gila 300

Friends without Faces

by Gila Hayes

I have a large number of friends whom I have never met face-to-face. Under the current restrictions and anxiety over the pandemic, I likely never will. I found myself commenting on that odd fact recently in phone conversation that morphed into yet another “getting to know you” visit made without face-to-face contact and as a result, lacking the facial expressions and body language on which humans generally rely to identify humor, irony, sarcasm, or “this is deadly serious” emphasis.

The same day I enjoyed that visit, Marty, Vincent and I struggled mightily with questions raised by the exodus of major gun manufacturers from the National Rifle Association Annual Meeting Sept. 3-5, 2021. In years past, this venue has provided many opportunities for face-to-face chats with new and long-standing Network members hailing from all across the country. The following day, the NRA solved the problem for us by canceling their 2021 annual meeting.

Although in years past our NRA contacts have represented but a small fraction of our 19,500 Network family members, I prize the friendly visits, the exchanges of information and experiences shared amongst fellow armed citizens, and perhaps most of all I have drawn strength from the expressions of confidence in the Network and its mission many of you have shared with me at these get-togethers. I have looked in your eyes, shared your smiles, and empathized with your anxiety about the political climate where you live and the likelihood of malicious prosecution after self defense. I would not trade those visits with members for anything.

I am a simple, hard-working person, raised many decades ago in a Wyoming ranching family. I am the antithesis of cultured, sophisticated, or to borrow an analogy, “smooth.” I’m not. As a result, I am touched by the kindness consistently expressed by our many members during those rare face-to-face visits and more frequently during phone calls and in the multitude of emails I exchange with our members and potential members. Counting so many of you as my Friends without Faces, is a rich blessing that, even after more than a decade, continues to amaze me.

Now we face the continuing uncertainty of COVID-19 and government restrictions, complicated by wildly unreliable and non-factual news reporting on both. Never has it been more difficult to make a fact-based decision! In July, after we were excessively optimistic and announced the Network’s participation in the NRA Annual Meeting, I received a heartfelt plea from a member who is a registered nurse. She was extremely concerned that we had invited participation in what she genuinely feared would become a COVID-19 super spreader event.

With the annual meeting, up until August 24th, forging full-speed ahead, it appeared to us for quite some time that Houston would be the venue of the first major gathering of armed citizens to take place since the pandemic. The convention organizers originally predicted attendance averaging 80,000 people. Whether or not that was hyperbole, I will never know. I concluded that member expectations and the value of meeting you face-to-face, with all the benefits of reading facial expressions and having a chance to listen to your experiences and concerns, more than offset dangers of infection, especially in light of uncertainty about veracity of the ever-changing data being trumpeted by the CDC. We resolved to observe reasonable precautions and to attend the meeting.

Two weeks before the NRA Annual Meeting, with the freight for our exhibit, our big box of masks and multiple bottles of hand sanitizer for the booth, already in route, word begin circulating that major gun manufacturers had plans to cancel their exhibits. The exhibit hall was subject to re-organization without large anchor booths around which smaller booths like ours orbit. Without firearms manufacturers, how many members would deal with heavy weekend traffic, parking hassles, travel expenses and yes, the unknown risk of exposure to COVID-19 to attend? How many potential new Network members might we fail to meet if large numbers of folks opted not to come to Houston? In the end, all of the arguments and counter arguments were only a debating exercise.

The elephant in the room – yes, and this is a pachyderm that lurked on the sidelines all along – remains the actions of National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre and the NRA Board of Directors’ apparent unwillingness or inability to retire him. It is impossible to determine whether concern over the annual meeting being a COVID-19 super spreader event is the entire motivation for so many of the major gun manufacturers to cancel their exhibits at the meeting or if the pandemic provided a smokescreen behind which to quietly cut ties with the NRA while it remains under Wayne LaPierre’s governance. 

In the Network’s situation, we’ve remained agnostic on the question of whether attending the annual meeting constituted support of the LaPierre regime, focused solely on our desire for face-to-face contact with our faithful Network members and an opportunity to reach out to potential new members. As we face the loss of much of that experience, I feel somewhat bereft.

Not since 2019 have we had the opportunity to talk face-to-face with large numbers of our Network family members, or to share a meal with our Network Advisory Board, or to enjoy chats and share experiences with fellow armed citizens – members or not – from all walks of life. Now, owing to a confluence of factors, we once again have lost an opportunity to enjoy those face-to-face connections. Thank goodness, as underscored by the phone chat I described at the beginning of this column, technology offers so many ways to communicate, even though it lacks the connectedness of face-to-face expression. Let’s stay in touch as best we can.

To read more of this month's journal, please click here.