others cleaning, the Delta variant is spreading faster than the Alpha variant. People have to be conscious of that. This is not make believe,” she said. “People who leave the convention and go throughout the city can infect someone else and immune compromised individuals. Do they go on our public transit? Do they go to our restaurants? Or our stores?”
Thomas, a Democrat, noted that Abbott himself got infected with COVID-19 shortly after attending an event with 600 people, according to the Houston Chronicle. She said the city’s inability to enforce social distancing and mask wearing at the NRA event, which could draw more than 35,000, “is counterproductive to what we’re practicing and evangelizing in this city.”
The council member said she understands a gun company’s reluctance to attend.
“This Delta variant is crazy. In Houston, our numbers are insane. If they’re making decisions based on that, they’re on point. That’s spot on and they’re right to do so. We have no available space in hospitals, and 20 percent of that is children,” she said.
For all the COVID-dismissing bluster of modern-day conservative politics, gun makers have still quietly adhered to enhanced health precautions suggested by the CDC. For example, at the start of the pandemic last year, Ruger said it repurposed some manufacturing to produce face shields, “reconfigured” its factory floor and offices to increase social distancing and allow more working from home.
In federally mandated financial disclosures to the Securities and Exchange Commission, Ruger also said it is paying a $200 bonus and providing “other incentives for employees to become fully vaccinated,” and has forced its employees to wear masks at work.
The company’s website hiring page reflects some of that. The nonprofit Internet Archive has captured snapshots showing that sometime in mid-2020, Ruger changed a banner on the career section of its website to show that employees now wear masks in their manufacturing facilities.
The NRA itself has not denied the seriousness of COVID-19, and it even sells branded masks. Its involvement in the debate thus far has been limited to suing states like New Mexico and New York that temporarily forced gun shops to close during the start of the pandemic.