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INDIANAPOLIS — As NRA members ogled racks of AR-style weapons during the group's annual convention in downtown Indianapolis Saturday morning, a 19-year-old armed with the same type of gun walked into a synagogue near San Diego and opened fire.
Semi-automatic rifles like AR-15s were originally designed to be used in war. They’re now owned by millions of Americans and have been used in some of the deadliest mass shootings of the last decade. On Saturday, the last day of Passover, the teen gunman used one to kill 60-year-old Lori Kaye and injure three others, including the rabbi, at the Chabad of Poway synagogue.
But for many attendees of the NRA conference over the weekend, the shooting only reinforced the organization’s core narrative: that violence is inevitable and “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Gun lovers there gawked at the latest models of Sig Sauer rifles, proudly displayed across the 15 acres of the space. Some attendees even entered raffles hoping to take a rifle home.
Grant Fish said the shooting just made him more concerned that he’s not allowed to bring his gun to church.
“I’m concerned we’re like sitting ducks,” said Fish, 57, who’d traveled to the convention from Columbus, Ohio.
Other conference attendees expressed a particularly fatalistic view of mass shootings.
“There’s nothing you can do to prevent this from happening,” said David Roland, a 54-year-old from Tennessee. “Evil is everywhere.” Then, Roland turned around and placed his hand on his heart, while a young woman sang the national anthem.
John Brock, 53, president of the Indiana State Rifle Association, has a similar mindset.
“There needs to be more light in the world,” he said. “And that light comes from Jesus Christ.”
“It’s a spiritual struggle,” Brock added.
Some members had more tangible ideas about how to prevent future shootings. Thomas Silvey, 66, from Indiana, suggested that better education around guns could help. “When I grew up, I had a gun, my parents had a gun, and we respected it,” Silvey said. “Education is the main thing.”
Prior to the attack, the shooter allegedly posted a violently anti-Semitic “open letter” online. He’s currently facing first-degree murder and attempted murder charges, though law enforcement said he may face additional hate crime charges.
“Hate crimes are hate crimes,” said Joe Smith, 65, from North Carolina, adding that law enforcement needs to do a better job of monitoring social media for threats. “He could have driven a car into [the synagogue] if he’d wanted to.”
The FBI received a tip regarding Earnest’s letter five minutes before the shooting, BuzzFeed reported.
The “good guy with a gun” theory
During the shooting, Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, who was shot, said that the gunman’s weapon appeared to malfunction and jam. At that moment, an unarmed Iraq war veteran said he charged toward the shooter and threatened to kill him.
NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch shared a link on Twitter to an article by the right-wing news site Daily Caller, which highlighted that intervention effort. She also shared a comment by Amy Swearer, a policy analyst at the Conservative Heritage Foundation, that played up the involvement of an off-duty border patrol agent.
“It appears an armed off-duty border patrol agent inside the synagogue may have played a significant role in saving lives,” Swearer wrote. According to police, the off-duty border patrol officer tried to apprehend the shooter after he was already in his car and driving away. The officer shot at the gunman’s car but didn’t manage to stop him.
That “good guy with a gun” narrative was echoed on the convention floor.
“What stopped the shooting from being so bad was because there was an armed border patrol agent there,” Fish said.
When President Donald Trump addressed the conference Friday, he brought two people on stage who had used AR-15s to prevent attacks, including a former NRA instructor in Sutherland Springs, Texas, who confronted a shooter who had just killed 26 people inside a church in November 2017.
But studies have repeatedly identified a correlation between the growing deadliness of mass shootings and the increasing availability of AR-style weapons. A gunman killed 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, last October, with an AR-15 style rifle and three handguns. Another killed 17 with the same gun at a school in Parkland, Florida, in February 2018.
As a result, gun control advocates often renew calls to ban AR-style weapons whenever they’re used in shootings.
But at the convention, nobody seemed worried that the Democrats were coming for their AR-style weapons anytime soon. In fact, many shrugged and said something to the effect of “Aren’t they always trying to ban them?”
“If it was any shooting with any kind of gun, they’d try to say it was an AR,” Roland said.
Roman Santi, 58, from Texas, just wants the same options he feels criminals have. “If they have ARs, then we should have ARs,” Santi said. “Otherwise, we won’t ever be able to protect ourselves and others.”
Silvey wasn’t worried either. “They’re not takin’ all this stuff away,” he said, gesturing toward the vast dispalys of firearms and gun gear. “Not in the near future, anyway.”
Cover image: The "Wall of Guns" is a mainstay of NRA conventions. A $10 ticket gives you the chance to win one of over 40 firearms displayed. (Tess Owen/VICE News)