High-Caliber Kids

Nine-year-old Walter Burke scopes out a Socom II assault rifle.
Josh Harkinson

The Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine gun is the darling of the Navy SEALs and of special forces around the world. It fires up to 600 rounds a minute, attacking human flesh like it's hurling a chain saw. Regular citizens can't buy it because it's too dangerous. Eight-year-old Judah Matthews can't reach it atop a gun rack because he's too short. So his brother Micah hands it down. Judah wraps his small arms around the buttstock and flips the switch from safety to full auto. His brother grabs an even larger assault rifle. That's when the boys are blinded by a flash.

It comes from their father's camera.

At the 134th national conference of the National Rifle Association, which ended earlier this week in Houston, young people aren't just exposed to guns. They're encouraged to handle some of the most powerful weaponry in the republic. It's all in service of the NRA's efforts to attract and educate a new generation of members -- people who will blow away all opposition to the right to bear arms, but who won't blow away classrooms full of their peers.

"The conference is very much a family event," says NRA spokesman John Robbinson. The NRA counts about 35,000 youth members, many of them participants in its shooting-safety seminars. In the wake of the recent massacre in Minnesota, in which a teenage gunman killed two grandparents, five classmates and himself, the NRA is promoting such training sessions as antidotes to violence. "That's what we can do to keep gun accidents down," Robbinson says.

At a minimum, the conference keeps kids engaged. "It's awesome," says Micah Matthews, who is 16. "I love guns. I love looking at them. I actually have a shotgun and two rifles, so it's just a blast to see all the military guns and rifles."

His brother Judah's favorite part of the event is "all the free candy," which the gun vendors are handing out. There are also displays of stuffed animals, such as prairie dogs -- a big attraction for six-year-old Josie Harrington. A lifetime member of the NRA, along with her one-year-old sister, the Pennsylvania girl owns a .22-caliber rifle and hopes to eventually graduate to pistols. "I would rather shoot a pistol, because it's easier to hold sometimes," says the blond elementary schooler, "because big guns usually weigh a little more."

Josie's father, Gerald Harrington, says the conference is a wholesome way for his daughter to learn about her Second Amendment rights. "There is nothing in there that I do not want my children to see or do," he says. "There is nothing in there that I object to."

A few minutes earlier, Southern rocker Ted Nugent gave a talk to at least 1,000 people, titled "God, Guns and Rock-'N-Roll." He spoke of his apparent desire to shoot a turban-wearing terrorist during a recent trip to Iraq. "I was just hoping somebody would take me hostage," he said. "Just aim for the laundry."

Nugent hosts Kamp for Kids, an outdoors program that includes gun-safety training. But his gun talk veered off into other subjects, such as a run-in with federal agents on a ranch near Crawford. The feds showed up and "I went, 'Oh, shit! It's a raid,' " he said. So he told one of them, "I've got a bunch of guys with McMillan assault rifles trained on the back of your head." In fact, the feds just wanted to play target practice. Nugent set up bowling pins a few hundred feet away and took aim with a government rifle. "Before I shot, I went, 'In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Michael Moore.' And I blew him up! Beautiful!"

Michael Moore produced a pro-gun-control documentary, Bowling for Columbine.

Liberals, who Nugent said need to be "eliminated," might have a problem with the effect of his rhetoric on children. But Benny Remedios, his eight-year-old son and his 15-year-old nephew didn't take much issue with it. "If we don't have people who are outspoken to the right as are outspoken to the left, we don't get the attention," Remedios says.

Remedios was wearing a shirt that said, "PETA: People for the Eating of Tasty Animals."

According to some young attendees, the real source of America's savagery has to do with the modern heathens on TV -- Nugent excepted, of course. "The weapons have always been there," says Damaso Torres, executive director of the San Antonio-based Students for the Second Amendment. "We have grown into a media culture and a society that is very different."

The NRA conference offers young people some alternatives to debased media influences, such as a video game that eschews shooting humans in favor of prairie dogs. A kid with spiky hair uses the game's target to locate a varmint, then says, "Hey, John, I'm going to hit him right in the butt!" He watches the creature somersault into the air.

But violent media influences are inescapable for some kids, even inside a 1.2 million-square-foot convention center filled with little more than guns. In fact, for 13-year-old Grant Fielding, those influences are what have brought him here. "I always play Counter-Strike," he says, after handling an AR-15, a civilian version of a military assault rifle. "So I wanted to know what it's really like."

His father clarifies: "How heavy all these guns are that he carries around on the video screen."

A bit on the soft and pasty side, Grant doesn't look like the kind of kid likely to run out and join the marines. But the gun's weight doesn't deter him. "I need to get one of those," he says.

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