NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland — On Thursday afternoon, the head of the National Rifle Association gave a fiery speech to a room filled with the country’s most dedicated conservative activists.
Just one thing: Nobody was packing heat.
That’s because the nation’s top conservative conference is now an official gun-free zone.
Security here is conspicuously tighter this year than in recent years past. Attendees were greeted by metal detectors, and at one point a lengthy line of conference-goers stretched through the hotel as they waited for security guards to search their bags.
Perhaps the most glaring new addition were signs near metal detectors with a decidedly gun-unfriendly message.
“NOTICE METAL DETECTORS IN USE,” the signs read. “Absolutely No Weapons Allowed.”
The Conservative Political Action Conference brings together the right’s most devoted footsoldiers, including a host of passionate Second Amendment defenders.
Ian Walters, CPAC’s communications director, said the extra security was due to the number of presidential candidates coming with Secret Service entourages in tow.
Conservatives often argue that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. But at CPAC, the only good guys with guns were cops. An officer whose name badge read “Muldoon” and who didn’t want to give his first name said the conference policy was simple: no guns.
“The policy has pretty much been no firearms,” he told The Daily Beast. “Some people got up in arms about that.”
One such attendee, Robert Owens, sat at the Future Female Leaders booth in the exhibit hall. He said his daughter started the group—and he said he wasn’t pleased about the no-gun rule.
“I don’t like it,” he said. “I just think that the Second Amendment would allow somebody to carry a firearm wherever they choose to carry a firearm. There shouldn’t be a limit to it. Once you start one limit, it’s a continuous slide about eliminating the right.”
Others were less dogmatic. Charlie Kirk, founder of the conservative group Turning Point USA, didn’t condemn the decision.
“I think it’s interesting,” he said. “That’s the word I’ll use. Interesting.”
When asked if he thought CPAC needed more gun-toting good guys, he said, “That’s a well-phrased question. That’s my answer.”
“I’m very pro-Second Amendment,” he added. “I can understand both sides of the decision—why certain gun-carrying should be allowed and why they made the decision they did.’
And Alex Ross, a Michigan college student who owns a Smith and Wesson 39-2 and pushed for his campus to consider allowing students to have guns there, said he also understood the CPAC gun prohibition.
“I understand the caution with such a large group of people in a small space,” he said. “As a Second Amendment supporter, I think that legal concealed carry license holders should be able to carry pretty much everywhere because we’ve seen those people commit crimes at a lower rate than even police officers.”
Joe Koltisko, a high school student from Northern Virginia handing out stickers to attendees, said he understood the ban.
“It’s an area with a lot of big speakers and presidential candidates, and I don’t know, it didn’t seem like there were super extensive background checks to get in here,” he said. “So maybe that’s not a bad thing.”
“I’m a full supporter of the Second Amendment,” he added. “But the fact that they don’t allow guns in here? I don’t think that’s a terrible thing.”