WASHINGTON — During his 10 years in Congress, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., a conservative Republican from Wisconsin, has been called lots of names by political opponents. But no one ever called him Ted Kennedy until he clashed earlier this year with the National Rifle Assn.
Sensenbrenner, an opponent of gun control and past ally of the NRA, angered the group when he endorsed a bill to impose a seven-day waiting period before people could buy handguns. The NRA fired back by sending a negative mailer to his constituents, which likened him to the liberal Massachusetts senator, an outspoken supporter of gun control.
"What they did to me and other congressmen on this issue was outrageous," said Sensenbrenner, whose complaints were echoed by other House conservatives. "This group is no longer welcome in my office. They're losing credibility around here."
Master at Pressure Politics
For years, the NRA's success in defeating a variety of measures to limit gun ownership has made it one of the most effective lobbying groups on Capitol Hill. It has attacked enemies with media blitzes and has mobilized grass-roots letter-writing campaigns that are unsurpassed in the world of pressure politics. Like other groups, it has also rewarded its friends with millions of dollars in contributions.
Now, however, there are signs that the NRA may be losing some of its almost legendary clout.
Although the organization helped defeat the waiting-period law, it won by only 46 votes, a smaller margin than it might have commanded in previous years.
In a key development, leaders of the nation's law enforcement groups, once vocal supporters of the NRA, are now feuding openly with the organization.
Elsewhere, the gun lobby is locked in a closely fought battle to overturn a new Maryland law banning the sale of cheap handguns. If proponents of the state law win this Tuesday's vote, gun-control advocates say it could trigger campaigns for similar bans in other states.
Loss of Influence Denied
NRA officials deny that they are losing influence, saying that the 2.8-million-member group continues to win the key battles in Congress and other arenas. They also contend that public support for their gun-rights agenda is still strong.
But just in case, the NRA is spending nearly $5 million in its effort to overturn the Maryland law, and it makes no apologies for that, said Executive Vice President J. Warren Cassidy.
"What's necessary is what wins," he declared. "In the long run, it doesn't hurt an organization to be forced to show that it's not a paper tiger . . . that there is some clout there, despite what the opposition says."
Why has the NRA come under stronger attack?
One reason is that public concerns about the proliferation of guns seem to be growing amid the wave of drug-related violence in the nation's cities. A Gallup poll released last month showed that 91% of Americans favor some waiting period before handguns are purchased, so that felons and other undesireable purchasers can be screened out.
At the same time, law enforcement officials who traditionally opposed gun-control measures have become alarmed by the arsenal of new weapons aimed at them, such as armor-piercing bullets and automatic weapons. In a notable shift, they are now calling for restrictions on some weapons.
The same sentiment is increasingly apparent in Congress, where some lawmakers, including strong conservatives, are experiencing a change of heart on the issue. For years, NRA lobbyists won over members with the slogan: "Guns don't kill, people do." But the debate has changed, with new gun-control measures focusing on some of the people who buy guns rather than the weapons themselves.
"What we've seen in Congress, in law enforcement and in the public at large is a real shift on the handgun issue," said Charles Orasin, president of Handgun Control Inc., a nationwide advocacy group. "Now, some of the NRA's most traditional allies can no longer go to the mat for them, because the issue has changed."
But if the gun-control debate has changed, the NRA has not. When new proposals on firearms or munitions have emerged, the organization has lashed out against them with its full, traditional vigor, targeting both old adversaries and, now, straying allies alike.
That was clear during the battle in September over the so-called "Brady amendment" to the omnibus drug bill. The amendment for the national seven-day waiting period for handgun purchases was named after White House Press Secretary James S. Brady, who was crippled by a pistol bullet fired during the 1981 attempt on President Reagan's life.
Brady's wife, Sarah, helped lobby for the bill, contending that police should be given the time to screen out criminals and potentially dangerous persons before handguns are sold. Gun advocates argued that such a law was unenforceable and infringed on the rights of legitimate gun owners.