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NRA Convention Day 1: Hitler, Background Checks and Action Track Chairs

Jim Williams is the genial grandfather we all want. His voice is soft, and his hands are weathered and firm. He smiles when he speaks. He listens when you respond. He's eager to share his stories, but he's more concerned for your well-being than his remaining days.

Which is why Williams, one of the hundreds of individuals representing arms organizations in this weekend's NRA Convention at the George R. Brown Convention, wants to make sure the Hair Balls audience understands the gravity of what we're facing.

"This is exactly what Hitler did, you remember," says Williams, in town with Superior Arms, and Iowa-based AR-15 manufacturer. "This is how he took over in the 1930s. He told people that if they didn't hand over their guns, they would be shot. And that's like where we're going."

Williams' coworkers nod along, draped on either side by the matte black cousins of the gun that killed 20 children in Newtown. I ask Williams about Newtown, and his eyes drop a bit, but his voice remains soft, reassuring.

"There's nothing we could have done to stop him," he observes. "There isn't a single thing we could have done. We can't limit magazine clips. And he could have just found something else. He could have used a hammer. He could have used the butt of the gun. He could have done anything, and we couldn't have stopped him."

Williams' son, Terry, steps forward in agreement. The elder Williams still smiles, still goes through the weapons Adam Lanza could have found, how there isn't a single piece of legislation that would have prevented a "crazy" from this all. And then the conversation turns to Superior Arms, to business at hand, and Terry jumps in.

"Sales have definitely jumped," he tells Hair Balls, putting his hand on one of the double-chamber AR-15s on display. (The rifles were juxtaposed with piles of mints, offering defense against both intruders and bad breath.) "We've sold more since that [shooting] than all of last year. You look at it, and all press is press, right? It gets our name out there. And it'll probably fall off after this legislation fails, but press is press."

And so it goes. No matter what is written about this weekend's NRA Convention, the names and the guns and the individuals are shared, and the camps remain the same. There doesn't seem to be anything this weekend that will sway a single individual on the merits of the Second Amendment, or the rights to limited government, or any of the other sociological fractures that have run since this recent spate of mass shootings. Any debate, if one were to take place, would be quickly stamped out by those coming not to dialogue, but to purchase the Latest and Greatest in advanced American weaponry.

And it's all here. Slings and silencers. Ammunition piled on top of one another. Beretta and Remington and Smiss Smith & Wesson, and rows of pink handguns and stands of showman shotguns. Scant-clad women signing scant-clad posters. As many old white men as you'd want. Booths and booths of as many arms as a small nation may otherwise employ. All of them, gathered in an industry that only continues to swell.

"I've made $60,000 in sales over the last month," said Chris Clark, a distributor with Swiss Black Powder. "That's triple what it usually is. All over the last month. And I thought it'd be higher anyway -- this is the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg coming up -- but this wasn't what I was expecting. Not this high." Clark mentions that for those in the black powder business, it took but one clip of the footage of the Boston bombing to know that they'd used black powder. And that that only helped business. "That red hue you saw? That's how I knew. That's how I knew it wasn't just a gas-line."

Of course, there's still the potential that could fall off. A Manchin-Toomey-type bill could return. Clark mentioned that New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez has come after black powder. All Menendez is asking for is a background check -- and that, according to Clark, is all that it would take to put him out of business. "These guys I sell to -- they don't want their name on any registry, anywhere. And they'll stop buying if that bill goes through," Clark told Hair Balls. "I'd kill the first guy who steps on my driveway to try to take my guns." And as an aside: "I'm not from Houston. I'm from the Spartans." He smiles, and holds his rifle tighter.

Still, not all at the convention is something ripe to divide. Doug and Paul Carlson gathered amidst the hum of firearm instruction to offer something a bit different.

"We call it the Action Track Chair," Paul tells Hair Balls, turning to watch Doug sit. Bathed in camouflage, draped in nuts and bolts and finished metal rods, the ATC looks like something out of an episode of BattleBots. A pair of triangulated snowmobile tracks provide maneuverability. A small motor under the seat allows the ATC to transform from a jerryrigged wheelchair to a vertical plank, with a strap keeping the user tethered in. "You can work on your art. You can go golfing. You can put a vice on this arm, and you can start working on your copper."

Most importantly, though, you can hunt. According to Paul, Combat Marine Outdoors, based in Baytown, owns four of these $15,000 devices, taking injured servicemen into the woods east of Houston for the hunting they never thought they'd enjoy. Moreover, with an appearance at Walter Reed on Bill O'Reilly's last week, these ATC's are set to begin selling dozens, and potentially hundreds, more than they ever thought they could. "Business is doing well," says Paul, smiling. "And it's only going to get better, it looks like."

So it will. It's only been a few hours in this convention, and the weekend's only beginning. And if the price of enjoying all this weaponry -- of enjoying all of the perks of the Second Amendment -- is to force yourself to watch a man in a CommunObama shirt chuckle alongside the loathsome former Ambassador John Bolton, so be it. "It's hard work shooting 4,000 rounds of ammo," said one of the vendors, an eager audience lapping it in. The work's only just begun.


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