Showing Holes

The once-mighty NRA is wounded–but still dangerous.

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These are not exactly halcyon days for the National Rifle Association. Not long ago it was arguably the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill, but lately it’s been taking some hits. Despite using all the old standbys–direct-mail blitzes, ad campaigns, the rhetoric of fear–the NRA just doesn’t seem able to strike quite as much terror in the hearts of politicians anymore.

The Brady Bill, with its minimal controls (like a five-day waiting period) on handgun sales, was in NRA eyes A Terrible Thing, but they could not stop it in Congress. The NRA failed to block recent gun-control initiatives in Virginia, New Jersey, and New York. A fight is expected in Connecticut as Governor Lowell Weicker plans to draft legislation that would virtually ban private ownership of guns.

Although last November’s elections showed that the NRA still has enough clout to make a difference (especially in the gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey), this is a moment of opportunity for gun-control advocates. President Clinton backed the Brady Bill, called for curbs on assault weapons, and created an interagency task force on violence prevention that, some speculate, may be considering new options to control firearms. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-New York, wants the president’s health-care plan to include a massive new tax on ammunition. And in legal and public-health circles, there is talk of holding gun manufacturers liable for the societal costs their products incur (see sidebar).

Finally, the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine was able to destroy a sacred NRA myth last October when it revealed in a carefully documented study that house- holds with guns are not safer, but much more dangerous, than households without guns. In fact, according to the study, it’s three times more likely (even when accounting for factors such as race and income) that someone will be killed in your home if handguns are present.

None of this is good news for the true believers at the NRA.

Worst of all, the public may be deserting the cause. A Harris Poll found that more than half of the American population now favors handgun controls, and a majority would favor changing the Second Amendment, if necessary, to bring gun violence under control. The surgeon general told Mother Jones that she considers gun violence the leading public-health problem in the nation

Why? The answers are on the nightly news: tourists are gunned down at highway rest stops; foreign exchange students are murdered when they knock on the wrong door; the Waco standoff turns into a holocaust; heavily armed madmen blow away victims in restaurants, schools, and office buildings; young kids kill each other and their teachers, or commit suicide. Between the drive-by shootings and the domestic disputes that escalate into firefights, it seems that anybody, anywhere, anytime is at risk.

Behind all the headlines looms a seldom-voiced question: how much longer will the tiny fraction–probably no more than .04 percent–of the American population that is actively involved in the NRA continue to dominate public policy on guns?


On a sun-drenched morning last October, the downtown Washington office building that houses the NRA was besieged by a small band of angry members of Congress. Led by Representative Nita Lowey, D-New York, the group of six female representatives demanded that the NRA stop running a series of glossy ads in such family magazines as People and Redbook. Ostensibly, the “Refuse to Be a Victim” ads were aimed at giving women information about self-defense, but Lowey charged that the ads were really a thinly veiled attempt to get women to buy guns and join the NRA. “They’re preying on women’s legitimate fears,” Lowey protested. “This campaign has made it clear to me that they have a new target–American women.”

In addition to the ad campaign, the NRA has launched a $2 million get-tough-on-crime initiative dubbed CrimeStrike, hired new pollsters to improve its image, relied heavily on police-affiliate groups to make up for its poor standing in the official law enforcement community, and expanded a controversial direct-mail drive to boost its membership.

The NRA’s public relations crusade has been supplemented by increasingly heavy spending on lobbying and political activities. The NRA’s lobbying arm spent a whopping $28.9 million in 1992.

But all the money the group is throwing around may not be able to mask what appears to be serious weakness inside the NRA army. The organization, previously torn by internal disagreements, is now suffering from new problems, including:

* Severe financial troubles. The NRA racked up a $9 million deficit in 1991, a near $30 million deficit in 1992, and was showing another $15.8 million in red ink by the end of August 1993–although NRA Treasurer Wilson Phillips claimed that the deficit would be only $7 million at the end of the year. Since 1990, the group’s liquid assets have dropped from $90 million to $60 million–a startling 33 percent decline.

The NRA’s executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, Jr., has downplayed the seriousness of the deficits; in a late 1992 speech to the NRA board he argued, “The National Rifle Association isn’t a business. It’s a cause.” He added that the group “wins not when we’re skillful misers, but when we’re skillful investors.”

* Crackdowns on dissension. Leaders from the Florida, Oregon, and Iowa affiliate groups were hauled before a special NRA “ethics” committee last year because they questioned the party line on priorities and the organization’s mounting deficits. Paul Daniels, a lifetime NRA member and president of the Florida Sport Shooting Association, was suspended for two years for printing a letter in his group’s newsletter that raised questions about the deficits.

* New signs of rebellion. David Edmondson, who retired in April 1993 as executive director of the NRA’s Texas affiliate, is an outspoken critic of the current leadership’s financial management. He is actively organizing a union of state affiliates to gain more leverage over headquarters. Edmondson says that, so far, about eight state groups are interested in the idea. “It’s obvious that they want the state affiliates to keep their mouths shut,” he says. “They have a built-in means of disseminating information through their newspapers.”

Some of the internal strife plaguing the NRA may stem from the controversial role played by board member Neal Knox, whose particular brand of zealotry was recently documented by the Wall Street Journal. Knox likes to say things like, the way to solve the crisis in Somalia is to hand out AK-47s to the Somali masses; or, the modest 1968 Gun Control Act (aimed at banning the import of Saturday-night specials) was based on a law originating in Nazi Germany.

But Knox’s hard-line style may be out of touch with much of the NRA’s rank-and-file membership, which traditionally encompasses hunters, gamesmen, and gun collectors. Many of them would doubtless vote with the majority of Americans who, according to the recent Harris Poll, are now willing to contemplate some gun-control measures, whereas to Knox any gun control is tantamount to full surrender. He and other NRA true believers are adherents to an absolutist interpretation of the Second Amendment that even former Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger, a gun owner and a conservative, has denounced as a “fraud.” (In fact, legal scholars have repeatedly pointed out that the amendment contains no substantial barriers to federal, state, or local gun-control laws. See sidebar.)

For the NRA, the political terrain is changing all too radically. For decades the organization successfully blocked even modest gun-control laws. But now the climate of fear and intimidation that they created is crumbling, and gun-control groups are talking optimistically about the chances for bans on semiautomatic assault weapons and on gun possession by minors–the latter a measure even the NRA now (quietly) endorses.

In response to the changing environment, the NRA has been working overtime to craft a strategy for winning new support. LaPierre, the NRA’s brash and bullish executive vice president, says the NRA is in a political dogfight; he has pushed the NRA to reshape its public image in an effort to recruit new adherents. LaPierre boasts that the NRA membership has increased by 800,000 since 1991 to 3.3 million, and claims that the Clinton administration’s attacks are helping. “People respond when there’s a threat,” he explains. “I think Clinton is mobilizing gun owners at record rates.”

A fervent opponent of gun control, LaPierre blames the media for all that ails America and the NRA. At an NRA convention in Nashville last April, he warned that the United States is being “driven apart by a force that dwarfs any political power or social tyrant that ever existed on this planet: the American media.”

Under LaPierre’s and Knox’s leadership, the NRA in recent months has paid pollsters lavishly to help the group repackage its image. Though this turn to pollsters for direction is hardly a sign of ideological conviction, it could give the group a short-run boost to make cosmetic alterations.

The question is whether the pollsters’ insights may backfire badly with women and other constituencies. The “Refuse to Be a Victim” ads, which cost the NRA just under $1 million, were tested for about two months in Houston, Miami, and Washington. They showed a woman–actress Susan Howard of “Dallas”–looking terrified as she and her young daughter walked through a dark underground garage.

Although the NRA claims that the ad campaign was not meant to encourage women to buy guns or to boost its membership, the ads did include an 800 number where callers could sign up to join CrimeStrike, and invited women to attend self-defense classes, which the NRA helped organize in the three test cities. The NRA also ran television ads in Houston and radio spots in Miami. To test the concept, pollster Gary Lawrence worked with focus groups in ten cities. Four hundred individual interviews with women were conducted as well, according to Tanya Metaksa, who runs what the NRA calls its “women’s policies group.”

Despite the NRA’s careful planning, a backlash is already underway. Betty Friedan, the feminist author and activist who helped organize last year’s Los Angeles conference on guns and violence, denounced the NRA campaign as a “false use of feminism.” Friedan added that the real issue is not “just a question of violence against women. It’s also against children and a whole generation of young blacks.”

Like the ad campaign, the NRA’s CrimeStrike initiative seems to be spurred in part by public relations concerns. In recent years, the NRA has been trying to shore up its fast-eroding support in the law enforcement community.

For much of its 122 years, the NRA worked in tandem with police groups on major issues relating to crime and guns. Starting in the mid-1980s, however, rifts emerged as the NRA opposed legislation that would have banned so-called cop-killer bullets.

The NRA also made the major blunder of taking on Joseph McNamara, the well-known former head of the San Jose, California, police department. The NRA ran an ad, headlined “So You Want Legalized Drugs in America?”, that distorted McNamara’s beliefs and angered many law enforcement officials.

CrimeStrike, which combines state lobbying with national advertising and direct-mail blitzes, appears to have been launched partly to woo back the police community. It is also aimed at diverting public attention from gun-control measures and focusing it on NRA-backed campaigns to pass tougher sentencing laws and build more prisons in several states. This past election season, CrimeStrike succeeded in pushing initiatives through in Washington and Texas.

The NRA also has tried to repair its ties with police by helping create a new law enforcement organization altogether. According to the New Republic, in 1991 the NRA gave $100,000 to help launch the Law Enforcement Alliance of America. Since then, the NRA has often touted the LEAA’s position on issues–for instance, its strong opposition to the Brady Bill–as evidence that the law enforcement community stands behind the NRA.

The NRA’s recent turn to Madison Avenue sales techniques grows in part out of some significant setbacks in the 1992 elections. For instance, in his race for reelection, Representative Mike Synar, D-Oklahoma, faced one of the NRA’s heaviest media barrages, costing an estimated $128,000.

The NRA’s anti-Synar ads focused on areas in which the group thought he might be vulnerable, such as his votes against constitutional amendments on flag burning and the balanced budget. But the congressman won his race anyway, largely by counterpunching against the NRA. “I think we set the stage for how to handle the NRA,” he said. “It’s hard to be successful as a lobbying group when your whole approach is based on fear and hate.”

The Synar strategy of taking on the NRA frontally almost paid off in New Jersey Governor James Florio’s reelection campaign last fall, before voter anger over another Florio action–raising state taxes–doomed him to defeat. Florio had been high on the NRA’s enemy list after he pushed through a statewide ban on semiautomatic assault weapons in 1990. Last fall, Florio came back from way behind in the polls by focusing on the links between guns, crime, and violence, before narrowly losing the election to Republican Christine Todd Whitman.

Despite these setbacks, it would be premature to write the NRA off. It was able to help defeat Mary Sue Terry, the Democratic candidate for governor in Virginia last fall. And the anticrime initiative the NRA got on the ballot in Washington passed handily, spurring talk that its CrimeStrike effort may prove to be a powerful new organizing tool with a public edgy about criminals.

Still, the once-terrible fear of the NRA in Congress has been dissipating. Even some members of the Republican party, who have long been allied with the NRA and have benefited from its support, are rethinking their position on gun control. Massachusetts Governor William Weld, for example, has endorsed curbs on assault weapons in his state. But the NRA can still boast that among its seventy-five board members are Representatives John Dingell, D-Michigan, and Bill K. Brewster, D-Oklahoma, and Senators Larry E. Craig, R-Idaho, and Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.

For now, there’s only one way to view the NRA: it may be wounded, but it still has plenty of ammunition left. History shows that when the NRA feels under siege, as it does now, it fights back even more aggressively. The NRA is still the best-armed lobby in the country.

Peter H. Stone, a reporter for the National Journal, covers lobbying and campaign finance.


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