My last major stop was the NRA member’s meeting. In the wake of grifting scandals, a handful of NRA members stood up to challenge LaPierre. The majority stuck with him, as did the 70-plus member board of directors.

“We’ve got the best,” murmured one member sitting next to me. “Gotta pay him that way.” I sat between two elderly men who argued over which one of them got to talk to me. “We just got her,” one told the other. When the room got remarkably cold, as the executives were trying to end the debate, one of them offered me his jacket.

As I left the room, the recording I’d made of the proceedings disappeared from my phone.

On Sunday, I walked to one of the adjacent hotels. The car bay was filled with black SUVs, their windows tinted. I passed a man wearing an Israeli flag lapel pin, and sat down at the hotel bar next to someone speaking Russian on the phone.

A young man around the corner from me confided he was saving money to buy his 10th machine gun—this time, a belt-fed one. He thought he might need it if the US Army became a tool of an authoritarian regime. He was aggravated that there was a waiting period.

He was the father of two children. If they’re anything like my kids, they worry about school shooters. Our gun laws, I pointed out, enable patriots like himself to arm themselves, but also allow a small number of crazy people to buy weapons. I asked: Did he think, like Joe the Plumber: “Your dead kids don’t trump my constitutional rights?”

He said he understood Joe’s point of view. But then he relaxed for a minute, and said he’d be open to a compromise that would allow him to go through a one-time thorough background check—the kind of licensing process the NRA has opposed—if it meant he didn’t need to fill out the paperwork every time. He thanked me for my respectful questions, and we agreed that keeping the lines of communication open was vital.

I think he knew I was a reporter. We are who we are. In a pluralistic nation, we just have to live together.

The real target

Of course, as a reporter, you think about what’s happening off your notebook pages. At the NRA convention, the real story wasn’t about laws, or politics, or small arms being bought and sold. It was about the America that is being destroyed from the inside out.

The real story to me is the war we’re living at home, holed up in our houses, buying guns and tweeting rapid-fire nastiness, manipulated by dollar-hungry executives into feeding them with our fear and anger.

It’s the tragedy Dwight Eisenhower described in his 1953 address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, reinvented at an individual level for the 21st century:

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.  This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. […]

This, I repeat, is the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

Leave it to a general to understand the price we pay when we allow our fear to dominate us into a culture of defensiveness.

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