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The NRA Fights Back : On the Defensive Over Assault Weapons, the Gun Lobby Is Using Controversial Tactics to Target Its Enemies

July 30, 1989|PAUL HOUSTON | Paul Houston , a member of The Times' Washington Bureau for 17 years, cover s Congress, lobbying and other subjects. and

IN BLOOD-RED letters, the sign on the front window of the Dealers Outlet gun store in suburban Phoenix declared: "Urgent! Act Now! Stop the Gun Ban!" Inside, customers took time out from browsing through AK-47 assault rifles and a flock of other firearms to sign a petition--and to vent their wrath at a local "turncoat," U.S. Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.).

"We are petitioning to protest the semiautomatic gun-control bills before Congress," read the text above a fast-growing list of names. "If we allow the government to become involved in any type of gun control, we are violating a basic constitutional right, the right to keep and bear arms."

The petitioners' target that sunny day last spring was DeConcini, a longtime opponent of gun-control measures who had suddenly switched sides, sponsoring one of the nine bills currently in Congress to ban the sale of assault weapons. "I'm a one-issue voter, and I'm going to do everything in my power to take DeConcini out," George Hiers, a burly man on crutches, vowed as he bought a semiautomatic shotgun for his wife to defend herself with while he's away on hunting trips.

The attack on DeConcini was stirred up by the National Rifle Assn. in a display of fury that represented far more than retaliation against a former supporter. Long described as "the powerful gun lobby," the NRA is now scrambling to recover from stunning setbacks in the past three years. Over the NRA's opposition, Congress and state legislatures have enacted legislation banning "cop-killer bullets" that penetrate protective vests, plastic guns that can be slipped past metal detectors and "Saturday night specials" that are used in many crimes. And most recently, the group found itself caught in the furor over assault weapons that was ignited by the massacre of five children in a Stockton schoolyard last January. Those killings, combined with the increasing use of the weapons by drug dealers and youth gangs, have exacerbated the contentious relations between the NRA and its former allies.

Law-enforcement leaders, concerned about rising violence and terrorism, have ended their friendliness toward the gun lobby and become well-organized in opposition. Politicians once fearful of the NRA have been much more willing to stand up to it; President Bush, an NRA "Life Member," on July 7 imposed a permanent ban on imports of assault rifles and has proposed limiting the semiautomatics' ammunition clips. The ban so infuriated some NRA members that they have launched petition drives in two dozen states to oust Bush from the organization. Meanwhile, California, whose voters only seven years ago defeated an initiative that would have frozen the number of handguns in the state, last May became the first state to ban assault weapons. At the same time, gun-control organizations are beginning to match the NRA's mass mailings, ads and lobbying; many schools are showing "Guns and the Constitution," an anti-gun video produced by Handgun Control Inc., whose chairwoman is Sarah Brady, wife of former White House Press Secretary James Brady, who was disabled by gunfire in the 1981 assassination attempt on then-President Reagan.

And the NRA even is feeling pressure from more-militant gun groups that threaten to drain away members and funds. Although enjoying a membership surge, the NRA ran up a record $5.9-million deficit last year after spending more than $83 million.

Thus, in fending off the assaults on assault weapons, the 118-year-old NRA is facing what its leaders call its most daunting challenge.

"We're at a crossroads," James Jay Baker, the NRA's top congressional lobbyist, acknowledged as DeConcini's assault-weapons bill cleared its first Senate hurdle in April. "We're going to go down the road of either prohibitive firearms regulations or tough criminal justice provisions"--that is, more prosecutors, penalties and prisons, the course sought by the NRA. "Once you get into a (gun-control) rut, it's tough to get out of that rut."

Aside from the nation's capital, two of the hottest battlegrounds in the assault-weapons fight are Arizona and Florida. That would seem ironic, since guns permeate the cultures of those generally conservative states. But with opinion polls in both states showing that large majorities of residents support bans--and with police complaining about being outgunned by criminals--legislators have moved into action, spurring angry counterattacks from the NRA.

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