I was sitting in Robert’s garage smoking a cigar last week when he mentioned that the 2015 Gun Rights Policy Conference was coming up that weekend. My immediate response whenever I smell a potential junket: “Do you want me to go?” A little back of the napkin budgeting later and I had a plane ticket to Phoenix for the three-day event. I had never been to a GRPC before (even though they have been going on for 30 years now) so I had no idea what to expect. What I found when I arrived was a conference that felt every one of those 30 years old — dated, lackluster, and something my grandfather would design if you could get him out of the nursing home long enough . . .
The conference was held in the ballroom of a local hotel, which is pretty much par for the course. Not much anyone can do about that. And with that choice of venue comes the standard drab beige color pallet and generic interior design. I had been in line for registration no more than five minutes and I already felt like I needed a Red Bull to make it through the day. Things would not improve from there.
Before the conference got under way the person running the sound board decided to take some liberties with the choice of music. I would expect some smooth jazz or other similarly generic white noise to be playing, but what I got instead was a mix of battle hymns (seriously, the USMC hymn was in the loop) intermixed with country style songs about Obama being a socialist. I get that the majority of gun owners seem to be Republicans, but when one of the main themes of your conference is “Expanding our outreach,” and “We need to appeal to younger voters,” that’s probably not the way to make that happen. Sure, it energizes the base, but it’s a terrible message to send when you’re trying to appear more inclusive.
Then there was the furniture. The room was laid out with rows of long conference tables and chairs, but I kept wondering why. There were a handful of people taking notes and working on computers, but the vast majority were just sitting there (and more than a few were napping). I just got off an airplane and could have used the extra leg room. The last thing I want is to be shoved into another cramped space for hours on end.
The table did serve one purpose: it held the gigantic pile of reading material provided to each attendee. The Second Amendment Foundation distributed enough books to keep you entertained throughout the conference, and there were a smattering of leaflets and pamphlets thrown in by other organizations as well. In fact, there was so much stuff that I couldn’t find the conference agenda for a few minutes.
Quick note for the SAF: if you’re going to publish a book, could you take the time to make sure that the title matches on the spine and the cover? It’s a little thing, I know, but details matter.
The agenda had called for a variety of panels to present throughout the day. I was excited, hoping to see some lively discussions about current events in gun rights interspersed with some Q&A from the audience. What I got instead was one canned speech after another, a series of people giving the same old pep rally talk time and again to a crowd that was already invested in the cause.
There were some interesting presentations, mainly from the state-level pro-gun organizations. I’ve tried to keep up with everything going on in places like California and New York, but there’s just too much happening to stay up to date. I appreciated the time the speakers took to inform us about how their various court cases were progressing and the challenges they were facing on the ground, but their time was up all too soon and it was back to the pro-gun pep rally.
And that’s really the main problem with the conference. There were moments of clarity where the speakers seem to get it — that we need to broaden our appeal to a larger and more diverse audience. That an “us versus them” mentality isn’t going to get that done. And that appealing to the younger, less OFWG-ish audience is key.
But then the agenda would veer right back to what seemed like a bunch of old men sitting around bitterly bashing Obama. Too many speakers seemed more interested in cranking out applause lines than actually sharing any new or interesting information.
In the end, over the course of the entire conference I could count the interesting tidbits I gleaned on one hand. The GRPC is basically a pep rally for the gun rights crowd, appealing to the base and not really doing well on the whole spread-the-gospel side of things. It’s absolutely a problem they can fix and I hope they do for next year’s event in Tampa.
Despite all the issues, there was one silver lining: The three-day gun rights pep rally was far better attended than the abortive gun control confab scheduled for Connecticut. That says a lot about momentum and the dedication of the people involved in the gun rights movement.