Last year's National Rifle Association convention brought 80,000 people to downtown Atlanta, and on opening day I interviewed some of the nicest people I'd ever met.
Given the heated protests that preceded the April 2017 event at the Georgia World Congress Center and the "fake news media" narrative some have embraced, I thought covering it might be awkward. Nope. Everyone I approached wasn't just friendly. It's like they were personally glad I was there.
A former Navy SEAL from Ohio was there with his 11-year-old twin grandsons. Not long after they arrived, the two young fellas were firing pellets from air rifles, their form and marksmanship impressive.
A lady from New Mexico was happy to run into friends she had met at past events and eager to check out the acres of merchandise. Living out west, she noted, means living with rattlesnakes.
“I shot my first rattlesnake five years ago, and I’ve been shooting them ever since,” she said, still giddy at dispatching that first venomous foe.
I ran into former U.S. Army Ranger Kris "Tonto" Paronto, a survivor of the 2012 Benghazi attack, and he remembered me from our interview during the press tour for "13 Hours," the movie that depicted the event. Swarmed with fans the ebullient Tonto took a minute to talk with me again.
The family reunion vibe changed on Day 3, when NRA leaders and President Donald Trump arrived.
NRA chief Wayne LaPierre declared "academic and media elites" to be the biggest threats to the country. The crowd roared. The cavernous auditorium was darkened but the press pen situated in the center of the huge meeting hall was illuminated by our laptop screens. Reporters were easy to spot, in other words.
“Give the media the big, fat black eye it deserves!” LaPierre urged. More cheering. “When did the media stop being journalists and start becoming PR flacks for the destruction of our country?”
What? I live here. Why would I destroy my home?
My dad and grandfathers all served in the military. My father-in-law did too. My great-uncle was a highly decorated veteran of three wars. My husband shoots sporting clays. There are more than a dozen firearms (all long guns that must be loaded prior to each shot, and a number of antique pieces that haven’t been fired in decades) in my house.
No one in the angry crowd knew that. All they knew was that, according to their leader, I was the enemy.
There was more shouting outside, as protesters set up shop near Centennial Olympic Park before marching through downtown.
“We are protesting this murder fantasy convention with mockery and anger and will continue our direct actions until the country is free from the grip of the violence-for-profit industry,” the group Betsy Riot said in a media release.
I caught up with the roving movement and recognized a neighbor in the crowd. We talked about our hydrangeas for a minute; then she resumed the march and I headed back inside the convention hall. The keynote speeches over, conventioneers seemed happy and friendly again. I wouldn’t call them a murder-fantasy crowd any more than I’d agree that reporters want to destroy the country.
This year's NRA convention is scheduled to be held in Dallas, although the city's mayor pro tem wants them to go elsewhere.
I hope that if the convention does go on as planned, people from opposing camps will find a way to talk to each other, instead of shouting.
"I believe there should be background checks," a welder from Atlanta told me. "Not everyone should have a gun; clearly not people with mental illness."
“I don’t think anyone that’s a member of the NRA wants to see guns end up in the hands of someone who is a danger or threat to society,” said a single mom from Orlando. After she lost two friends in the Pulse nightclub shooting spree in 2016, she wanted her son to learn gun safety.
Added a Coast Guard member from Florida, “Let’s have an educated conversation about it, not a violent one.”
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