An estimated 80,000 people are expected to come through the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center while the National Rifle Association’s convention is in Dallas. The NRA bills itself as the largest celebration of the right to bear arms replete with speeches from President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. But there’s another big focus of the event: commerce.
Inside the sprawling exhibition hall, more than 800 vendors are spread out across more than 15 acres. Firearms take center stage, but there’s so much more — accessories, like scopes and holsters and carrying cases and gun safes. Then there are knife sellers and archery suppliers and outdoor gear makers. You can even buy bright pink, glittery pepper spray.
“My dad would buy me the ugly pepper spray when I was in college,” Andi Atteberry said. “My mom and I were like, ‘Dad, this is not cute.’ We’d throw it in the junk drawer, forget about it.”
Atteberry launched the pepper spray company Blingsting five years ago. The tagline: Super sparkly safety stuff. It’s her first year with a booth at the NRA convention – and she says it’s better than any trade show she’s been to.
“This audience is here to spend actual money.”
Last year, 69 percent of NRA convention attendees spent more than $100 in the exhibition hall. And here’s the thing: You can’t actually buy firearms or ammunition here. Still, all gun and ammo manufacturers, big and small, are here.
David Elrod from Aguila Ammunition, based in Conroe, Texas, says you’ve got to show up to talk about your products.
“The hottest item right now is the mini-shell. It’s only an inch and three quarters long,” he said. “People love it for home defense.”
With so much to see, you have to up your game to get attention. Aguila has comfortable chairs and smartphone chargers to draw people in. Other booths blast videos with dramatic soundtracks and high production values. Then there are all the simulators or virtual reality setups for people to play with.
At the Taylor's and Company booth, old-timey-looking revolvers are on display with ornate decorative engraving and polished wood handles.
Ashley Loy’s grandmother founded the company 30 years ago with a focus on historically accurate weapons.
“They’re primarily made in Italy. They are available in a lot of finishes these days, a lot of calibers,” she said. “They’re really nice for a lot of different types of shooters: youth, guys, a lot of cowboy action shooters.”
Nationwide, gun sales have been slumping lately. Some point to politics: When Barack Obama was president, gun sales spiked as collectors bought up high-power weapons in case they were banned. Now that Trump is in office, those concerns have largely dissipated, so the pressure’s off to buy.
For Loy’s family company, though, sales have remained strong.
“Obviously, you’ve seen some fluctuation with the times, especially with the more modern firearms – semi-automatics, that kind of thing," she said. "But our product really stands the test of time, just like it did in history.”
Carey Lewis owns HiCaliber Manufacturing in Virginia, which will basically customize your gun to make it look cool. One of his display rifles is tricked out with a “Transformers” logo and “Optimus Prime” colors.
Lewis waited for four years before he was able to get a booth at the NRA convention last year. He says it’s worth the wait to get face to face with tens of thousands of potential customers. And exhibiting at NRA convention, he says, gives you credibility among gun enthusiasts.
“We’re a small business, yes. But I’m not doing this in my mom’s basement," he said. "We’re legit and we’re here to take care of you and do whatever we can do to make your firearm be your own.”
And for that, he says, he’ll come back year after year.
Note: The NRA has provided financial support to KERA.