Day 6

Growing up in the NRA: A family, their guns and one member's second thoughts

Kim Kelly grew up in rural New Jersey, surrounded by hunters, guns and NRA stickers. Now, she's a writer in New York City and she's trying to come to terms with her changing views on guns and the NRA.
A pro-Confederate flag demonstrator wears a National Rifle Association t-shirt on July 10, 2017 in Columbia, S.C. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
Listen8:22

by Brent Bambury

Kim Kelly grew up surrounded by guns.

"I'm from a hunting family," she says. "And being from a hunting family means you're from a gun family."

Kelly was raised in rural New Jersey and some of her earliest memories are of gutting a deer or setting trap lines with her dad.

"There were guns all over the house," she says on Day 6.

She learned gun safety early, watching VHS videos starring Jim Varney, as he goofed his way through serious lessons like 'always wear hunter orange' and 'never point your gun at something you haven't positively identified.'

"It was one of my favourite tapes because it was — I mean, it was geared towards kids," she says.

Varney, a bumbling charmer, carries a rifle with a comically oversized sight. Scrawled on his red foam hat is the word 'Bubba.'

"He just looked like my Uncle Matt," Kelly says.

The National Rifle Association was a big part of Kim Kelly's childhood. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

A benign brand

Kelly says the National Rifle Association was a familiar brand in her childhood home, like Buckmasters, who sponsored the Jim Varney video, or Carhartt, who made her Dad's work clothes.

Some of Kim Kelly's earliest memories are of going hunting with her dad. (Photo provided by Kim Kelly)
The NRA insignia was everywhere.

"As a kid ... it was just sort of a benign, unremarkable presence, like seeing the NRA logo on a gun case," she says.

The logo was also familiar from the lifetime NRA membership jacket her dad wore.

"It's horrible," she says. "Brown leather."

None of it was unusual. The NRA was just part of the culture she grew up with.

"I was never afraid of guns or uncomfortable around guns. So the thought of any organization that promoted them didn't seem in any way strange to me because of where I was from."

Then, last August, Kelly's lifelong relationship with the NRA dramatically changed.

She went to Charlottesville, Va., to protest the Unite the Right rally that became infamous for both the violence and the president's response.

The firepower shocked her. 

"There were so many men — most of them were men — Oath Keeper militia types, men kitted out in camo, in paramilitary gear, just clutching ARs, clutching side arms."

White nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the alt-right exchange insults with counter-protesters during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

"They're just bristling with weapons, bristling with guns," she says.

Gone was the familiar context of safety and responsibility attached to the weapons of her childhood.

"I didn't know who these men were. I didn't know what their training was like," she says. "But this is the first time I was ever truly afraid of guns because I knew that there was evil behind it."

"Blood on their hands"

Kelly blames the NRA. She believes the NRA has dramatically shifted their focus from gun responsibility and safety to political lobbying on behalf of gun manufacturers.

"I know that it was not always like this," she says.

"It was, I think, about 1975 — when Harlon Carter got involved — is when there is this massive rightward shift towards focusing on this idea of Second Amendment rights," she adds. "Towards this idea of getting in bed with gun manufacturers, when the ILA, their lobbying arm, became incredibly omnipresent on Capitol Hill."

She says today's NRA doesn't resemble the organization she imagined as a youth.

Two-year-old Arianna Ludlun holds a sign at a gun rights rally and march at the Utah State Capitol on March 2, 2013 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (George Frey/Getty Images)

"When I was a kid it was, 'OK, it's this hunting/safety National Rifle Association thing.' But then they have changed into this horrific monster that has so much blood on their hands and so much unrepentant responsibility for the horrible tragedies that we're dealing with because of their actions, because of the rhetoric, and because of their absolute inability to move or shift or adapt or listen."

And what about Kelly's family? Will they have a discussion about Kelly's shift in perspective on the NRA?

"I think we are going to have to because they are not going to listen to CNN," she says, "but they might actually listen to me."

"They know that I don't want them to not have guns, because I want to have venison next time I come down," she jokes.

But she says it will be tough.

"It's unpleasant. It's hard. But I mean, if it if it takes even a little bit of support away from [the NRA] or it helps them see that they've been duped and they've been used by this organization, that is going to be worth it."

National Rifle Association members listen to speakers during the NRA's annual meeting in Houston in 2013. (Johnny Hanson/Houston Chronicle/Associated Press)

To hear the full interview with Kim Kelly, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.