In the course of 40 minutes I saw every hunting celebrity I can name: Remi Warren bumped into my elbow and spilled my beer, Steve Rinella is shorter than you think, Janis Putellis taller, Joe Rogan and Cam Hanes and Eric Chesser way shorter (which is saying something). This was all at SHOT, the First Lite booth, who reportedly payed $700 per keg from the official Sands caterer, whose representative got cranky and produced his work order when security tried to boot us before the agreed upon end time of 6:15pm. Actually, I saw Julie McQueen at the Browning booth that morning, and she was both taller and thinner than I would have expected based on the 1.3 episodes of Brotherhood Outdoors I forced myself to watch last summer in the name of “research.” My list was completed after 615 came and our herd moved reluctantly towards the exit, past dark booths roped close with caution tape, every pistol assiduously secured with what had to have been miles of cable locks, and I found myself hemmed in and chatting with the Joe, the managing director of ZeroPointZero, and Randy Newberg, while Gritty Bowmen and the Mtn Ops crew walked past. My list complete it was time to refind bosses and eventually the elevators upstairs to the state of the industry dinner.
Vegas casino buildings are large enough to hide almost anything you could imagine, in this case a 20 foot tall banquet hall which stretched though row after row of identically crenulated ceiling decoration far enough that I had to stand on my chair to see the edges. We were late enough that our neighbors had almost ate our salads for us, which would have been sad, as the abstractly placed lettuce, cheese shards, and small gelatin thing was quite tasty. Our neighbors were pleasant enough, 5-7 people from two separate Alabama gun part makers. We tried to talk to them about tipi tents and silnylon and backpacking.
One speech followed the other, marking perhaps the first time I’ve seen a teleprompter in person. The food was good, the plates small, the wine bosses had paid for in advance abundant. Soon enough it was keynote time.
I had been briefed that this was why we were here, Mike Rowe, host of Dirty Jobs was giving this keynote address. In planning for the occasion I had given this choice as little thought as I had the show that made him famous, which I had seen once, years ago. Walking on stage he seemed to look the part, handsome but not coifed, muscular but not sleek in jeans, large brown belt, and a SEALS family foundation t-shirt, holding as a prop a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale bottle from which he only sipped thrice in 45 minutes.
In isolation his speech would have been innocuous. He artfully rambled enough to be folksy, but not enough to be off message. He segued from the many failed efforts out of which his show grew to his early days offending a fighting the executive producer, to an extended account of the episode they did about artificially inseminating cattle, and the resulting censorship, to an episode in which he Mike got out of a tub wearing only a towel, whose length was not sufficient to conceal his genitals. I don’t recall the transition from collecting cattle sperm to Mike requesting that his editors add pixelation to enhance the absence of his manhood on television. I did snap back to full attention then, because a seeming gratuitous and explicitly self-aggrandizing, not at all short discussion of Mike Rowe’s penis in front of an indoor audience of thousands seemed entirely appropriate, given the context.
Guns are phallic symbols for more reasons than just the shape. In 21st century America they’ve become a proxy for lost power, a metaphor for days of simpler justice that surely never were. The threads had come together all day; the magazine editor who remarked offhand how President Obama had done so much to choke off the supply of ammunition, the National Shooting Sports Foundation president whose “we won” proclamation was a specific reference to November 8, the endless iconography of military-industrial machismo. This is not to say that Diane Feinstein’s gun legislation tells about anything other than a troubling lack of familiarity with the relevant material, but it is to say that the energy which suffused the show was 60% elegy, 40% throwing rocks at passing cars.
Mike Rowe capped this off nicely. He’s a regular guy, as he shared in analogue with us. He has a big dick, but he wouldn’t mind if everyone else thought it was bigger. He’s demonized by east coast (Maryland) authority figures, who as he told it are early-middle aged women more put together than domestic decency would allow. He was snide about the EPA, bringing the agency up for absolutely no reason. At the end of the speech we left quickly, and as we did I knew two things, it all made sense somehow, and I really needed more food before I went to bed.
Estimates vary, but at most 12% of US citizens buy a hunting license, and it is probably far less. 42% of the 320 million people who were US citizens in 2014 owned a gun. SHOT knows which numbers are on it’s side. Walking around Outdoor Retailer the week before, it everything but the leisure shirts and muck boots was of at least marginal interest. At SHOT the majority of booths seemed to be in a different world, little if at all concerned with going outside, or maybe only insofar as recoil and down-range distance demanded. Firearms ownership is not necessarily problematic. The viability of shooting sports themselves not under siege. But insofar as these pursuits, passions and inclinations are tying themselves, however under the table, to cultural institutions which are dying a timely if violent death, their continuance is very much in doubt a generation down the road.