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NRA, Gun Control Forces Plan for More Close Combat : Policy: Proposals to license, fingerprint firearms owners are being hatched. Weapons lobby threatens electoral revenge against legislators.

May 07, 1994|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — After Thursday's dramatic House vote to ban 19 types of assault weapons, both sides along the gun control siege line are reloading for the next round in their long-running war.

Flush with enthusiasm after the victory, gun control proponents are hatching plans for follow-on measures--including proposals to require that all gun owners be licensed and fingerprinted.

The National Rifle Assn. is promising continued efforts to fight the ban in the final crime bill--and threatening retaliation in November against legislators who crossed it on the bitterly contested vote.

With only a single vote separating victory and defeat in Thursday's House showdown, NRA spokesman Bill McIntyre said that the group is contemplating a renewed blitz to prevent inclusion of the assault weapons ban in the final crime bill that emerges from a House-Senate conference committee. The Senate narrowly approved a nearly identical ban last September.

"We are going to do what we can to make sure no gun ban becomes law," McIntyre said. "It's not over until it's over."

White House officials said that they take such threats seriously. "We're not done yet," said George Stephanopoulos, senior adviser to President Clinton. "We haven't gotten an assault weapons ban yet. It would be wrong to be complacent."

Even so, most observers believe that Congress, after all the agony of passing the ban, is unlikely to change course.

"I think it is pretty much over," said Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). "The House has spoken; the Senate has spoken; the public has spoken. It would take some pretty tricky legerdemain to (delete) it and I don't think the leadership in the House or Senate will go along."

The more pressing question may be whether Congress will follow the assault weapons ban with further gun control measures. And the answer to that may pivot on what happens in November to legislators who opposed the NRA on the ban.

Gun control advocates said that Thursday's vote--following last November's passage of the Brady bill, which has imposed a waiting period on handgun purchases--suggests that fewer legislators fear the NRA, long one of Washington's most powerful lobbies. To reverse that perception and slow the momentum behind gun control, the NRA may have to prove in November that it can still punish its enemies by defeating them at the ballot box.

"If they don't do that," said one ranking Republican Party operative who has worked closely with the NRA in the past, "they are heading for more of the same as the assault weapon ban."

That assessment reflects the critical link between the NRA's legislative success and its capacity to influence elections, both through campaign contributions and grass-roots activities from their 3-million-plus members.

In the 1992 election, the NRA contributed more than $1.7 million to congressional candidates--more than any other ideological or single-issue political action committee, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in politics.

Perhaps even more importantly, the organization spent about $950,000 on campaigns for and against individual candidates, according to the center's figures. And it devoted substantial additional sums to communicating endorsements and opposition to its members.

"Their secret is they do a lot of voter contact and a lot of voter turnout," said the Republican operative. "Most of these PACs will give you $5,000 and walk on their way. They also have a massive grass-roots organization. . . . It's very effective."

But many believe that the NRA's massive electoral machine, like a tank caught in a monsoon, may be the victim of a shifting climate.

"The whole gun issue has changed from a right to bear arms to a crime control issue and that makes it a lot more palatable for members of Congress to cross the NRA," said Stu Rothenberg, editor of a Washington-based political newsletter.

And yet even Thursday's vote shows that the NRA still carries a substantial stick in Congress. Given polls showing that more than 70% of the public supports the ban, the House vote was remarkably close.

In rural districts, where the NRA's reach is the longest, almost two dozen House members who deserted the organization on the earlier Brady bill shifted back to oppose the ban on assault weapons.

After surviving this week's struggle so narrowly, the instinct at the White House is to move cautiously on other gun control measures, one senior official said.

"It's not like the dam has broken," the official said. "Thursday wasn't exactly a landslide."

At this point, the official said, the Administration is committed only to pushing its proposal to increase to $600 the licensing fee for gun dealers in an effort to weed out fly-by-night operations.

Schumer and other gun control advocates want to go further--although they acknowledged that Congress is unlikely to do more than begin discussing additional proposals in this session.

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