It's 8 on Saturday night in Reno, and 2,500 of the most avid members of Safari Club International—the sort of hunters who target lions instead of, say, ducks—are packed into the Tuscany Ballroom at the Peppermill Hotel and Casino, poking at their Chocolate Hazelnut Bombe with Frangelico Cream. Some are dressed in tuxedos; others are sporting ankle-length hides and Flintstone-style fang necklaces. In the world's largest and most active big-game hunting organization, "semi-formal" seems to have many meanings. The assembled masses have reached that special part of the evening when the filet mignon is finished, the awards have been awarded, and the green and blue laser beams that periodically shoot from the stage are no longer as dazzling as they were two hours ago. They are, put simply, getting bored.
But now, finally, is the moment most of them have been waiting for since Wednesday morning, when SCI's 39th-annual convention began. As President Larry Rudolph finishes introducing his keynote speaker—a figure he describes as "truly one of us"—the crowd doesn't wait to hear her name before leaping to its feet. They know it fairly well already: former Alaska governor, former Republican vice-presidential candidate, and once and future huntress of caribou and clubber of halibut...the one and only Sarah Palin.
Palin is all smiles as she strides onstage. The press has been barred from tonight's event, and she knows she won't find a crowd this friendly again anytime soon—especially in a key presidential caucus state. The audience is even happier. For the past few days, powerless rank-and-file Safari Clubbers have been fretting over what the government plans to do with their guns after January 8's tragic shooting in Tucson. Now they're about to hear from someone who may potentially have the pull to prevent their worst nightmares from coming true. The roar of the crowd is positively leonine.
Warm welcome or not, it still takes a few minutes for Palin to hit her target. At first, she seems to address every topic except the aftermath of Tucson. She admits that she "threw a little politics" into her recent TLC reality show by dragging the crew to the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge on the pretense of hunting caribou. Her real purpose? Showing viewers that ANWR is a "barren, desolate, less-than-pristine place"—perfect, in other words, for lots of new oil drilling. "If a caribou needs to be sacrificed for the sake of energy independence," she adds, "I say, 'Mr. Caribou, maybe you need to take one for the team.'" She mentions how some media figures have pledged not cover her at all in February, and says the boycott "sounds good" to her: "because there's a lot of chaos in Cairo, and I can't wait to not get blamed for it—at least for a month." She even cites her children's Christian names as evidence of her outdoorswoman cred. "Piper was named after Todd's airplane, the Piper Cub, which gets us to the hunting grounds," she explains. "Bristol, Bristol Bay fishing grounds. Willow, a local sport-fishing stream. Trig, I pull the TRIG-ger. Track ... I remember when we told my dad that his grandson was named Track, he said, 'Like TRACKing an elephant?'"
But in the middle of a story about her daughter's stint on Dancing With the Stars, Palin is suddenly reminded of the pachyderm in the room—"this recent talk coming from the White House," as she puts it, "about President Obama's attempts to perhaps infringe further upon our Second Amendment rights." Somewhere, a man boos, and a few others follow his lead. Palin nods in agreement. "We need to keep tabs on what the White House is telling us," she continues. "Just think if we had even stricter gun-control laws!" As the crowd hoots and hollers, a grin slowly spreads across Palin's face. It's the look she gets when she knows she's on a roll. "Imagine, though—imagine making life even more miserable for the liberals who want that gun control," she finally says. "Here's how I figure it. Remember that weird guy in Wisconsin was so angry, so upset, watching a Palin win slot after slot each week on Dancing With the Stars that he shot Bristol through his TV? He blasted his Panasonic? Well, I'm thinking, 'Imagine more gun control. Then he'd have to attack his Panasonic with a butter knife.'"
Palin isn't the first politician to address an SCI convention—George H.W. Bush and Tom Ridge, among others, have beaten her to the punch. But she may be the most zeitgeist-y. Every year, tens of thousands of America's keenest hunters gather, usually in Reno, for the group's annual confab. Most of the time, the proceedings aren't overtly political. Big-game aficionados consult with thickly accented outfitters about their next $35,000 trip to Mozambique or Mongolia. Architects tell conferencegoers how best to build "trophy rooms" to accommodate the heads of all the animals they've killed over the years, or plan someday to kill. Men in camouflage baseball caps and leather aviator jackets admire the latest rifles, sights, and bullets under the watchful gaze of long-dead, long-stuffed beasts.
But this year was different. In the wake of the rampage in Tucson—the location, incidentally, of SCI's world headquarters—gun control has once again become a hot topic in Washington, D.C., and around kitchen tables nationwide. On the left, activists are agitating for stricter gun laws—a fight that President Obama plans to join in the coming weeks. The right, meanwhile, is "reloading," as Palin likes to put it, and girding itself for yet another round of Second Amendment warfare. It's no surprise, then, that with the former Alaska governor on the dais, and with both the Tucson tragedy and the threat of new regulations in the air, SCI's 2011 convention was transformed from a simple hunter's meet-up into something far more complex, and far more revealing—a ground zero, of sorts, for a community on the brink of a potential crisis.
To call SCI's constituency "hard-core" is something of an understatement. For four days before Palin's arrival in Reno, every inch of the 370,000-square-foot Reno-Sparks Convention Center was given over to the worldwide hunting industry, with 2,000 vendors—guides, taxidermists, artists, jewelers, rifle makers, even rare-book dealers—occupying a seemingly endless grid of evocatively named rows (Buffalo Run, Javelina Highway). In low-lit meeting rooms, members sat in rapt attention as experts lectured on "Fierce Fishes of the Amazon" or "Wild Game and Wine Pairing." On the floor, a crowd encircled booth 228, Mokore Safaris, to watch a DVD of a hunter pumping three bullets into an unsuspecting pachyderm and beaming as it dropped dead. There were giddy husbands shouldering Browning rifles and squinting at imaginary prey, and dutiful wives decked out in leopard-print miniskirts, leopard-print scarves, and leopard-print heels waiting nearby. When iPhones ring, the sounds of quacking ducks and trumpeting elephants issued from the pockets of their owners' Levi's. And overseeing it all was a panoply of stuffed creatures and mounted heads that would shame even the most populous zoo: 315 deer, 87 elk, 11 moose, and 132 representatives of similarly antlered species, from duikers to elands to kudu to bongos, some of them forever frozen in the jaws of one of the 38 lions, 27 leopards, 15 wolves, or 48 bears on display.
But despite the celebratory tableau, the mood in Reno, as dozens of attendees confirmed in conversation, was less festive than usual. Many, like Wyoming outfitter Ron Dube, couldn't help but feel defensive about their beloved sport. Dube's look—red embroidered Western shirt, red floral belt buckle, tan cowboy hat, assorted knives and fobs dangling from his belt—was pure, proud frontiersman. Still, a note of sadness kept creeping into his presentation on "gutless gutting." One second he was confidently telling his audience to "ream the anus ... then go ahead and split the testicles to pull the penis out"; the next he was lamenting that while "hunters are looked up to in Europe," that's "not so much" the case "in some of our bigger cities." Like most guides, Dube stressed the importance of using every part of the animal—but for reasons that had as much to do with PR as ethics. "We all know nowadays how important it is not to give people opposed to our way of life any ammunition," he explained. Dube seemed to see contemporary culture as an existential threat of sorts—a hostile force. "Do me a favor and take a young person hunting this fall," he said in closing. "If you don't have one at home, borrow one. No one's teaching them what hunting means to us anymore."
The vast majority of conventiongoers appeared to share at least some of Dube's anxiety. Resting for a moment on a bench and gazing at some melodramatic portraits of water buffalo, Lavon Wenger, a 75-year-old Kansan who resembled a friendlier Randy Newman, admitted that he didn't "really need a semiautomatic weapon." "Who does?" he added. Still, Wenger, like many of his fellow Safari Clubbers, was quick to explain that if the Obama administration does, in fact, pass new gun laws—even if they only affect the kind of high-capacity handgun magazines that Jared Loughner used in Tucson—his rights as a hunter will inevitably, irrevocably be infringed upon. "Once you get started, where does it stop?" he said. "I've seen what's happened in other parts of the world." This line of argument—the "slippery slope" scenario—was common at the convention. But despite his worries, Wenger was ultimately confident that America would emerge from Tucson as armed as it ever was. "In general, I'm real upset about the way this country is going," he said. "But when it comes to gun control, I just hope the American people won't stand for it."
Not every Safari Club member was as hardline as Wenger. Dave Talley, 74, started hunting in the woods around his childhood home in Greenville, S.C., when he was just "8 or 9 years old." And while he hasn't been out in some time—"bad back"—he still runs the scope-ring and -mount manufacturing business he started more than 40 years ago, and he's still passionate about the sport. Asked about Tucson as he waited for his electric wheelchair to charge, Talley didn't spout the party line, even though he agreed that Safari Clubbers are "nervous and touchy" because they "don't trust Washington politicians to stop" once they get started. Instead, Talley zeroed in on the need for stronger mental-health screening and cross-cultural compassion. "It's a tough issue, and I don't know the answer," he confessed. "Of course people from New York are going to want to outlaw guns when they only see them being used for killing, and of course people from rural areas are going to disagree. But emotions won't solve a thing."
A few members, like Leonard Kutkey of Spokane, Wash., were willing to go even further, calling on the government to pass "more regulations on handguns—guns with no sporting purpose." Asked how the National Rifle Association would respond to such apostasy, Kutkey, a tall, professorial, white-bearded man, scoffed. "I think that the NRA goes too far, and that's why I've never been a member," he said. "It's overkill. We hunters pay a price for it." But Kutkey knew he was in the minority, and, looking around the room, he guessed that "99 out of every 100 people here w[ould] disagree."
Bob Dubose certainly did. A weathered 67-year-old native of Chico, Calif., who wouldn't look out of place in a John Wayne movie—cowboy hat, blue plaid shirt, a pinch of Skoal in his lower lip—Dubose may have spoken for the bulk of conventiongoers when he offered up his take on Tucson. "Am I worried?" he asked, spitting a mouthful of tobacco juice into a clear plastic cup. "Sure. But only because the communistic media is making more of this damn thing than it's worth." At the end of the day, Dubose added, gun control is not only pointless—it's counterproductive: "I can make a gun in an hour from a car aerial and some other junk. You think some new law is going to stop a criminal?"
Back in the Tuscany Ballroom, Palin is doing her part to cheer up the congregation, punctuating her remarks with one-liners that wouldn't have been out of place at Wednesday's dinner with Larry the Cable Guy. "My family loves animals in the wild—and also next to the mashed potatoes. "For most of these frou-frou, chi-chi types, the extent of their experience is in the Tiki Room at Disneyland." "We eat organic—we just have to shoot it first. And it comes wrapped in fur, not cellophane." The Safari Clubbers are going wild.
But Palin reserves the biggest lines for the end of her speech. While she's alluded to Tucson throughout the night, she's never addressed the incident directly. Now, finally, she does. "My heart of course aches for the families of those who lost their lives at the hands of a deranged evil criminal, OK," she says. "And like you I'm praying for the victims, for their full recovery, watching in amazement reports of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, pulling for her, so thankful that her life was spared." There's a familiar defensiveness in Palin's tone—the "OK," the "of course"—as if her mourning and her prayers, while heartfelt, are also serving as segues into more political territory.
Turns out they are. Within seconds, Palin has pivoted to the real point of her remarks. "I'm knowing too, though," she continues, "how important it is, for their sake, for America's sake, that we do not allow the evil acts of one mentally deranged murderer [to] change America's way of life. We must not allow this tragedy to stifle our constitutionally protected rights, including our Second Amendment rights. Beware of what's coming. I really do believe that God has shed his grace on thee. We can't blow it. We can't allow an atrophy of the foundation that is America, that is so exceptional." With that, the Safari Club is on its feet again, and its keynote speaker is waving her way offstage.
In public, Palin tends be guarded about her plans for the future. But earlier in the evening, she dropped a small hint about her potential ambitions. After some boilerplate comments about how "local government is the most responsive and responsible to the will of the people" she paused for a moment and stared out across the ballroom. And then came this: "That's why I think every president should have a run at gaining experience by being a councilmember, a mayor, a governor, a VP candidate, a commercial fisherman, a hockey mom." As the attendees cheered, Palin made a halfhearted attempt to quiet them down. "No, I'm kidding," she said, beaming. "I try to be funny sometimes. I'm kidding." But they hoped she wasn't.
This originally appeared on the DailyBeast.