WASHINGTON -- The National Rifle Association, licking its wounds from recent defeats in state legislatures, is coming under fire for the first time from politicians who were formerly found in its camp.
With a president in the White House who favors gun control legislation, a new surge in gun control measures on Capitol Hill and in the states, and embarrassed by having to fire one of its top lobbyists, the nation's most powerful gun lobby is losing stature.
The NRA is in the process of crafting a strategy to align itself with law enforcement, backing increased funding for the Justice Department, stricter enforcement of existing gun laws and tougher punishments for criminals.
Fueled by recent events such as the cult standoff in Waco, Texas, and newly released statistics that show the United States in 1990 had the highest death rate in the world for teen-agers killed by firearms, legislators are less fearful of the clout of the gun lobby, according to lawmakers and crime experts.
"They are out of step with the gun owners they represent," said Rep. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., sponsor of the so-called Brady Bill and a gun control advocate. "They are no longer able to make legislators shake in their boots."
Wayne LaPierre, NRA chief executive officer who contends gun control measures won't curb violence in the streets, said in an interview recently, "We want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem."
Spiraling gun violence and mass killings such as the shooting deaths of seven people in a Palatine, Ill., restaurant have put pressure on legislators to pass laws limiting the sale of firearms. First up for the Clinton administration is the Brady Bill, which has been in the works for six years and calls for a five-day waiting period for handgun purchases. The measure, named after presidential press secretary James Brady, who was wounded in the 1981 shooting of Ronald Reagan, is expected to pass Congress this year.
As the White House and Congress prepare to deal with the Brady Bill, some states are working toward or have already passed strict gun control legislation.
Last month in Virginia, a major state for hunting and recreational gun use and a stronghold for the NRA, legislators who had been avid supporters of the lobby's stance voted for a one-per-month limit on handgun purchases.
More recently, New Jersey legislators beat down attempts to repeal a 3-year-old ban on semiautomatic weapons. Eight Republicans, who had previously supported the repeal, voted in favor of the ban.
"The NRA's not going away any time soon," said Susan Whitmore, director of communications for Handgun Control Inc. "But they have shot themselves in the foot in the past few weeks," trying to combat political headwinds that favor curbing gun sales and proliferation of weapons.
The NRA has established a new division. The $3 million lobbying and educational Crime Strike program, which is staffed by former law enforcement officials, is aimed at stricter enforcement and addressing "the total collapse of the criminal justice system." The group also backs point-of-sale checks on firearm purchases.
Two weeks ago the NRA fired its chief Capitol Hill lobbyist, David Gibbons, after he was accused of spreading unsubstantiated rumors about Attorney General Janet Reno during her confirmation process. Experts say the scandal did not help the NRA's cause on Capitol Hill.
Mr. LaPierre said it was an isolated incident and that the group immediately took appropriate action.
If the gun control measures fail to curb crime, as Mr. LaPierre predicts, he is confident public opinion will swing back to the NRA's position.
"I feel real confident about our future," Mr. LaPierre said. "Because I think our message in the long term is more powerful and real than the message of the politicians right now that oppose the NRA."
But, after all the lobbyists and legislators have gone home, the debate lingers over whether any law can halt the violence.