Fear, loathing and firearms: sensory overload inside the NRA’s Mall of Death

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 scared about going to jail. Somebodys got to do something to knock the fear out of these negroes.

Muhammad Ali

At the 145th 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 firearms from the Renaissance down through the latest Surge, bullet-splat jewelry, deep-concealment holsters, triple barrel shotguns, and camo everything coolers, flasks, 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 cleaning fluids and swabs; and corporate icons with slick, multi-level sales areas worthy of a luxury car showroom.

And the flag, everywhere, all the time, the stars and stripes popping from pistol grips, knives, banners, T-shirts, shawls, bandannas, product brochures 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 dog 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 firearms ad copy, 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 belch. How big is 11 acres? Felt like a hundred, which isnt to say that this conventioneer was the least bit bored.

Sig Sauer rifles on display. Photograph: John Sommers Ii/Reuters
Mingling with a crowd striking for its nearly uniform whiteness, I did lapse into a kind of fugue state 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 subjects such as target acquisition skills, and music, mostly country or guitar-skronk, though I did pass a booth where Lido Shuffle was playing.

A guy dressed like Zorro wandered 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 freedoms and the defense of same, all embodied by photogenic white people, not a brown or black face to be seen. Celebrities signed posters and flacked merchandise, among them stars of cable-TV hunting shows, Nascar drivers, pro wrestlers, decorated veterans. More flags. History. Freedoms. America and her guns, 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 wit for grownup delinquent fun and sly-dog subversion, you cant beat a custom-car rally it more than makes 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-15 platform the civilian version of the M16 assault rifle can there be? The AR-15 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-15 is Americas Most Popular Rifle. The AR-15s [sic] ability to be modified to your own personal taste is one of the things that makes it so unique, reads the post, and indeed, walking the floor of the exhibition hall 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 swamps of consumer psychology where desire, identity and aspiration are always bubbling in a subterranean psychic 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 need than with serving fantasies and tamping down fears. Clothes do it for us. Vehicles too, profoundly; in my neighborhood in Dallas you see plenty of spiff pickup trucks hauling air, as the saying goes, driven by men with soft hands and closets full of suits. But in our terrorized, polarized, ferociously tribalized times its hard to think of a more charged consumer item, one as psychologically fraught, as a gun.

For relatively not much money we can buy ourselves a piece of that rugged individualism and triumphant history (For nostalgic hunting or cowboy type shooting the 1886 Classic Carbine or Standard Rifle are perfect) and raise a big middle finger to Isis, the feds, the gays, feminists, whoever it is we think is messing with us. A gun keeps 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 mind. With a centurys worth of Hollywood puffing your product, not to mention the explicit blessing of the US constitution, gun 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 market shall not be infringed or treaded upon or trimmed in any way, even if a literal reading 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 center I kept seeing the word tactical tactical gear, tactical clothes, tactical categories of guns. What did it mean? 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 blasted 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 can snap your fingers. Thats when I got it, or at least I think I did. This wasnt a hunting firearm. Tactical denotes human. The intra-species encounter.

Its just not the way it was, Donald Trump said later that day to thousands of NRA faithful gathered in Freedom Hall. Its just 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 hundreds of sales reps choking on their Cheetos. Not … be … frightened? What the hell! Who does Trump think were supposed to sell all these guns to?

Those sales reps 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 dies. That the world is full of dangers is beyond dispute. Peril is the air we humans have always breathed, 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 put it long ago:

The sound of a driven leaf shall put 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: 36-37

Your true enemies, as opposed to the 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 (1937-2005) was the wild child of an insurance salesman father and librarian mother, his formative years marked by mischief and petty crime that progressed, by the time of his senior year of high school, to stealing cars and robbing liquor stores. I was cursed with a dark sense of humor, he later wrote, perhaps too modestly, that made many adults afraid of me, for reasons they couldnt quite put their fingers on. These days the young Hunter would likely earn himself a diagnosis of ADD, along with IQ scores well in the genius range. Add to these a taste for risk, an acute and easily offended sense of justice, and a congenital contempt for authority, and what you have is a prime example of a distinctly American strain 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 fear and loathing that is on me after todays murder, 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 later he elaborated in an interview:

People accused me of stealing fear and loathing [from Sren Kierkegaard] fuck no, that came straight out of what I felt. If I had seen it, I probably would have stolen it. Yeah, I just remember thinking about Kennedy, that this is so bad I need new words for it. And fear and loathing yeah, it defines a certain state, an attitude

It was a state and attitude that any number of phenomena could provoke in him Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, Iran-Contra, the marketing of Z28 Camaros or the death of the American dream. Fear, for the damage this horror might do to body and soul; loathing, for its affront to justice, mercy, love and the spirit of fun. For Thompson, fun included enthusiastic and knowledgeable gun ownership. Lots of boys like things that go boom, and some never stop liking them. Thompson, who once gave a firecracker bomb to David Letterman on the air, was one of those boys, his passion going hand in glove with his famous appetite for drugs, alcohol and other adult activities, including politics and the Book of Revelation. At times his own prophecies show 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 Time, in the United States or any other country. Make no mistake about it: We are At War now with somebody and we will stay At War with that mysterious Enemy for the rest of our lives.

It will be a Religious War, a sort 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 traces of Americas prose laureate of fear, loathing and firearms. One morning a retired Courier-Journal reporter drove me around Thompsons old Cherokee Park neighborhood, a pleasant area of rolling hills, comfortable houses and generous urban parks. Thompsons extremely awesome grand-niece fetched me from my motel and drove me to meet one of his childhood friends, an old-school southern gentleman who observed that for all his alleged madness, Thompson was scrupulously careful with guns. Check out the photos, he told me. In nearly every photo of Thompson with guns and there are many the gun is safe when not in actual use, ie bolt actions with the bolt open, shotguns broken, revolvers with the cylinders out.

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

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

Id come to Louisville for guns, but around town I began seeing banners for something called the Festival of Faiths, this years edition billed as Pathways to Nonviolence. Synchronicity + Serendipity = Karma, or at least a trail that seemed worth following. Friends of friends led to cocktails with some amiable Louisvillians, which led to dinner, which led to a festival concert presided over by Teddy Abrams, the wunderkind conductor of the Louisville Orchestra, which ended with all of the evenings performers 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) happily 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 festival to hear a panel discussion, Face to Face with Islamophobia, moderated by Tori Murden McClure, MDiv (Harvard), president 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 remarks 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:

US deaths from terrorism, 2001-2015 (all numbers estimated high-end and rounded up):

  • 9/11: 3,000
  • Military personnel KIA, Afghanistan and Iraq: 7,000
  • Military contractors KIA, Afghanistan and Iraq: 7,200
  • Military personnel, postwar trauma (pegged to KIA in the absence of reliable figures): 7,000
  • Civilians, domestic terrorism: 87
  • Civilians, overseas terrorism: 350
  • Total: 25,000

And this:

US deaths in non-terror incidents involving firearms, 2001-2015: 404,496

And also this:

Estimated civilian deaths from GWOT in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2001-2015 (from neutral sources, low-end estimate): 1,170,000

Another Islamophobia speaker, Dr Ingrid Mattson, former president of the Islamic Society of North America, talked about the great closing of the American mind since 9/11 and its emotional corollary, as performed by people in airports freaking out at the sight of her headscarf. Whats with all these Christians walking around scared out of their skins? Follow the money, she advised. Track it through to the books, the thinktanks, the Pacs and TV pundits. Fear-mongering can be a great career move for a pol or talking head. Its exciting. It draws attention. It moves product.

This country depends on war as a primary industry, Hunter Thompson said in a 2003 interview, but he might have just as easily said fear as war. Later in the same interview he commented:


blockquote class=”quoted”>

This country has been having a nationwide nervous breakdown since 9/11. A nation of people suddenly broke, the market economy goes to shit, and theyre threatened on every side by an unknown, sinister enemy. But I dont think fear is a very effective way of dealing with things of responding to reality. Fear is just another word for ignorance

So with all this banging around in my head, I walked into the Kentucky exposition center the next morning and confronted those 11 acres of guns. I had definitely found the money, but so what? This is America and this is what Americans do, we make money. I wandered around arguing with myself in this vein for a while, then decided that what was confusing me was the presumption, for lack of a better word.

The mashup of stone-cold lethality and sleek retail culture, a Mall of Death sort of upbeat perkiness, with thick dollops of belligerence and bravado. Our high-performance Brass Jacket Hollow Point rounds deliver massive expansion and deep penetration for ultimate stopping power. Shoulder Bones Are Mere Speed Bumps. Optimal penetration and expansion through even heavy clothing. One-shot confidence. Cutting petals. Deadly downrange stopping power. Expands rapidly to 2X the diameter to carve massive wound channels.

This kind of verbiage makes perfect sense, once you accept the basic premise. Guns are machines for inflicting deadly force whats the point of the damn thing if it shoots marshmallows? Its not hard to envision a scenario where you would want a firearm; where you would feel very much a fool for not having one. The world is indeed a dangerous place. Lots of disturbed people out there, damaged people, fanatics, shitbirds, mean people with all the conscience of a starved rat. But heres the rub: were much more likely to shoot our families, our lovers, ourselves than we are that marauding stranger. The numbers bear this out: you bring a gun into your house, the chances of you or a family member being killed by a gun are far greater than the chance youll ever use it for self-defense.

Which could be viewed as statistical proof as if it was needed that human beings are flawed. Were creatures of passion, impulse, pride, mood and pitifully fragile ego, with barely the patience to drive a mile in our cars without wanting to kill someone. Womens mortality rises especially high when guns are around. I thought about all this as I sat in Freedom Hall and listened to Wayne LaPierre, the NRAs longtime CEO, deliver a phrase so familiar to the membership that they recited it with him:

The surest way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.

Sometimes it really is that pure, but human nature being what it is, we contain sufficient good and evil in ourselves that many of us can recall a crisis in our lives and be grateful that there wasnt a gun nearby. Or remember with regret that there was. Just as I can imagine scenarios where Id feel foolish and reckless for not having a gun, I can conceive of just as many situations where Id be the worlds biggest fool for having one.

But in NRA Land the lines are always bright and clear: us against them, good versus bad, American versus villains. We, in this room, we are America, insisted LaPierre, whose gulpy, throttled delivery belied the clench of a man in serious need of breathing lessons. Anyone hoping for nuance or even coherence would have been disappointed in his speech, which pounded out a steady drumbeat of fear and alarm. He warned of those other rooms where political and media elites at the highest levels are conspiring to destroy the second amendment, and with it our core values, our freedom.

A Clinton White House would be a cesspool for NBC, ABC and CBS elitists to plan programming and orchestrate interviews to bombard the airwaves against our freedom. Elitists are shredding the very fabric of our country; seizing and destroying all the freedoms and values we care about most; and planning to put the full weight of a weaponized IRS, ATF, EPA, interior department and every other federal agency behind attacks against groups and people they dont like. If Hillary Clinton wins, its game over for everyone in this room, and everything that we all care about.

It seems safe to say that the paranoid style in American politics is alive and well. All of the classic elements that Hofstadter described in his 1964 essay were on full and florid display at Louisvilles Freedom Hall: conspiracy, persecution, apocalypticism, the characterization of political difference not as a matter of good faith give-and-take, but a final showdown between absolute good and absolute evil. We will save freedom! LaPierre shouted in closing. And America truly will be America again! He ceded the podium to NRA president Chris Cox, who announced the NRAs official endorsement of Donald J Trump for the office of president of the United States, then Trump himself took the stage to offer his thoughts.

In that long-ago essay, Hofstadter took pains to point out that the US has never had a monopoly on the paranoid style. As proof, he cited the one instance in modern history of the paranoid styles consummatory triumph, a distinction that belongs to Germany in the era of the Third Reich.

While in Louisville I made it my business to follow the trail of another native son of the city, a near contemporary of Hunter Thompsons. I went to his childhood home on Grand Avenue, a neat, modest, one-story pink house with a historical marker out front. I saw the gym where he trained as a youth, and toured the museum and cultural center that bears his name.



figcaption class=”caption” caption–img caption caption–img” itemprop=”description”> Muhammad Ali, leaving the federal building in Houston during a recess in his trial for refusing induction to the army in 1967. Photograph: Ed Kolenovsky/AP

Two weeks later these places would become crowded with people mourning Muhammad Alis death, but at the time I was visiting these sites out of the sense that for a real-life demonstration of rugged American individualism, you would be hard pressed to find a more salient example than Ali, n Cassius Marcellus Clay, who as a practicing Muslim renounced participation in that primary industry that Hunter Thompson talked about. For refusing military service during the Vietnam war, Ali lost his world championship title, his boxing license and thus his means of making a living and who knows how many millions of dollars in future earnings.

His indictment and trial in federal court led to a sentence (later overturned by the supreme court) of five years in jail, the maximum penalty allowed. With the wrath of the law and mainstream America bearing down on him, Ali still refused to bend. He wasnt scared of going to jail, of never boxing again, of trading his fame for infamy. Faced with the loss of pretty much everything a person can hold dear, Ali wasnt afraid, which years later moved his friend Bill Russell to say: Ali was one of the first truly free people in America.

As a loud, proud black man in the early 1960s who did his own thinking and spoke his mind, Ali blew out several of the hottest circuits in Americas paranoid wiring. I dont have to be what you people want me to be, he famously declared. Mainstream, ie white, America freaked, and then came the conversion to Islam and his refusal of military service as the Vietnam war escalated. At a time when paranoid delusions were driving the US into a catastrophic war, Ali saw it for the fraud it was; his was a mind free of unreasoning fear, which isnt to say he had little to fear. For refusing the draft, he lost his freedom.

Note: Ben Fountain paid for an NRA membership in order to attend the Louisville convention due to the fact that the NRA refused press accreditation to Guardian US.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/jun/25/nra-annual-meeting-guns-american-dream-hunter-s-thompson

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