Before he introduced Senate Bill 747 he had been "with the NRA on every damn issue they've ever had," he says.
The senator is slouched in a chair of his resort hotel room, speaking dispassionately about an issue that has added to his already ample political troubles. This morning DeConcini seems utterly unflappable. That may have something to do with the fact that he and his wife Susan are celebrating the birth of their first grandchild. Later in the day, the DeConcinis plan to see the baby for the first time. When the senator mentions the savings and loan scandal or his new enemies in the gun lobby, he often chuckles and shakes his head as if bemused by the tortuous paths of politics.
"I didn't just wake up one morning and say, 'Oh, I think I'll do something to tick off the NRA,' " he says. "I thought about it very clearly and I knew what I was getting into."
While polls have found that 64% of Arizonans support his gun ban, DeConcini suspects that the long-term political fallout may hurt him. "I know the gun lobbyists and I know the NRA members here," he explains. "They are single-issue people. They're active and they're not going to forget about this, whereas the people who like what I did are going to forget about it."
This sentiment is echoed by NRA lobbyist David Conover who notes that the 50,000 association members in Arizona "are active and relatively hard-line" in their opposition to nearly all gun controls. "It's a tough state to be in favor of gun regulation," Conover says. While the NRA may work with DeConcini in the future, the group is unlikely to ever support him for reelection or turn to him for help, the lobbyist says. "All those things are going to be different now."
Many in the NRA "feel I've betrayed them," DeConcini concedes, even though he maintains that his measure was a compromise, conceived partly as an alternative to harsher restrictive measures by more liberal senators.
In fact, DeConcini says he sought to avoid a full-blown split with the NRA, negotiating with the group's lobbyists to find common ground on the issue.
Shortly after the Stockton school killings last year, in which drifter James Purdy--armed with an AK-47 assault rifle--killed five children and wounded 29 others and a teacher, DeConcini recalls that the NRA came to him for help in fighting back calls for a national assault rifle ban.
"I think they were talking to all the members they had who were pro-NRA or pro the Second Amendment position," he says, referring to the Bill of Rights provision regarding firearms. DeConcini says he rebuffed the approach, stressing that his views were shaped by the extensive use of assault weapons by drug dealers.
In the mid-1970s DeConcini, then Pima County prosecutor, was tapped to lead a statewide law enforcement drive against drugs, the beginning of his public affiliation with anti-drug efforts. In the early '80s, he was under 24-hour guard for a time because of a death threat he received after he "fingered" a Bolivian government minister who was mixed up in the drug trade. In the Senate he has introduced a number of bills to turn up the heat on drug dealers and has chaired the Senate Drug Enforcement Caucus. DeConcini also was asked by President Bush to become the country's first "drug czar."
From this perspective, DeConcini says he gradually came to believe that assault weapons in the hands of drug dealers were too dangerous to remain on the market.
"Those were the things that weighed on my mind to say I think it's time that we try something, notwithstanding my own philosophy toward non-restriction of guns and knowing who I was taking on," he says.
In the best of all possible worlds, he believes that "any gun restriction should be at the state level or local level."
Expanding on this credo, DeConcini suddenly begins to sound like a true son of the West. He does not want "a bureaucracy like the FBI or the Treasury Department, non-elected people, being able to determine whether you have the right to have a gun," he says emphatically. "And that includes semiautomatic rifles because I think that this is an invitation for someone to see your name there and say, 'Oh I know (him). I remember that son of a gun. Well, I'm going to go check his financial background.' "
Indeed, DeConcini says he revised his gun-ban measure because the NRA objected to a provision that called for registration of semiautomatic versions of military rifles with the Treasury Department. He also limited the ban to three years because the NRA argued against a flat ban, the senator says.
Eventually, however, his patience and desire to keep fences mended wore out like an old pair of boots. "I got to the point where I got a little frustrated with them because they didn't want to negotiate at all," he says. "All they wanted was to chop it away."
His last meetings with gun owners were as acrid as powder smoke.