B y T o m D a n e h y
THE NATIONAL RIFLE Association, the lobbying group which boasts the world's largest collection of living politicians' testicles, held its annual testosterone-fest and phallic display in Phoenix last weekend. More than 25,000 gun enthusiasts and self-proclaimed Constitutional experts attended the weekend festivities, where they ogled the latest hardware, listened to the guardedly inflammatory rhetoric of the group's leadership and generally tiptoed through a mine field of issues and (largely self-generated) bad publicity that may finally have the NRA at risk of losing its veneer of invulnerability.
Indeed, so widespread is the distaste for what is falling out of the mouths of the NRA's leaders and so plentiful are the tripwires left lying about, much of the membership spent the weekend shuffling about, heads down, being careful not to step on anything. And believe me, with both Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers now gone, it's just no fun any more watching white people dance.
For its part, the NRA publicly proclaims itself to be robust, flush with new funds following its infamous "jackbooted thugs" letter and forever steadfast in its opposition to all things regulatory when it comes to weaponry. And while no one expects the current wave of public disgust to capsize the Good Ship Gun Nut, it would probably be eminently pleasant to watch the reactions of these people who have never even had to ride out so much as a mere ripple before.
USUALLY, JEFF SMITH, our in-house Clear and Present Danger to most things high and mighty, would be perfectly competent to cover an event of such magnitude by himself. Unfortunately, it turns out that El Jefe is one of them. A card-carrying, gun-toting...one of them.
In fact, Jeff is the chairman of the Left-Wing Gun Nuts Posse. They held their meeting the other day in a telephone booth.
So it fell to me to go to the Valley of the Sun to check things out--Kind of an independent observer, if you will. I was accompanied by Emil Franzi (see accompanying story), who, unlike Jeff, is a generic right-wing gun nut and is therefore unlikely to say anything surprising...or cogent, for that matter.
The day before I went, a friend of mine named Randy suggested that I go up there with an open mind. So, that night I went through my extensive video library, most of which I compiled on those weekends where they give you free HBO and then try to sign you up, and got out Blazing Saddles. I figured if I was going to the kingdom of the politically incorrect, I might as well bone up on the language.
I especially liked the part where the railroad workers offered to help save the town of Rock Ridge in exchange for the opportunity to homestead some land and live in peace. After some discussion, the mayor steps forward and says, "We'll take the niggers and the chinks, but no Irish!"
After that, I figured I was ready. (Oh yeah, in a delicious bit of irony, the drunken gunslinger played by Gene Wilder is known as The Waco Kid.)
AS I DROVE into Phoenix, past the countless subdivisions which are leapfrogging out into the desert, I remembered an episode of The New Twilight Zone (believe me, if you watch enough TV, there's an analogous reference for just about anything you'll ever encounter) that concerned an accidental nuclear detonation near an American city, after which officials built a dome over the entire devastated area, trapping the survivors and the radiation inside.
It eventually became known as the Peace Dome, serving as a deterrent to nuclear proliferation.
With 25,000 NRA people in Phoenix (plus all the Phoenix people in Phoenix), I wondered how hard it would be to build a dome over that place. I dismissed the idea, mostly because that would mean trapping Charles Barkley and the Phoenix Suns in there. Of course, in retrospect, after they blew that series to Houston...oh well.
As we neared the Phoenix Civic Plaza, we had to run a gauntlet of gun protesters who were shouting at the delegates and posing for the media. One placard-carrying woman was in a heated discussion with a guy who was dressed like the leather biker in the Village People.
After they finished their argument and he moved on, I asked her if she really thought she could change somebody's mind. I mean, it's like saying, "Hey Rabbi, let's go have some pork chops." Although, in that case, we're only talking about somebody's lifelong religion, not something important like guns.
FRANZI AND I walked in, got our media stuff, then went into a room where they were selling tickets to allow people to shoot air rifles and pistols. Franzi, a lifelong shooter awash in the testosterone-laced atmosphere, challenged me to shoot something. Suffice it to say I hit the target with my first shot.
However, when I held the gun, I didn't feel a stirring in my loins, I didn't feel any more patriotic than usual, and I didn't have a fantasy about shouting, "Eat lead, you crack-ridden urban terrorist!" to a guy wearing a ski mask, climbing through my window with one eye on my valuables and the other on my wife's thighs.
But I did have the feeling that my next child would be a masculine child (Luca Brasi to Don Corleone, The Godfather). I just hope it's a boy.
WE SPLIT UP, Franzi to schmooze and try to line up work in the upcoming elections, me to find a TV from which to watch the Suns game and then to work on my ultimate challenge. I wanted to find a black person who is an NRA member. I thought maybe Charlie Pride or somebody would be there.
Wouldn't you know it, one came to me. Life's funny that way sometimes. I'm watching the game in the media room and a voice comes from behind, asking the score. I turn around and it's Roy Innis, former head of the Congress of Racial Equality and the guy best known for starting the race riot on Geraldo, the one that left the host with a broken nose.
Ever subtle, I said, "Dang, what would a dude like you be in a group like this for?" syntax be damned.
He told me he had two sons killed by guns, a double tragedy which many people might think would send him toward Handgun Control, but instead prompted him to join the NRA.
"It's the good people in this country that are hurt by gun laws," Innis said. "My second son was gunned down in New York City, which is supposed to have the strictest gun laws in America. The only people who don't have guns there are the good people."
He went on to talk about how there is a war to take away the good people's guns in America (even though he had just told me that the good people don't have guns); that President Clinton was using the Oklahoma City bombing just like Hitler had used the Reichstag fire, to tighten down on political dissent; he referred to Michael Dukakis as a "cocksucker"; mentioned that he was a lifelong Democrat and then bragged how "we" took Congress last year and "we" are going to take the White House next year.
Next time, I'm looking for an Asian.
GRAHAM COUNTY SHERIFF Richard Mack was there, receiving an award as Law Enforcement Officer of the Year, mostly because he refused to uphold the law. Go figure.
I wondered if maybe it was one of those Harvard Hasty Pudding things where the award is decidedly tongue-in-cheek. So I asked several people. Ninety-two percent had never heard of Hasty Pudding, while 78 percent didn't recognize the name "Harvard." A majority, however, could identify pudding.
He was also there touting his new book, From My Cold Dead Fingers, which I thought was some sort of self-contained necrophilia thing, but turns out to be a popular Gun Nut saying. Alas, the book isn't destined for the bestseller list, mostly because they left out pictures with which to attract their target audience, so to speak.
Mack was surrounded by a crowd of adoring fans when I saw him. I asked a woman standing in the throng, "Isn't that Dick Mack?"
"That's Sheriff Mack," she said, "but people call him Richard."
"You wanna bet?"
FORMER WASHINGTON STATE representative Tom Foley announced that he, like former President George Bush, would be resigning from the National Rifle Association because the group is becoming increasingly strident and partisan.
Foley, who last November became the first standing Speaker of the House to be voted out of office since the Civil War, is probably a bit off on his timing. This is like the guy who played Eb on Green Acres asking to be dropped from the Screen Actors Guild.
I WANDERED OVER into the meeting hall, where top gun Wayne LaPierre was giving a rousing speech. Then they announced the winners of some election. Top vote-getter was Tucson attorney Sandy Froman, who is much too nice to be a lawyer and much too level-headed to be a gun nut. I hate those gray-area things.
Other winners included rocker Ted Nugent, who sold a record as recently as 1978, and movie director John Milius, who made Red Dawn, about a communist invasion of America that is fought off by a bunch of high school kids with their daddy's arsenal. Before the communist threat turned out to be nothing and shriveled away, Red Dawn was the ultimate gun nut's wet dream.
Now that communism is gone and the government has been installed as the new bogeyman, the NRA's new favorite director is probably Costa-Gavras.
THERE WAS A big exhibition hall full of booths and displays. Mostly it was full of men who would look through the gunsights of new weapons and get all glassy-eyed.
I did overhear two exhibitors talking back and forth about putting on gun shows in other cities. One guy bragged to the other, "Hey, I've got connections. I could get us a big-name star (to appear). I could get Robert Stack."
Jeez, I thought, for another ten bucks, you could get McLean Stevenson.
A FEW YEARS back, during the flag-burning controversy, I went around and asked people to tell me how the stars are arranged on the flag. Not one person could do so, including a state senator who was protesting the Supreme Court decision.
This time, amid a room full of Constitutional experts, I decided to ask people how many amendments there are to the Constitution. You guessed it, nobody got it right (there are 27), including NRA rising star Tanya Metaksa. Most of those folks know there's a Second Amendment, but on the rest of them they're kinda shaky.
I ALSO TRIED to get somebody to talk about the NRA's alleged financial trouble, but I got no takers. Rumor has it there's serious trouble, much of it due to fund-raising efforts that cost more than they bring in. This is a story to keep an eye on.
WAYNE LAPIERRE PUT his foot back in his mouth when he said that next year, "We're going to clean Clinton's clock."
When pressed on the statement, he claimed it was an innocent sports term used by little kids that means (and I quote) "to use the democratic process to try and elect someone else in 1996."
I can just hear Phoenix Cardinals coach Buddy Ryan at halftime. "Come on, you jerks. Let's get out there and use the democratic process to elect someone else in 1996."
THE TRIP WASN'T a total loss. We had Popeye's chicken for dinner.
B y E m i l F r a n z i
MOST NATIONAL PRESS about the National Rifle Association bares little resemblance to reality. For example, you find out very little from watching NBC News. Last week, Tom Brokaw gave us one Bill Clinton vs. NRA story in which Clinton and some overweight Fraternal Order of Police type got at least 30 seconds each to trash away, while the NRA's Wayne LaPierre got a big five seconds back. Even my usually moderate mother-in- law said that wasn't fair.
And I'm not being a paranoid gun nut here--I realize one should never attribute to conspiracy what is usually the product of arrogance, bigotry, elitism, ineptitude and shallowness. The media don't cover the NRA fairly or well simply because they don't cover anything fairly or well.
So I went to the recent NRA convention in Phoenix partly to see if all this bad press has had any effect on my fellow members, but mainly to check out all the neat guns and stuff.
The Tucson Weekly staff covering last weekend's convention conveniently demonstrates how divided Americans are on the guns/feds/cops issue. And our example shows it isn't a left vs. right thing, either. For the pro-gun right, there was me; for the pro-gun left, Jeff Smith; for the anti-gun left, Tom Danehy. And then there was our bright and highly individualistic photographer, Maria Nasif, who argued more with Tom than with me on our way up to Phoenix. The only viewpoint missing was a gun control conservative, like Sarah Brady's new best friend, Congressman Henry Hyde.
We arrived at the Phoenix Civic Plaza late in the morning and promptly observed there were 28 demonstrators outside, four of whom were with my old outfit, the Arizona Libertarian Party. They were complaining the NRA was too soft on official jackbooted thugs besides those from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF). Nice to meet folks who make me look moderate. The Arizona Daily Star, in an otherwise fair story by Doug Kreutz, chose to run one picture--of a demonstrator.
Our first stop after acquiring press badges was at an air-gun shooting gallery. Tom said he'd never shot a gun; he found out it's fun. That's just one of many shooting sports the NRA promotes, Tommy.
Inside the main hall were several thousand normal-looking folks, mostly white, but with a reasonable smattering of minorities. Also, there seemed to be a whole lot of females there on their own--not because their husbands dragged them. Tom didn't believe that Roy Innis, founder of the Congress of Racial Equality, is an elected NRA board member. Although Tom kept threatening to scalp a ticket for the Suns game across the street and split, he caught up to Innis later.
The exhibit hall was packed with everything from Winchester and Colt displays down to an outfit called The Dayton-Traister Company of Oak Harbor, Washington. They have 19th century dies made from original Hawken rifles. Most of the replicas made today are lightweight, but Dayton-Traister's .54-caliber sucker weighs in at 11 1/2 pounds. Hey, Father's Day is coming up, kids, and my birthday is in July. Only $2,000.
Two of my other favorites were there--Shiloh Sharps and Dixie Gun Works. Dixie is Tennessee's other shrine--besides the Jack Daniels distillery, that is. They started distributing copies of Civil War era firearms, mostly made in Italy, in the '50s. By now they've knocked out more copies than there ever were originals. And one of those Sharps repros should have been nominated for best supporting actor in Quigley Down Under, an otherwise forgettable Mel Gibson movie in which the hero, a sharpshooter, manages to bag the bad guy from practically the other side of the Outback. They start at about $800.
But enough fun--on to the politics:
I saw little sign of rebellion--despite the recent urgings of some NRA foes that members repudiate the organization's leadership. And I was told that as a result of that recent "jackbooted thugs" remark, new memberships are exceeding quitters about 8 to l.
Unlike all those phony beltway groups that collect your dues and then tell you what they think, the NRA's board of directors is elected by the members each year.
What's refreshing about these guys is they don't give a rat's ass about what the establishment media say about them. In fact, they thrive on the abuse. A couple times I got funny looks at my media pass, and one smiling lady even made the sign of the cross. I suspect I may have been the only person there carrying a press pass who was also credentialed to vote.
Floor debates were as boring as floor debates are in other groups, but one item stood out. There was an attempt to censure one former board member for constantly attacking current NRA positions. The censure motion was ruled out of order because the bylaws don't allow for censures without a hearing. Don't you just love due process?
Speaking against the principle of censuring in general was that grand old war horse and genuine American hero, Joe Foss. The 80-year-old Foss earned the Medal of Honor as a Marine fighter pilot on Guadalcanal by bagging 26 Japanese planes, 23 of them the hard way--with a Grumman Wildcat. He also helped form--and rose to general in--the South Dakota Air National Guard, did two terms as governor of that state, and became the head of the now-defunct American Football League. He lives in Phoenix.
Old Joe said that while he'd spent plenty of time defending the Second Amendment (he was twice NRA president in the '80s), he kinda liked the rest of the Constitution, too. And he added the First Amendment ought to apply to the NRA, and the organization was big and strong enough to let some members run off at the mouth, even though they didn't have much support.
Foss is one of a group of Arizonans on the 76-member board, which includes Tucson attorney Sandy Froman. She led the ticket nationwide when she ran three years ago, and led it again this time. Finishing in this year's top seven were four other women.
Certain politicians and lazy media have shamelessly attempted to create guilt by association by tying the NRA to militias, much in the same way Joe McCarthy tried to tie liberal Democrats to communism in the '50s. I couldn't find anybody on the floor who disagreed with LaPierre's description of militia bozos as "paranoid hatemongers."
Which may have disappointed Danehy. At one point he said, "I think these people are scary." What probably scared him most was their utter normalcy.
Currently, the biggest real flap is over the NRA's future relationship with law enforcement, particularly at the federal level. For years the NRA has been an auxiliary to many law enforcement agencies, supplying everything from terminology to weapons training. Recent conflicts with the BATF (an agency many cops dislike), and the fact that Clinton is president, is putting an end to that. Apparently nobody noticed that the first time an NRA leader used the expression "jackbooted thugs" about the BATF it was a Democratic Congressman, John Dingell of Michigan, and it happened in 1983.
What's a helluva role reversal is that the NRA has, de facto, called for a federal civilian police review board to check up on allegations of police brutality by federal agencies. And some liberals are screaming about it and trying to pose as law-and-order types who love those folks in uniform, even when they dress like ninjas. Maybe we could throw in the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Border Patrol and others the left regularly attacks.
We headed home late in the afternoon. Tom stopped for some Popeye's chicken, and Maria and I read over a pamphlet he'd acquired. It was one of those far-out conspiracy jobs about the New World Order, the Jewish bankers, the inferiority of certain races and why we all need our guns to fight off the United Nations troops.
I asked Tom where he'd picked it up, and he said from a guy hanging around outside the perimeter of the convention. Meaning the NRA wouldn't let the scumbag in.
Which should tell you the difference between normal pro-gun folks and the maniacs ignorant media and cynical politicians try to portray us NRA types as being.
B y J e f f S m i t h
THE MAIN THING was, I couldn't find the right T-shirt.
Liza, my baby girl, got all excited when I told her I was running up to Phoenix for the NRA convention. Kids are like that: they get to jumping around and clapping their hands and saying "Oh goody, goody, I'm going to get a sussie." Every time I cross a county line somebody wants me to bring back a surprise. Liza in particular likes little sussies from foreign ports. Maybe next year when she turns 26 she'll outgrow it.
Meanwhile my mission, should I choose to accept it, is to find this particular T-shirt for Liza. I keep this in the present tense, conditional mood, because they didn't have what Liza wants at the NRA convention, and I've still got to track it down somewhere. Understand this: Liza adores NRA memorabilia. She's got an NRA sticker on the tailgate of her station wagon, and the remains of an old bumper sticker that says, "Nobody ever raped a .38."
What she wanted in a T-shirt was one of those that warns, "They'll take my gun when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers."
She thought finding one at the national convention of the NRA would be a dead cert. I had my mind on other things and didn't really think much about it. On sober reflection, I should have realized it was a long shot.
Even without the shitstorm of public controversy that followed Wayne LaPierre's "jackbooted thugs" letter that immediately preceded the convention in Phoenix, today's NRA takes pains not to be as blood-and-guts zealous as the mainstream news media and the White House tend to portray it. In fact, if you were to meander into the convention unaware, and didn't immediately venture into the main hall where the vendors' displays were set up, you wouldn't know the NRA from the PTA. Preconceived notions about the organization and its membership tend to get contradicted--not in shocking, dramatic ways, but subtly. It's not, for instance, like you go in expecting everybody to be wearing camouflage and sporting ominous bulges under their jackets only to find them all in black tie and patent leather pumps, it's more a matter of being normal and non-descript.
What struck me next was the high percentage of women in the crowd. But I was conditioned to being on the alert for women, since it was one specific woman I was trying to find and I had no idea what she looked like. Her name is Sandy Froman and she's a lawyer from Tucson, a friend of my friends Art and Katherine Jacobsen. She's also a member of the NRA board. This election and last, she was the top vote-getter of all that 75-member body. How about that?
Everybody I asked seemed to know Sandy, and each provided me with enough descriptive data that I could have drawn a composite sketch and come up with someone who looked like either Hillary Rodham Clinton or John Doe No. 2 from the Oklahoma City bombing. No wonder these things never work. When I finally caught up with Sandy she looked like neither, and neither was she wearing what she'd been described in earlier in the day.
Funny, she doesn't look like a gun nut. But then they never do. Then again, most of them aren't. Nuts, I mean.
We sat over coffee and talked about motorcycles and politics and mutual friends, and then another board member, some gentleman by the name of Nathan or something, begged our indulgence to interrupt, and they discussed a little NRA business. I feigned disinterest and hung on every word, none of which had anything to do with guns or head shots or political coups or any of that G. Gordon Liddy stuff. It was all about computer software and consensus-building. They reminded me of a couple of ACLU board members I had listened in on, during a similar convention many years ago.
In fact that was the over-riding impression I had of the convention, any time and anywhere outside the main hall, where the firearms manufacturers and trade organizations had their displays for the visiting NRA members and the general public. Most of the color commentators and cameramen were in the vendors' hall while the "serious" journalists scribbled notes at the back of the auditorium where the NRA speeches were being delivered. But behind the scenes, and in the smaller meeting rooms where the various committees were holding their annual eyebrow-to-eyebrow think sessions, the tone was one of quiet determination. Serious talk was going on, over serious issues. Civil rights issues.
I kept thinking back to that earlier ACLU event, and the parallels held up. I thought of the '60s, of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and a police riot when people were clubbed and kicked and thrown in paddy wagons for exercising their First Amendment rights, of Kent State when college kids died for the same offense. I remembered how the Nixon Administration systematically spied on and sought to silence dissidents. The rhetoric of both sides of that dispute was no less heated and inflammatory than the debate today between the White House and the NRA, with the news media not quite in the middle.
This time out the dissidents tend to come from the political right, the forces of government control from the left, and the media tend toward the side of state versus individual liberty. Funny how personal freedom seems to be a matter of hardware rather than principle to some minds. If it's the right to free speech, free press and freedom of religion, high-minded theorists are always on your side. If it seems to come down to carrying a pistol or a hunting rifle, those same high-minded thinkers dismiss it as blood lust.
Lost in the shouting are the concepts of personal freedom and individual responsibility. Until I shout "fire" in a crowded theater or knowingly libel an innocent man, government shall not intrude upon my freedom of expression. Why then, so long as I do not shoot someone without just cause, or attempt to overthrow my government by force of arms, should that government prevent me from keeping and bearing arms?
The possibility that I might do something illegal with a firearm simply is not justification, either on Constitutional grounds or those of simple justice and common sense, to interfere with the freedom that is the right and natural order of things. Same as with speech, assembly...thought.
And behind the hoopla and the media swarm, the outdoor enthusiasts and hunters and target shooters and just plain curious, this was the serious work and concern that the NRA officers, board members and staff came to Phoenix to talk about.
Meanwhile, of course, there was Louise Mandrell to sing for her supper, and the suppers of God knows how many suffering NRA members, at Rawhide, way the hell and gone out North Scottsdale Road on Friday night. If you've never been to Rawhide, go there once. Go there at about 6 a.m. on a weekday, when there aren't more than a few hundred lost or strayed last night's customers and crew hanging around. Any other time there will be thousands, cheek to cheek on wooden benches at picnic tables, tucking away T-bones and beans and sourdough bread. It's like L'il Abner's, multiplied by a thousand.
Sandy Froman and I drove out there in my pickup, skipping the fleet of tour buses that ferried the NRA membership to site. We found the fleet of buses parked as near the front gate at the packed parking lot would allow. They were about a half-mile from the door and there wasn't room to squeeze in a bicycle between there and the door. We gave Louise and the T-bones a pass and kept on talking about civil rights issues.
It's tough enough having The New York Times, The Arizona Daily Star, Bill Clinton and Diane Feinstein on your ass, without having to stand in line with 22,000 other sufferers to wait for a lukewarm piece of meat.
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