Shortly after Sidney, Ohio twins Blaine and Aaron Simpson, 11, arrived with their mom and grandfather for the National Rifle Association’s annual convention in downtown Atlanta they were firing pellets from air rifles at a variety of moving targets.
The boys eagerly chattered about what they were most looking forward to – checking out manufacturer displays, visiting with exhibitor friends they’ve met at past conventions – but were stumped when asked what their favorite firearm is.
“All of the above,” Blaine said. He and his brother shoot competitively, having been schooled from age 6 by grandad Donald Simpson, a former Navy SEAL.
They were quick to respond when asked what they enjoy about the NRA.
“It helps the Second Amendment,” Aaron said.
Organizers expect 80,000 attendees to attend the146th NRA Annual Meetings and Exhibits, as the gathering is officially called. It runs through Sunday at the Georgia World Congress Center. A full schedule and details on attending are online at home.nra.org.
Detractors have made plans to protest.
The groups Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and the Everytown Survivor Network plan a Saturday protest in Woodruff Park and Betsy Riot, calling the NRA “gun lobby death merchants” whose only aim “is to lobby for firearm companies so they can peddle their weapons of war and drive the U.S. to the highest gun death rate of any developed country,” plans to hoist billboards and fly a banner around the downtown area while the event is going on.
“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,” Betsy Riot said in a media release.
Angie Langley has the exact opposite impression of the NRA, having been a member for more than a decade.
“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 Langley, who is attending her second convention this weekend. “They do not get enough credit for gun safety.”
She lives in Orlando, Fla., and has two friends who died in the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting and a third who was injured. Shooter Omar Mateen, who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State during a mid-rampage 911 call, had legally purchased a Sig Sauer MCX rifle and Glock 17 handgun days before the attack. He held a firearms license, a concealed carry permit and had no criminal record. He passed background checks necessary for his job as a security guard. He died in a shootout with authorities.
“If someone has those intentions, they’re going to find a way to do it,” Langley said. “One of the biggest challenges in the country right now is mental illness. It’s tricky.”
A single mom, she has taken her 11-year-old to a firing range and has been diligent about making sure he learns gun safety: “He knows to respect the gun.”
The atmosphere at the convention’s check-in area on Thursday was a convivial one, at times resembling a family reunion.
Cheryl Boll of New Mexico enjoyed running into her buddy Jim Hicks of Arizona.
“We are gun fanciers, and we believe in the Second Amendment,” she said.
Hicks became an NRA member in 1959, having learned to shoot when he was 9 or 10.
Boll, a more recent addition to the organization, was in the market for firepower and should have no shortage of options. Banners promised 15 acres of hunting, shooting and other outdoors gear, and exhibitors were putting the final touches on their displays on Thursday.
Boll lives in a mountainous area replete with rattlesnakes, and she’s glad to be able to protect herself when they slither into her yard.
“I shot my first rattlesnake five years ago, and I’ve been shooting them ever since,” Boll said. She still recalls the feeling after dispatching that first venomous intruder. “I was so excited, I went and bought some more ammo.”