Cheering NRA members exhorted to organize in opposing Gore

Convention gives Bush no explicit support


CHARLOTTE, N.C. - The top leadership of the National Rifle Association declared political war on Vice President Al Gore yesterday, using speech after speech before more than 2,000 cheering members here to accuse Gore of trying to "disarm the country" and to exhort gun owners to organize against his election this fall.

"The NRA is back," said Charlton Heston, the organization's president, who was elected to an unprecedented third consecutive term. "All of this spells very serious trouble for a man named Gore."

For nearly two hours, five of the organization's top officials devoted their speeches at the group's annual convention not just to attacking Gore, but also to ridiculing last Sunday's Million Mom March for gun control, which they called a campaign rally for Gore and congressional Democrats who support stricter gun regulations.

"It wasn't a grass-roots rally but a Gore campaign rally, scripted and coached by the White House," said Wayne LaPierre, the organization's executive vice president. "It wasn't about safety. It was about Gore for president. But, Mr. Gore, you're going to find out it's not smart to lie to mom."

None of the speakers mentioned Gore's Republican rival, Texas Gov. George W. Bush. But NRA officials said privately that it was likely the group would endorse Bush this summer and throw its substantial resources behind him in the fall, provided he does not try to distance himself too much.

Even as they avoided invoking Bush's name, speakers repeatedly inched closer to urging NRA members to vote for him, if only to defeat Gore.

"There's a political campaign raging in America," said Kayne Robinson, the group's first vice president. "If one of the candidates is elected, the Constitution, including the Second Amendment, will be safe. If the other candidate is elected, the Second Amendment will not be safe."

Robinson, the chairman of the Iowa State Republican Party, was captured on videotape in February telling an NRA gathering that if Bush was elected, the group would have "a president where we work out of their office."

Bush has denied that the NRA would have undue influence over him, but gun-control advocates and Gore seized on the remark to accuse the Texas governor of being beholden to the powerful gun-owners group.

"George W. Bush and the NRA are working hip-holster-to-hip-holster to promote an irresponsible platform," said Chris Lehane, Gore's spokesman, in response to yesterday's remarks.

Beyond yesterday's speeches attacking Gore, there is ample evidence that the NRA has been strengthening its ties to the Republican Party. Campaign finance records show that the NRA has contributed more than $1 million to the Republican National Committee and to Republican congressional candidates this year, and $111,000 to Democrats.

The two members of Congress on the NRA's board of directors, Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia and Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, are both Republicans.

Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, the fourth-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, was scheduled to give the keynote speech at a convention banquet last night.

"Vice President Al Gore is the type of politician where nothing is sacred, that will say and do anything to preserve their own political future, even if that means using fear and deceptive means," Watts was to say, according to an advance text of his speech. "His party used to say, `There's nothing to fear but fear itself.' Now the vice president has nothing to offer but fear itself."

Even as they claimed responsibility for repeatedly knocking down gun-control legislation in Washington, NRA officials told their members that the Clinton-Gore administration had spent the past seven years assaulting their right to bear arms.

And they warned, often with an urgency that even some NRA members found hyperbolic, that Gore would take steps toward confiscating their weapons once elected.

"If it had not been for the vigilance of millions of NRA members these past seven years, we would have seen the total destruction of our rights," said James Baker, the group's chief lobbyist in Washington. "If Al Gore is elected, it won't even take seven months.

"For the next six months, Al Gore is going to smear you as the enemy. He will slander you as gun-toting, knuckle-dragging, bloodthirsty maniacs who stand in the way of a safer America. Will you remain silent? I will not remain silent. If we are going to stop this, then it is vital to every law-abiding gun owner in American to register to vote and show up at the polls on Election Day."

Closing out the speeches, Heston lifted a replica of a Revolutionary War-era musket and then paraphrased a popular NRA bumper sticker that reads, "I'll give up my gun when you take it from my cold, dead hands."

"As we set out this year to defeat the divisive forces that would take freedom away," Heston said, "I want to say those words again for everyone within the sound of my voice to hear and to heed, and especially for you, Mr. Gore: `From my cold, dead hands!'"

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