NRA convention: Glenn Beck and Ted Cruz wow gun fans

The National Rifle Association holds a different kind of convention.

Where else would you find workshops entitled "Home Defence Concepts", "Refuse to be a Victim" and, my own personal favourite, "Advanced Sausage Processing"?

There was a lot of politics at the NRA convention in Houston, Texas, and a lot of fundraising. But most of all there were lots and lots of guns - handguns, shotguns, rifles, airguns, vintage guns, lady-guns, guns, guns, guns and more guns.

For the outsider it is a plunge into an unknown world populated almost entirely by white, very well-mannered and extremely opinionated NRA members.

On the convention's first day, there was raw politics, and lots of it. Texas Governor Rick Perry was transformed - no longer the laughing stock of the Republican presidential primary race, instead he had the craggy looks and homely discourse of a young(ish) Reagan.

Governor Perry talked of the first gun he owned, using a loving tone that his audience nodded along to but would leave much of the rest of the world utterly baffled.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a darling of the right wing of the Republican party, led the charge against what he called Obama liberals, striding the stage and whooping up the crowd as only a law professor knows how.

And onetime Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum lauded the "heroic people who love this country for what it is and what it has been".

For those who had the good fortune to follow the Republican presidential primaries and the Mitt Romney campaign, it was deja vu all over again. Obama liberals, media elites and Washington insiders were all in the firing line, while the faithful clapped and cheered. They were, the speakers told them, the real America. And if America is entirely white and very conservative, that is very true.

In few places are the divisions between "red" and "blue" America, and America and much of the rest of the world, more sharply highlighted than at a convention like this.

By midday on Saturday the vast exhibition floor was packed with NRA members. The air was full of the sound of guns being cocked, of bolts being slid and of eager salesmen explaining the new features of this or that weapon.

Comfort amid change

It was a family day out for many as children took their turns target shooting and admired the matt-black stocks of weapons that, if they were lucky, would one day be theirs.

NRA-world is a comforting place at a time of bewildering change, where what one is constantly reminded are traditional American values reign supreme and modern life only intrudes in the form of biometric scanners for gun safes and laser-targeting on high-velocity rifles.

Outside the convention centre, a pathetically small group reminded a largely uncaring world that guns are not just about hunting and self-defence but are part of the reason for the staggering loss of life on America's streets, in its homes, and in its schools.

Some had come a long way, bringing the ghosts of their murdered relatives with them. Erica Lafferty, 27, worked in sales until mid-December last year. Her mother, Dawn Hochsprung, was the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School and was gunned down trying to protect her young students.

Now Erica Lafferty's life is spent trying to cajole lawmakers into extending background checks to all gun purchases - something the NRA and its Republican allies managed to defeat in the Senate last month.

"Stand and Fight" was the theme of the final rally of the convention, hosted by right-wing talk show host and rhetorical bomb thrower Glenn Beck.

Before he even spoke he had received the longest standing ovation of the convention. "They want to regulate us until we comply," he told the adoring audience. "I will not comply." The crowd went wild.

"The freedom of all mankind is at stake," he added.

Erica Lafferty sees things differently. "My mother chose to stand and fight on December 14th," she says, "and she was brutally, brutally murdered in the hallways of her elementary school. Now I am going to stand on the opposite side of the road, to stand and fight."

But the NRA is a canny and powerful opponent, able simultaneously to project enormous strength and to persuade its members that they are the downtrodden victims of liberal elites disconnected from the real America.

Underestimating the NRA is a mistake that few politicians are now prepared to make. This weekend's convention was many things - political gathering, gun fair, social outing. But it was also a victory rally, and it will not be the last.