THE CAMPAIGN cash of the National Rifle Association has done its job. It has bought silence. It has been more than a week since it was revealed that former President Bush had renounced his membership in the NRA. Mr. Bush was outraged at a fund-raising letter that likened federal agents to Nazi soldiers.
Eight days ago, Mr. Bush continued his attack on the NRA tactics. He told graduates of the College of William and Mary, "We all ought to speak up against the excesses of these crazy people who put [law enforcement officers] in a bad light."
Thus far, Republicans have treated the above as if a Bush fell in the forest and nobody heard. Republican presidential candidate and Senate majority leader Bob Dole said he will keep his NRA membership. Other major candidates have maintained silence. It is known, however, that Mr. Dole, Phil Gramm and Arlen Specter favor the repeal of the assault weapons ban, one of the NRA's pet political projects.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a former member of the NRA, was in complete denial. Last Thursday Rep. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., demanded that Mr. Gingrich repudiate the NRA's letter and "put down the fires of hate." Mr. Gingrich ignored the role handguns play in making the United States the most murderous developed nation in the world and deflected the issue to the O.J. Simpson trial. "The most famous trial in America involves two ZTC people being killed with a knife," Mr. Gingrich said. ". . . why is [Schumer's] focus so maniacally on the tool rather than the criminal?"
It is almost funny to see Republicans take the Fifth on the NRA's view of federal law enforcement, given that they never saw a prison they did not like, view the smallest crack cocaine deal as worthy of 10 years in the slammer, and view the endorsements of cops as key weapons against the Democrats. No candidate used the cops better than Mr. Bush, who embarrassed Michael Dukakis in the 1988 campaign by coming to Boston to collect major police endorsements.
One of the few Republicans to denounce the NRA's choice of words was Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming. Mr. Simpson said he planned to meet with NRA president Thomas Washington. "I'm going to say," Mr. Simpson said, 'When are you going to repudiate that letter, that exaggerated, pathetic, almost totally inflammatory letter? Are you going to repudiate that?' If he says no, then I'll consider at least having some things to say myself."
New England members of Congress also coddle the NRA. In phone calls, the most critical statement came from the office of Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine. Ms. Snowe received $9,900 in NRA contributions last year, according to the National Library on Money and Politics. A spokesman for Ms. Snowe said the senator is "very disappointed" with the newsletter and hopes the NRA will apologize.
A spokesman for New Hampshire Rep. Bill Zeliff, who received $10,900 in campaign contributions from the NRA, said, "the congressman has been busy with congressional issues." The response from the office of Sen. Robert Smith of New Hampshire, who received $1,000 even though he did not run last fall, was, "No, he will not return any funds from the NRA." Representatives James Longley and John Baldacci of Maine ($4,950 each), Gary Franks of Connecticut ($9,900) and Charles Bass of New Hampshire ($2,000) did not respond as to whether they were reconsidering contributions from the NRA.
Messrs. Smith, Gregg, Zeliff, Franks and Olympia Snowe (when she was in the House) all voted in 1993 against the Brady Bill, which calls for a waiting period before the purchase of a handgun. Mr. Smith pocketed $11,000 and Gregg, $5,950 that year. Conversely, then Rep. Dick Swett of New Hampshire, a Democrat, voted for the Brady Bill. The NRA spent $10,503 against Mr. Swett, who was replaced by Mr. Bass.
Mr. Longley said the new Republican majority in the House would be as "serious as a heart attack" on its agenda, which everyone knows, includes cracking down on crime. But Mr. Bush's crackdown on the NRA's anti-police rhetoric has yet to draw more than a collective Republican yawn. If NRA money can silence candidates on this kind of hate rhetoric, you can bet what is coming in the months ahead. The ban on assault rifles will be lifted, further handgun controls will be stopped and America's blood will continue to spill into the streets. The NRA owns the soul of Capitol Hill, serious as a heart attack, or rather, a bullet through its heart.
Derrick Z. Jackson is a Boston Globe columnist.