WASHINGTON — NEARLY 23 years ago, right after the assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, one of his competitors for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy, declined to support a drive for gun-control legislation inspired by Kennedy's death. Such matters should not be decided, McCarthy intoned, when emotions were running so high.
The comment was music to the ears of the National Rifle Association, fearful that public outrage over the fatal shooting of Kennedy would break its grip on Congress and produce a bill limiting the sale of firearms. In fact, Congress did outlaw purchase by convicted criminals and other defined classifications of threats to the public peace, and it barred the importation of the cheap handguns known as Saturday Night Specials.
McCarthy's mind-boggling remark was brought to mind the other day by an observation of James Jay Baker, the NRA's chief lobbyist. After the House had passed the Brady bill calling for a seven-day waiting period on handgun purchases, Baker said the action was the result of the "emotional appeal" made by former White House press secretary James Brady, who lobbied hard for the bill from his wheelchair.
Coming from a spokesman for an organization that has been exploiting emotionalism to a fare-thee-well for years in its wrongheaded determination to block all gun-control legislation, the comment was exceedingly rich. The NRA has made a career of playing on the emotional fears of its gun-owning members and the general public by every device from distorting the meaning of the "right to bear arms" in the Second Amendment to predicting the end of the world if any restraint at all is placed on gun sales.
Back in January, the Supreme Court refused to review an appellate court's ruling upholding a federal ban on the private sale of new machine guns. The decision indicated the high court views the Second Amendment language referring to the need for "a well-regulated militia" in the states as protecting a collective rather than individual right to bear arms. But the NRA continues to insist otherwise.
In its approach to Congress as well, the NRA has used fear tactics -- the fear of legislators that they may be returned to private life if they don't vote as the NRA bids. Much has been made of the organization's financial contributions to members of Congress who vote "right" and of its threatened withdrawal of such funds to anyone who votes "wrong" on gun-control measures. But the greater club has probably been the NRA's extensive communications network to its highly emotional membership, rallying card-carrying gun owners to put the heat on their representatives to toe the line every time there is any challenge to unhindered gun traffic.
For years, the NRA relied on that tired old turkey that "guns don't kill people, people kill people." But now that the overwhelming number of police organizations and their members have called for passage of the bill named after the man critically handicapped in the 1981 assassination attempt on former President Ronald Reagan, the NRA has been forced to try other approaches.
The latest was a newspaper advertisement covering two full pages before the House vote offering polling data that Americans by more than 5-to-1 favored an NRA-backed alternative that would have provided for an "instant check" of police records to determine whether a prospective purchaser had a criminal record. The trouble with this patently phony approach is that there is no communications machinery in place to make an instant check nationwide.
The Brady bill now goes to the Senate, where rural and urban RTC states alike cast two votes no matter what their population. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell has indicated opposition at this time on grounds the bill does not go far enough, and Handgun Control Inc., the chief lobbyist for the Brady bill acknowledges it faces an even tougher fight there, with the NRA dug in to make its stand. Unlike the case in the House, where some NRA members got fed up with the killings and the NRA's tactics, there have been no conspicuous "defectors" from the NRA's ranks so far in the Senate.
But to the consternation of the NRA, no doubt Jim Brady in his wheelchair and his indefatibable wife Sarah will be right there making their "emotional appeal" to the good senators, while the unemotional NRA just offers more of the "facts" on gun control -- and thinly veiled intimidation of those who dare oppose it.