Last weekend the National Rifle Association held its 147th annual convention, which was attended by a record 87,000 people. HuffPost sent reporter Melissa Jeltsen to cover it.
We asked her to report on the current concerns of gun owners, especially in the wake of horrific mass shootings like those in Parkland, Florida; Sutherland Springs, Texas; and Las Vegas and the rise of an emboldened gun control movement.
Jeltsen was met with hostility and a general belief that the media were fueling the flames of “fake news.” She wrote about the protesters she encountered and how the NRA appears to be readying itself to battle in the upcoming midterm elections. Below is a Q & A about her experience at the convention.
What was the vibe like?
It was a really interesting moment in time to observe the NRA’s annual convention. For months, the group has been under attack by gun control advocates, the most vocal of whom are the grieving Parkland teenagers. These kids watched their best friends die, and they’re angry. They don’t care about being polite or gentle, and they’ve named and shamed the NRA as enemy No. 1.
As a result, the convention, which boasted record attendance, had a real atmosphere of defiance. Many people told me they wanted to send a message of support for the embattled organization. I encountered many attendees who were at their first convention and met others who had signed up for a lifetime membership while there.
On my first full day, I sat in a packed arena to hear Vice President Mike Pence and President Donald Trump speak. (To start with, I had to fight to attend the event. Even though I was fully credentialed, an NRA staff member said she wasn’t sure if I was allowed into the arena after seeing my HuffPost badge. About 15 minutes later, after calling her boss, they let me in.)
While we waited for the president, we watched videos produced by NRATV, the organization’s news outlet. Most of the videos were about the “lying” mainstream media, as NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch put it. In one, a man stood next to a TV as it played news segments. Then he smashed it to bits with a sledgehammer. The audience in the arena went wild. Another video sent a message to the media: “What makes you think anyone wants to hear your elitist, uninformed opinions?”
The audience laughed rapturously and clapped.
During Pence’s address, he called out the media for not “telling the whole story about firearms in America.” He complained that the media focus too much “on the tragedies and the heartbreak” and ignore what happens “when well-trained, law-abiding gun owners save lives.”
I heard this point repeated over and over by NRA members during the convention: The media purposely misrepresent the reality of gun ownership in the U.S. by focusing on fringe cases.
Why do you think NRA members were so hostile about the media?
The NRA’s animosity toward the press is nothing new. But it does appear that the rhetoric has ratcheted up in the past few months. Remember Loesch’s claim that many in the media love mass shootings? My sense was that right now, gun enthusiasts feel they are personally under attack. It is not politically correct to go after their most visible opponents, the Parkland students. So instead, they’ve set their sights on the press, which they feel is responsible for creating a false perception of momentum around gun control efforts.
After Pence and Trump’s speeches, I felt a little uncomfortable walking around the convention center with a HuffPost media badge on my chest. Each time I asked people if I could interview them, it elicited comments about the dishonest media. I engaged in multiple conversations where I explained how important accurate and fair reporting was to me.
I attended three informational sessions. In each one, someone brought up the “fake news” media. A few people refused to talk to me because of where I worked. On my last day, I was standing in line to try out a virtual reality shooting game. I asked an older man in front of me if I could ask him some questions, and he agreed. I shook his hand and introduced myself as a reporter from HuffPost. “HuffPost?” he replied. “Then no.” He turned his back on me, and we remained like that in line together for the next 20 minutes.
Later that day, I was kicked out of a “school security” seminar after a panelist noticed that I was audio-recording the session on my cellphone and pointed at me. To be fair to him, the event was originally billed as closed to the press, but an NRA staff member had given me permission to attend. A security guard was called, and I was asked to pack up my stuff and leave the room.
What was most surprising about conventiongoers?
I was quite taken aback by the fact that almost everyone I talked to denied that the gun control movement was having a moment. I thought it was an indisputable fact that we could all agree on. In the past few months, we’ve seen massive protests, student walkouts, lots of state-level legislative change. But many people told me that the “fake news” media had created an anti-gun narrative and it didn’t reflect what was happening on the ground.
Each time I asked people if I could interview them, it elicited comments about the dishonest media.
What was most challenging about reporting from the convention?
I had a few goals going into the convention. First, I wanted to understand why members supported an organization that resists virtually every effort to tighten existing gun laws or to pass new gun control measures. If you’re a responsible gun owner who follows the rules, why wouldn’t you want to see the background check system expanded? But, for the most part, I struggled to find anyone to interview who didn’t simply repeat hollow slogans like “Gun don’t kill people, people kill people.” I think many people were reticent to talk to me and so stuck to talking points. It meant I didn’t learn as much as I wanted to.
Second, I wanted to hear NRA members grapple with those on the other side of the debate. Many people who are working for changes to the country’s gun laws are motivated by a personal experience with gun violence. They were shot or lost a family member. They are acting out of a sense of duty, hoping to protect others from going through the pain and tragedy they did. When I would ask NRA members about the people working to pass gun control, such as the Parkland teens, they’d essentially say, “Yeah, it sucks, but it’s not the gun’s fault. Tragedies are bad, but guns aren’t the problem.”
Talk about the protesters. What were they protesting?
For me, the most poignant moment of the convention happened on Saturday, when a father of one of the Parkland teens painted a protest mural. Here you had this grieving father, standing in front of protesters and creating a piece of art in memory of his son, who died less than three months ago.
People cried as they watched him. It was a reminder of the real, devastating impact of gun violence ― something that was rarely discussed inside the convention walls. There were two rallies over the weekend, which drew students and teachers and other concerned citizens. But the number of protesters were dwarfed by NRA supporters.
On Friday night I followed a small group of protesters as they marched around the outside the convention center, chanting, “Hey, hey, NRA, how many kids did you kill today?” At one point, a pickup truck drove by. The driver slowed down, and then someone held up an NRA swag bag in the open window. They wanted the protesters to know they weren’t with them.