Dread, loathing and handguns: sensory overload inside the NRA’s Mall of Death

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Guns and wall-to-wall star-spangled patriotism are the National Rifle Associations way of projecting a rugged image of strength to its members, but they also point to the steady current of hysteria throughout American history

A frightened population is obedient.

Hunter S Thompson

Im not frightened about going to jail. Somebodys got to do something to knock the anxiety out of these negroes.

Muhammad Ali

At the 145 th National Rifle Association annual meetings and exhibits, you could see and purchase replica flintlock muskets like the kind Daniel Boone used, wardrobe handguns the size of a cellphone, a carriage-mounted 1883 Gatling gun, historic handguns from the Renaissance down through the most recent Surge, bullet-splat jewelry, deep-concealment holsters, triple barrel shotguns, and camo everything coolers, bottles, four-wheelers, deer blinds, infant-wear and sexy-time lingerie.

There was a motorcycle with a. 50 -caliber machine gun mounted on the handlebar( sorry , not for sale ); all manner of scopes, optics, and laser-sighting technologies; shelf-stable food products; bulk ammo, precision ammo, make-your-own-ammo ammo; historical exhibits; mom-and-pop purveyors of clean fluids and swabs; and corporate icons with slick, multi-level sales areas worthy of a luxury vehicle showroom.

And the flag, everywhere, all the time, the stars and stripes popping from pistol grips, knives, flags, T-shirts, shawl, bandannas, product pamphlets and shopping bags. American, America, sweet land that we love. A photo spread for a well-known US gun manufacturer featured a whiskery, camo-clad, Viagra-aged caucasian male standing in ankle-deep marsh with a puppy by his side, shotgun slung across his back and a large US flag in one hand, the pole planted in the muck as if staking a claim.

A country, a product, a lifestyle. That word shows up often in handguns ad transcript, as in: We find peace in the solitude of this lifestyle, and we thrive on all the great outdoors has to offer. But on this rainy opening day of the NRA convention all the action was indoors. Eleven Acres of Guns& Gear, promised the banner in front of the Kentucky exposition center, a thuddingly nondescript series of enormous beige boxes that inhaled thousands of conventioneers without so much as a belching. How big is 11 acres? Felt like a hundred, which isnt to say that this conventioneer was the least bit bored.

Sig Sig Sauer rifles on display. Photo: John Sommers Ii/ Reuters

Mingling with a crowd striking for its virtually uniform whiteness, I did lapse into a kind of fugue nation from time to time, a retail trance brought on by sheer sensory overload, but with all this American ingenuity and weirdness on display, actual boredom was out of the question. Old people and those less old but morbidly obese trundled about on motorized scooters, their baskets filled to the brim with corporate swag. The crowd buzz was punctuated by omnipresent promotional videos, impromptu live briefings on topics such as target acquisition skills, and music, largely country or guitar-skronk, though I did pass a kiosk where Lido Shuffle was playing.

A guy dressed like Zorro strayed past, then a guy dressed up as a frontier sheriff, with a badge on his vest and six-shooters on his hips. Eddie Eagle was here, the NRAs kid-outreach and gun-safety mascot, a flightless bipedal cousin of Big Bird.

Glossy signage pushed a steady visual diet of Americana cowboys and pioneers, war heroes, the family, founding fathers, rugged outdoors individualism, our liberties and the defense of same, all represented by photogenic white people , not a brown or black face to be seen. Celebrities signed posters and flacked merchandise, among them superstars of cable-TV hunting shows, Nascar drivers, pro wrestlers, decorated veterans. More flags. History. Freedoms. America and her firearms, cultural icons embedded in the brain like saints in the stained-glass windows of a church: Colt, Remington, Winchester, Smith& Wesson, brands curated with all the pomp and solemnity of holy relics.

What gun culture lacks in humour for grownup delinquent fun and sly-dog subversion, you cant beat a custom-car rally it more than induces up for in design wizardry, precision tooling and a long and honorable tradition of craftsmanship.

But somethings happened in the past several decades, a kind of hyper-consumerist fetishizing where categories divide, then subdivide into ever narrower specialties that seem to have little to do with utility. How many variations on the AR-1 5 platform the civilian version of the M16 assault rifle can there be? The AR-1 5 was used in the San Bernardino and Sandy Hook elementary school mass shootings, and again more recently in Orlando, with 49 dead and 53 wounded. Its also featured in a 20 January 2016 post on the NRAs website titled Why the AR-1 5 is Americas Most Popular Rifle. The AR-1 5s[ sic] ability to be modified to your own personal savour is one of the things that induces it so unique, reads the post, and indeed, walking the floor of the exhibition corridor I ended up cross-eyed at all the polymers, alloys, finishes, calibers, stock and barrel configurations, buffer systems, trigger systems, muzzle brakes and so on, to infinity and beyond.

I had entered the realms of style; that is to say, the dark inundates of consumer psychology where longing, identity and aspiration are always bubbling in a subterranean clairvoyant stew. What kind of AR man do you want to be? Or woman, for that matter take yours in solid pink or Muddy Girl camo?

Most of our buying these days has less to do with require than with serving fantasies and tamping down anxieties. Clothes do it for us. Vehicles too, profoundly; in my neighborhood in Dallas you watch plenty of spiff pickup truck hauling air, as the saying runs, driven by humen with soft hands and closets full of suits. But in our terrorized, polarized, ferociously tribalized days its hard to think of a more charged consumer item, one as psychologically fraught, as a firearm.

For relatively not much money we can buy ourselves a piece of that rugged individualism and triumphant history( For nostalgic hunting or cowboy kind shooting the 1886 Classic Carbine or Standard Rifle are perfect) and create a big middle thumb to Isis, the feds, the gays, feminists, whoever it is we think is messing with us. A gun maintains us in character, the American character, as helpfully illustrated by all those fancy marketing visuals, which might as well be movie stills from the reel of greatest hits playing in every Americans intellect. With a centurys worth of Hollywood puffing your product , not to mention the explicit blessing of the US constitution, firearm marketing has to be one of the pig-laziest gigs around. What other consumer item is sanctioned by the Bill of Rights? And by God according to the NRA this marketplace shall not be infringed or treaded upon or trimmed in any way, even if a literal read of the second amendment happens to turn up the words well regulated. Maybe that inconvenient phrase explains why one searches the NRAs extensive website in vain for the actual text of the second amendment.

At the exposition centre I kept ensure the word tactical tactical gear, tactical clothes, tactical categories of firearms. What did it entail? Tactical as opposed to, uh, strategic? Then I watched a fantastically violent, Tarantino-style video of a tactical semi-automatic shotgun in action. A guy in a gilly suit he looked like a half-grown Chewbacca explosion his way through a series of targets that included watermelons, glass globes filled with red liquid, and fully clothed anthropomorphic mannequins, bam bam bam, stuff exploding faster than you are able to snap your thumbs. Thats when I got it, or at least I believe I did. This wasnt a hunting firearm. Tactical signifies human. The intra-species encounter.

Its merely not the way it was, Donald Trump told afterward that day to thousands of NRA faithful gathered in Freedom Hall. Its merely not the way it was, and were gonna bring it back, and were gonna bring it back to a real place to where we dont have to be so frightened, we dont have to be so afraid.

At that instant I seemed to feel a kink in the air, a sudden gash in the time-space continuum, which was possibly the gckh! of several hundred sales rep choking on their Cheetos. Not … be … frightened? What the hell! Who does Trump think were supposed to sell all these firearms to?

Those sales rep neednt worry. Fear is the herpes of American politics: the symptoms may bloom and fade according to stress levels or the phases of the moon, but the virus never succumbs. That the world are a lot of dangers is beyond dispute. Peril is the air we humans have always exhaled, a fact of life that demands of us open eyes, a clear head and emotional self-control. Otherwise were doomed to the existential level of mice, or, as one authoritative text set it long ago 😛 TAGEND

The sound of a driven leaf shall set them to flight, and they shall flee as one flees from the sword, and they shall fall when none pursues. They shall stumble over one another, as if to escape a sword, though none pursues; and you shall have no power to stand before your enemies

Leviticus 26: 36 -3 7

Your true adversaries, as opposes this imagined, the inflated, the convenient. In his classic 1964 essay The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Richard Hofstadter did the nation a great service by analyzing our tendency toward phobia and panic, but I was thinking of another writer when I arrived in Louisville, a native son of the city, lifelong member of the NRA, and author of such latter-day classics as Hells Angels and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Hunter Stockton Thompson( 1937 -2 005) was the wild child of an insurance salesman parent and librarian mom, his formative years marked by mischief and petty crime that progressed, by the time of his senior year of high school, to stealing vehicles and robbing liquor stores. I was cursed with a dark sense of humour, he afterward wrote, perhaps too modestly, that built many adults afraid of me, for reasons they couldnt quite set their thumbs on. These days the young Hunter would likely earn himself a diagnosis of ADD, along with IQ scores well in the genius scope. Add to these a savour for hazard, an acute and easily offended sense of justice, and a congenital disdain for authority, and what you have is a prime example of a distinctly American stres of wildness, the same strain that drove Huck Finn to light out for the territory, and Diane Arbus into the precincts of the damned and deformed.

There is no human being within 500 miles to whom I can communicate anything much less the anxiety and loathing that is on me after todays assassination, Thompson wrote to a friend on the day of John F Kennedys assassination. Thus the fear-and-loathing franchise was born, out of a cold rage that would develop over time into a tool for analyzing not just the writers own soul and psyche, but that of the country as well. Years afterward he elaborated in an interview 😛 TAGEND

People accused me of stealing anxiety and loathing[ from Sren Kierkegaard] fuck no, that went straight out of what I felt. If I had considered it, I likely would have stolen it. Yeah, I merely recollect thinking about Kennedy, that this is so bad I require new words for it. And anxiety and loathing yeah, it defines a certain nation, an attitude

It was a state and attitude that any number of phenomena could elicit in him Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, Iran-Contra, the marketing of Z28 Camaros or the death of the American dream. Anxiety, for the damage this horror might do to body and soul; disgust, for its affront to justice, compassion, love and the spirit of fun. For Thompson, fun included enthusiastic and knowledgeable firearm ownership. Lots of boys like things that go boom, and some never stop liking them. Thompson, who once dedicated a firecracker bomb to David Letterman on the air, was one of those boys, his passion running hand in glove with his famous appetite for drugs, alcohol and other adult activities, including politics and the Book of Revelation. At days his own prophecies prove biblical big-league vision, as in this piece titled September 11, 2001( dated the day after) from his book Kingdom of Fear:

The towers are gone now, reduced to bloody rubble along with all hopes for Peace in Our Hour, in the United States or any other country. Stimulate no mistake about it: We are At War now with someone and we will stay At War with that mysterious Enemy for the rest of our lives.

It will be a Religious War, a kind of Christian Jihad, fueled by religious hatred and led by merciless fanatics on both sides. It will be guerilla warfare on a global scale, with no front lines and no identifiable enemy … This is going to be a very expensive war, and Victory is not guaranteed.

The synchronicity seemed perfect. I would go to Louisville and hang out with the NRA, and in my downtime seek out tracings of Americas prose laureate of anxiety, loathing and handguns. One morning a retired Courier-Journal reporter drove me around Thompsons old Cherokee Park neighborhood, a pleasant region of rolling hills, comfy houses and generous urban parks. Thompsons extremely awesome grand-niece fetched me from my motel and drove me to satisfy one of his childhood friends, an old-school southern gentleman who observed that for all his alleged madness, Thompson was scrupulously careful with firearms. Check out the photos, he told me. In nearly every photo of Thompson with firearms and there are many the firearm is safe when not in actual use, ie bolt actions with the bolt open, shotguns transgressed, revolvers with the cylinders out.

Hunter Hunter S Thompson, with his other weapon of option. Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/ Getty Images

A plenty of people shouldnt own guns, Thompson said once. I should. I have a safety record.

Id come to Louisville for firearms, but around town I began ensure flags for something called the Festival of Faiths, this years edition billed as Pathways to Nonviolence. Synchronicity+ Serendipity= Karma, or at least a road that seemed worth following. Friends of friends led to cocktails with some amiable Louisvillians, which led to dinner, which led to a celebration concert presided over by Teddy Abrams, the wunderkind conductor of the Louisville Orchestra, which ended with all of the evenings musicians Abrams, a Pakistani rock group, a 13 -piece salsa band, an angelic South African vocalist, and Ricky Skaggs and his bluegrass band jamming like a musical UN while dozens of people who evidently dont dance very much( I was one) merrily danced below the stage.

America is various. It refuses to be all one thing or all the other. The next day I was back at the celebration to hear a panel discussion, Face to Face with Islamophobia, moderated by Tori Murden McClure, MDiv( Harvard ), chairman of Spalding University, and the first woman to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean( America is various !). She began with a series of thoughtful, measured statements about Islam, the global war on terror, and the abiding fact of the US military-industrial complex. She discussed terrorism in context, and offered numerical markers such as these 😛 TAGEND

US deaths from terrorism, 2001 -2 015( all numbers calculated high-end and rounded up ):

9/11: 3,000
Military personnels KIA, Afghanistan and Iraq: 7,000
Military contractors KIA, Afghanistan and Iraq: 7,200
Military personnels, postwar trauma( pegged to KIA in the absence of reliable figures ): 7,000
Civilians, domestic terrorism: 87
Civilians, overseas terrorism: 350
Total: 25,000 Muhammad Ali, leaving the federal building in Houston during a recess in his trial for refusing induction to the army in 1967. Photo: Ed Kolenovsky/ AP

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