Heavy fire from NRA alienates allies

Some in GOP back away after campaign attacks Clinton's gun safety pleas

March 19, 2000|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The rhetorical war between the National Rifle Association and the White House began nearly two weeks ago, with a presidential shot across the bow in the wake of a 6-year-old's death -- an accusation that gun control legislation was stymied in Congress by pressure from the NRA.

The charge not unusual in Clinton's battle with the gun lobby, but the NRA's massive retaliation has been anything but routine -- a fusillade of television advertisements featuring NRA President Charlton Heston calling Clinton a liar, an accusation by another NRA official that the president tolerates gun deaths to further his political agenda, and finally the statement Wednesday that Clinton bears direct responsibility for the death of a black basketball coach at the hands of a white supremacist.

The assault has stunned the political world, sending congressional Republicans scrambling for cover, Texas Gov. George W. Bush to the defense of Clinton, and Democrats to the political ramparts -- all, perhaps, to the detriment of the NRA's political agenda.

"It makes no sense on a public policy level, it makes no sense on a communications level, it makes no sense on the political level," said Chris Lehane, spokesman for Vice President Al Gore. "But then again, the NRA's whole agenda makes no sense. At least they're consistent."

If political Washington is baffled by NRA's tactics, the answer could be found in a single statistic: 25,000 new members in three days. NRA officials say they have been deluged with calls, many from people who let their memberships lapse or regular members calling to switch to more expensive life memberships.

From a membership of about 2.5 million in 1998, the surge has taken the group well over 3 million, according to NRA officials and independent analyses.

"They may be trying to rally the die-hards, activate the true believers," ventured Tom Smith, director of polling at the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center, who has studied public opinion trends in gun control. "If you're going to attack a president, Clinton seems to be a good one to attack."

Bad for agenda

Still, said an NRA lobbyist speaking on condition of anonymity, what has been good for the membership rolls has not been good for the NRA's legislative agenda.

"It's never good when you see all these Congress critters scurrying out to distance themselves from you," the lobbyist said.

Neither NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre -- who accused Clinton of tolerating gun deaths to further his agenda -- nor NRA spokesman Bill Powers returned phone calls for this article, despite repeated attempts to reach them over three days. An NRA official said the organization's officials have been besieged by the media all week.

Fallout

The fallout from Heston's and LaPierre's heated words has been remarkable.

On Wednesday, New York Republican Gov. George E. Pataki, an ally of the Texas governor, unveiled his own gun control package, which goes further than Clinton's. A Pataki aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, conceded that Pataki knew he would be creating problems for the Republican Party, but he had to protect himself against the furor caused by the overheated rhetoric.

On Thursday, Bush embraced the mandatory sale of trigger locks with all new handguns and condemned "casting aspersions on the president like this."

Congressional Republicans began demanding action on legislation that would require trigger locks, impose criminal background checks on gun show customers, and raise the legal age of handgun possession from 18 to 21.

Bombshell

Then on Friday, the White House dropped a bombshell: Smith & Wesson, the nation's largest firearms manufacturer, agreed to sell trigger locks with all guns and to incorporate internal locking devices on all its guns within 24 months, and "smart gun" technology within three years. Such technology would use sensors to ensure that only an authorized user could fire a gun. All gun shows selling Smith & Wesson firearms would have to do criminal background checks. Gun stores selling the company's products would have to tone down marketing and promotional pitches.

The company would also work with the federal government to create a "gun DNA" program. Each gun would be fired before sale to create a digital "fingerprint" of its shell casing. That image, along with an internal identification number, would be kept in a computer database that could be tapped when a shell casing is left at a crime scene.

The agreement had been in negotiation since December, when Clinton threatened a federal lawsuit against gun makers if they did not settle the legal actions filed by 30 local governments.

The timing of the announcement was curious, gun industry lobbyists said, because the deal had been struck some days before the Friday announcement. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew M. Cuomo did allow that the NRA's bluster "reinforced our need to make something happen."

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