While Mr. Phillips says his group is stronger than ever, the NRA's pollster, Frank Luntz, concedes that the organization needs to put on a "full court press" to overcome its extremist image, appeal to a mass audience and deflect the attacks coming from all sides.
Part of that effort includes shifting the NRA's message from guns for sport to guns for self-defense. And the centerpiece of that campaign is the NRA's year-old CrimeStrike, a grass-roots membership-building program that calls for a tougher criminal justice system.
CrimeStrike, like the NRA's new "Refuse to Be a Victim" campaign, set its sights on the nation's growing population of female gun owners, with ads that feature a number of rape and sexual assault case histories.
"Women are the market," says Mr. Sugarmann, of the Violence Policy Center. "Women are getting it from all sides."
A new market
Industry experts such as Peggy Tartaro, editor of the 4-year-old Women & Guns magazine, say women are the fastest-growing segment of the gun-purchasing population. The NRA estimates that 17 million American women own guns, up from the Gallup poll's reported 12 million in the mid-'80s.
And gun manufacturers are designing guns specifically for women, such as Smith & Wesson's Lady Smith, which debuted in 1991.
In Maryland, gun training classes are booked up for a year because of the recent surge in interest from women, says Bob McMurray, vice president of the Maryland State Rifle and Pistol Association. "We can't train our trainers fast enough," he says. Mr. McMurray says he noticed women starting to flock to gun classes after last year's carjacking murder of Pamela Basu. of Savage, Md.
The NRA, which is advertising its "Refuse to Be a Victim" classes through four-page ads in such magazines as Cosmopolitan, People and Washingtonian, invites women to call a toll-free NRA number and join CrimeStrike. The group says its new outreach to this market reflects growing interest among women in protecting themselves.
The three-hour seminar, which begins with the instructor telling women that three out of four women over the age of 12 will be a crime victim at some point in their lives, is being test-marketed in the Baltimore area, as well as in Miami and Houston.
It includes a discussion of firearms as one of 42 safety strategies -- everything from dead-bolt locks on doors to pepper spray to car phones -- but does not necessarily encourage women to buy guns or provide any firearm demonstrations.
"This is a course that empowers women," said Tanya Metaksa, one of the 12 women on the NRA's 75-member board and head of its women's policies committee. "This program is designed to help women develop their own personal safety strategy."
But gun control advocates, such as the 26 female members of Congress who signed a protest letter to NRA President Robert K. Corbin, see this pitch to women as a reprehensible attempt to gain new members by preying on women's fears. They believe that putting guns into more hands will only exacerbate the crisis of crimes of violence.
"The NRA has run out of markets," said D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, at the news conference Friday outside NRA headquarters. "This is one of the worst scare tactics I've seen any organization use."
Mr. Phillips of the NRA says such critics are against everything the organization touches. He is not too concerned about the current controversy over women, nor the expected passage of the Brady bill, nor even the Clinton White House.
"We're right where we were before Bill Clinton was elected. We're right where we were before Ronald Reagan was elected," he says. "And we'll be right there after they're gone."