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At The NRA Meeting: Come For The Guns, Stay For The Camaraderie

Ben Pickering shows off a new Ambush AR-15 rifle after winning a drawing at the NRA annual meeting in Indianapolis on Friday.
Courtesy David Potter
Ben Pickering shows off a new Ambush AR-15 rifle after winning a drawing at the NRA annual meeting in Indianapolis on Friday.

Ben Pickering can't believe his luck.

"Holy cow," he keeps saying. "Man, that's just incredible. That's just amazing."

Pickering won a drawing for an Ambush rifle, an $1,800 AR-15-style model. Pickering already has a lot of weapons — "I honestly could not count," he says — but he's still excited to be given this new one.

Pickering loves guns, but he's also happy that the National Rifle Association's annual meeting, being held this weekend in Indianapolis, has given him the chance to meet up with family members who live in other states.

The same sort of thing is true for a lot of people. There's plenty of talk about politics and gun laws, with Republican politicians such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal addressing the crowd on Friday.

But for many among the 70,000 in attendance, meeting up with family, friends and like-minded people is more important than talking about this year's elections. It's also a chance for enthusiasts to check out all the latest in guns, custom barrels and binoculars.

"It's kind of like a big window-shopping thing," says Bill Slike, an engineer from neighboring Noblesville, Ind.

Most people — including Pickering — aren't actually going to walk away from the show with new weapons in hand, due to federal licensing requirements.

But, with the exhibit hall being billed as "nine acres of guns and gear," they can certainly do plenty of comparison shopping. The event is a showcase not only for major manufacturers such as Remington and Smith & Wesson, but smaller companies taking advantage of the chance to show off their wares to thousands of potential customers.

"You can handle the guns and make an informed purchase decision," says safety instructor Sig Swanstrom. "I'm from San Antonio and there are 1.4 million people, but there's no way to make this kind of comparison."

It's A Family Affair

The meeting is free for NRA members, who pay anywhere from $10 to join for a year to $500 for a lifetime membership. The crowd is overwhelmingly but not exclusively white, well into middle age or older, with more men than women.

A few men wear suits and ties, but most people are casually dressed in polos or plaids, some wearing t-shirts with slogans such as "Choose wisely: Glock, paper, scissors."

The aisles are so crowded that it can be difficult to move around, but a few parents patiently push their kids around in strollers. One little boy sits cross-legged against a wall, wearing an orange ball cap that says "Gun Auction" and sucking on a lollipop.

Todd Homan, a gun dealer from St. Henry, Ohio, has brought each of his eight children to an NRA meeting at least once. His son, Charlton, is making a return visit this year.

Back in 2001, when he was 5 weeks old, Charlton was held up on stage at the NRA meeting by his namesake, the actor and NRA President Charlton Heston, who died in 2008.

His parents carry around a small photo album, showing off pictures of that moment. Charlton Homan admits he's "kind of" sick of hearing the story.

Todd Homan says all his kids receive hunting safety instruction. Other parents stress the importance of safety, clearly enjoying sharing their interest in shooting sports with their kids.

"It's been something we've been doing for a fairly long time," says Jimmy Trout, a 16-year-old from Carlisle, Ohio, who's such a fan of the Browning Buck Mark line of weapons that he has its logo shaved into the back of his head.

Step Right Up

Trout's design excited the people at the Browning booth and helped get him a picture with Matt Hughes, a mixed martial arts champion who endorses the product. Trout also picked up an autographed poster from race car driver Jessica Barton at the EAA Corporation booth.

With hundreds of booths at the show, exhibitors try all sorts of things to attract attention. One sword company has its staff dressed up like pirates, while an ammunition manufacturer is holding a drawing for a helicopter pig hunt.

MGI Industries is based in Maine, so it's offering to ship two live lobsters with any rifle purchase.

"You try to entice people to see it, touch it," says Steve Henigan, MGI's vice president of sales and marketing. "We do get a lot of interest, and hopefully that interest turns into sales down the road."

In addition to rifles, slings and cleaning equipment, various companies are trying to interest attendees in other products and services. The NRA Wine Club advertises that "every sip supports the NRA" at its booth; the club pays the association 10 percent of its revenues in exchange for access to the group's massive email list.

At Booth 3603, Lucinda Bailey is trying to get passersby interested in her gardening books and heirloom seeds. "After guns and bullets, you gotta eat, right?" she says.

Maybe Next Time

Unlike many people in attendance, Bailey is not interested in what she calls "the boy toys" — the high-caliber weapons on offer, or the vehicles on display with machine guns mounted on top.

Bailey wanted to find a modest weapon that would help rid her garden of pests. "I found a gun I wouldn't be able to get back home," she says. "I'll be able to get anything from squirrels to feral hogs."

She said she appreciated the chance to quiz numerous makers about their guns. Other people said they were excited simply to be introduced to the latest products. Many expressed the desire to "feel" weapons in their own hands.

For Arthur May, a school security guard from Des Moines, the NRA meeting not only offered an excuse to hang out with an old friend from Wisconsin, but gave him the chance to hold a Thompson submachine gun, a vintage weapon from World War II he'd long admired.

Picking it up convinced him that, although he's a history buff and likes how the Thompson looks, it would never be right for him.

"It's an iconic weapon, but it's too bulky for me," May said. "It saved me $1,800, so I can have other dreams now."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.
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