Anxiety, 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 our own member, 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 fear 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 pistols from the Renaissance down through the most recent Upsurge, 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 cleaning fluids and swabs; and corporate icons with slick, multi-level marketings regions worthy of a luxury auto showroom.

And the flag, everywhere, all the time, the stars and stripes popping from pistol grips, knives, flags, T-shirts, shawls, bandannas, product booklets 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 term shows up often in handguns ad transcript, as in: We find peace in the solitude of this lifestyle, and we prosper 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 Sig Sauer rifles on display. Photo: 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 mob buzz was punctuated by omnipresent promotional videos, impromptu live briefings on subjects such as target acquisition abilities, and music, largely 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 innovators, war heroes, the family, founding fathers, rugged outdoors individualism, our liberties 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 superstars of cable-TV hunting shows, Nascar drivers, pro wrestlers, decorated veterans. More flags. History. Freedoms. America and her firearms, culture 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 absence in humor for grownup delinquent fun and sly-dog subversion, you cant beat a custom-car rally it more than attains up for in design wizardry, precision tooling and a long and honorable tradition of workmanship.

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 differences 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 savor is one of the things that constructs it so unique, reads the post, and indeed, walking the floor of the exhibition hallway I objective 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 desire, 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 want than with serving fantasies and tamping down anxieties. Clothes do it for us. Vehicles too, profoundly; in my neighborhood in Dallas you find plenty of spiff pickup trucks carrying 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 customer item, one as psychologically fraught, as a handgun.

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 thumb 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 reaches playing in every Americans mind. With a centurys worth of Hollywood puffing your product , not to mention the explicit boon of the US constitution, handgun marketing has to be one of the pig-laziest gigs around. What other customer item is sanctioned by the Bill of Right? 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 read of the second amendment happens to turn up the words well governed. 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 maintained seeing 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 route through a series of targets that included watermelons, glass worlds filled with red liquid, and fully clothed anthropomorphic mannequins, bam bam bam, stuff exploding faster than you can snap your thumbs. Thats when I got it, or at least I believe I did. This wasnt a hunting pistol. Tactical denotes human. The intra-species encounter.

Its simply not the style it was, Donald Trump told afterwards that day to thousands of NRA faithful gathered in Freedom Hall. Its only not the route 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 rep choking on their Cheetos. Not … be … frightened? What the hell! Who does Trump think were supposed to sell all these guns 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 is full of perils is beyond dispute. Peril is the air we humans have always inhaled, 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 😛 TAGEND

The sound of a driven foliage shall set them to flight, and they shall flee as one flees from the sword, and they shall fall when none seeks. 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 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 novelist 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 automobiles and robbing liquor stores. I was cursed with a dark sense of humor, he later wrote, perhaps too modestly, that attained many adults afraid of me, for reasons they couldnt quite set their thumbs on. These days the young Hunter is very likely to earn himself a diagnosis of ADD, along with IQ ratings well in the genius scope. 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 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 dread and loathing that is on me after todays slaying, Thompson wrote to a friend on the working 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 only the writers own spirit and subconsciou, but that of the country as well. Years afterward he elaborated in an interview 😛 TAGEND

People accused me of stealing dread and loathing[ from Sren Kierkegaard] fuck no, that came straight out of what I felt. If I had watched it, I likely would have stolen it. Yeah, I only remember thinking about Kennedy, that this is so bad I require 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 elicit in him Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, Iran-Contra, the marketing of Z28 Camaros or the death of the American dreaming. Fear, for the damage this horror might do to body and soul; loathing, for its affront to justice, compassion, love and the spirit of fun. For Thompson, fun included enthusiastic and knowledgeable handgun 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 sons, 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 hours 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 Day, in the United States or any other country. Build 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 religion hatred and led by merciless fanatics on both sides. It will be guerilla warfare on a world scale, with no front lines and no identifiable adversary … 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 dread, loathing and handguns. One morning a retired Courier-Journal reporter drove me around Thompsons old Cherokee Park neighborhood, a pleasant region of rolling mounds, comfortable houses and generous urban parks. Thompsons exceedingly 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 conscientiously careful with guns. Check out the photos, he told me. In nearly every photo of Thompson with handguns and there are many the gun is safe when not in actual employ, ie bolt actions with the bolt open, shotguns transgressed, revolvers with the cylinders out.

Hunter Hunter S Thompson, with his other weapon of selection. 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 ensure banners for something “ve 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 celebration concert is president of 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 obviously 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 female 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 biding 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 personnel, postwar trauma( pegged to KIA in the fact that there is 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. Photograph: Ed Kolenovsky/ AP



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