WASHINGTON -- At a time when chilling acts of violence are spreading fear from inner-city streets to once-tranquil suburbs, the National Rifle Association has a new target in its sights.
She is the single mother. She is the working woman. She is widowed grandmother Audrey Thacker, who used to be adamantly anti-NRA, decidedly anti-gun, but is growing so afraid of crime she doesn't know what to think.
The gun lobby has recently turned its marketing forces on women like Ms. Thacker, offering seminars titled "Refuse to be a Victim" in the Baltimore-Washington area and two other test markets intended to educate women about their self-defense options.
But gun control advocates, including a group of congresswomen who protested the new campaign in front of the seven-story NRA headquarters here on Friday, believe the pitch is nothing more than the gun lobbying giant's latest attempt to tap a new market, boost its rosters and spiff up its image at a time when gun control has become an increasingly popular notion, and the NRA a slightly less unstoppable force.
While its membership is at an all-time high of 3.2 million -- the result of a major, multimillion-dollar direct-mail campaign -- the NRA is now in the line of fire with a gun control advocate in the White House, with the first major piece of gun control legislation in 25 years likely to pass in Congress this year, and with politicians beginning to survive firefights with the lobbying powerhouse.
What's more, the rash of carjackings, random shootings, tourist murders in Florida and the seemingly endless accounts of urban violence -- along with a recent New England Journal of Medicine study concluding that gun owners triple their chances of being murdered at home -- may be pushing public sentiment more in favor of gun control.
No longer omnipotent
The climate of fear is putting the 122-year-old NRA, which opposes nearly all gun control measures, more on the defensive than ever.
"They have gone from omnipotent to merely powerful," says Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that studies violence prevention. "The biggest change with the NRA is that they've started to lose -- that's never happened before."
In the tight Virginia and New Jersey governors' races this fall, for instance, the Democratic candidates have chosen to run against the NRA. Both states are among those that recently delivered legislative blows to the NRA, with Virginia passing a law limiting the purchase of guns to one a month and New Jersey upholding its ban on semiautomatic assault weapons.
In Connecticut, home to a number of gun manufacturers, the legislature passed a bill banning assault weapons; in Colorado, a special session of the legislature was called -- after an infant was killed at a zoo -- to ban possession of handguns by juveniles.
And in Congress, the Brady bill, which calls for a five-day waiting period for the purchase of a gun, is expected to win passage, and even some former allies of the NRA are beginning to question its muscle.
But the group's deep pockets and ability to mobilize voters still wield considerable influence on Capitol Hill. One congressional aide said that while members now may be more willing to support the Brady bill, they are still reluctant to directly confront the NRA.
"They are still a force to be reckoned with," says Tom King, a political consultant who helped Democratic Rep. Mike Synar of Oklahoma survive an all-out attack by the NRA in last year's election and is now working for Mary Sue Terry, the Democratic nominee for governor of Virginia. "They're tough and play hard."
Critics charge that the NRA -- which lost the support of much of the law enforcement community in its opposition to the Brady bill and other gun restrictions -- is far too hard-line and out of step with the times.
A Harris poll in June showed that for the first time, a majority of Americans -- 52 percent -- favor an outright ban on handguns, and a recent Gallup poll showed that 80 percent of gun owners favor the Brady bill.
"The center of gravity has changed on gun control issues," says Geoffrey Garin, a pollster working for New Jersey Gov. James J. Florio. "The debate is no longer about whether the government ought to restrict the right to bear arms. It's now how the government ought to restrict the right to bear arms. The NRA is still fighting an old battle that's already been lost."
But the paradox of the gun issue is that even as the fear of an increase in violent crime has increased the ranks of gun control advocates, it has also increased the number of people who are considering gun ownership.
NRA lobbyist Joe Phillips points to the organization's membership, which has grown by 700,000 in the past two years. "If we are, in fact, preaching a message that's out of touch, show me another organization that's grown by nearly one-third over the same period of time," he said.