SEATTLE -- For groups like the National Rifle Association, annual conventions are supposed to be a show of unity and power -- not the kind of event kicked off with the top staff member warning against an internal "coup d'etat" ripping the organization apart.
But this will be no ordinary gathering for the 20,000 or so gun enthusiasts due in Seattle this week for the NRA's 126th annual meeting. The five-day event begins tomorrow.
Firearm exhibits, pep talks from pro-gun politicians, even a possible visit from actor Charlton Heston, the Second Amendment's most glamorous defender, will likely be overshadowed by the nasty fight over control of one of the nation's most potent political-interest groups.
And it's being played out with the kind of hardball tactics and rhetoric the NRA usually reserves for battles against President Clinton, foes in Congress and gun-control advocates like Sarah Brady, wife of James S. Brady. James Brady, who was White House press secretary, was shot during the 1981 attack on President Ronald Reagan.
A bloc of disgruntled NRA board members is set to renew efforts to remove Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, who runs the organization's day-to-day operations. Ads running in gun magazines attack LaPierre and the NRA leadership for running a "fiscal madhouse," charging that mismanagement has jeopardized the organization's financial future and its clout.
"This is a battle for who's going to control the direction and tone of the NRA," says David Gross, a board member from Minnesota who wants to remove LaPierre. "Wayne's calling this a 'coup d'etat' shows you how bankrupt his position is. He's not king, he's not president. He's a hireling."
Many of his supporters, who believe they have the votes to block any dump-LaPierre movement, blame what they term "thuggish attacks" on the ambitions of one man: Neil Knox, vice president of the NRA board.
Knox has a reputation for confrontational, give-no-quarter politics. A victory by the Knox forces, warn LaPierre loyalists, will only provide comfort to anti-gun forces and drive away mainstream gun-rights backers.
Says LaPierre: "We should be aiming our efforts at the people who want to disarm American citizens, not each other. This has to stop."
NRA membership, which soared to 3.5 million after Clinton's 1992 election and passage of the federal assault-weapons ban, has dropped to under 3 million. Last fall, confronted with financial problems, the NRA had major layoffs at its headquarters in Fairfax, Va.
Gross contends that LaPierre kept the organization running in the black during the past three years only by repeated fund-raising appeals that have turned off many members and by sales of lifetime memberships at a big discount -- essentially squandering long-term assets to cover short-term deficits.
Still, LaPierre insists, "The NRA was collapsing in 1991. The NRA is in great shape now."
LaPierre spent a good chunk of the NRA's $80 million cash surplus moving the organization from its crumbling headquarters to a new building, expanding its television and radio operations and modernizing its computer system.
Allies also credit LaPierre with helping retool the NRA's political strategy after Congress passed the Brady bill, which required a waiting period for the purchase of handguns, and a federal ban on some automatic weapons. Clinton signed the bill into law.
In 1994, the NRA targeted many of its former congressional allies who strayed from the fold on the assault-weapons ban. The most powerful victim was former House Speaker Thomas S. Foley a Washington Democrat, whose defeat was aided by hard-hitting NRA television ads and mailings.
Mike Beard, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition to Stop Handgun Violence, watches the NRA's internal strife with pleasure. It is making the NRA "move further right and sound even more shrill," he says.
But he adds that it is wishful thinking by gun-control proponents, who have little chance of winning major victories in Congress right now, to believe the NRA has lost much political clout.
"I've heard their death pronouncements too many times before," says Beard. "When they've got tens of millions of dollars and a couple of million members, it's stupid to count them out."
Pub Date: 5/01/97