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The Straight Shooter : Retiring NRA Chief Bob Corbin Led as He Lives: No Compromises and Never Surrender

May 18, 1994|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHOENIX — Few know the man or even the name.

Yet he is vilified for the lobby he leads. He is at odds with President Clinton, Mother Teresa, Los Angeles Police Chief Willie L. Williams, other top cops and liberals who consider him a fusty gunslinger.

In his real, gentler life here, Bob Corbin is a 65-year-old father of three daughters; a crew-cut, 130-pound Hoosier who drinks Hamm's and likes country cafes that serve biscuits and gravy for breakfast.

He dotes on two grandchildren, wife Helen, heating baked beans in the can to save on dishes, gunky pipes and prowling for lost gold mines in Arizona's clean mountains.

Corbin does not like career criminals, a Congress in a mood to prohibit assault weapons, Washington Post editorials, the views of Sarah Brady--and being photographed with a rifle.

He says it would not be appropriate.

Not for the president of the National Rifle Assn.

"Burglars read newspapers," he says. To date, no burglar has hit Corbin's home cache of hunting rifles, pistols and a fully automatic but fully legal MP5 submachine gun. "My second concern is the minute people who don't like guns see someone holding one, they are opposed to you. I want people to listen to what I have to say and then make up their own mind. After that, I don't care."

Except to care about those who might presume that Corbin plus an assault rifle equals John Rambo. As NRA's top gun notes: "The perception today is that guns are evil and people who own guns are evil. I have been in law enforcement all my professional career and I don't think I'm evil."

Gun control advocates, however, disagree.

They are awaiting Sunday and the NRA's annual meeting in Minneapolis when Corbin ends his leadership of a 123-year-old gun club considered by some to be a greater threat to public health than the Tobacco Institute.

Corbin has been a devoted president. Yet on his two-year watch, politicians have defied the all-mighty NRA and its megabuck phone banks, the Brady bill became law and firearm debates rage hotter than a $2 pistol.

Could it be, ask gun controllers, that the NRA is thinking compromise is the better part of discretion? Might a new president be closer to moderation and Jesse Jackson than extremism and Jesse James?

"It won't make one bit of difference who becomes president," Corbin snorts. "There is no way the present board is going to change direction and thinking of NRA. Which is no compromise, no surrender."

*

No wonder those around former Arizona Atty. Gen. Corbin, his state and its legacies do think of him as Buffalo Bob.

Also a banty rooster who calls a spade a shovel; a frontier thinker who sees only blacks and whites, guilt or innocence, victims and perpetrators.

Also a little big man of several fascinations.

* Corbin has been married to one woman for 34 years, is opposed to abortion, favors the death penalty, enrolled his grandson in the NRA at the age of 3 days and is a lifelong Republican. Deborah Corbin, his oldest daughter, is divorced, supports abortion rights, and is both anti-gun and a registered Democrat.

They do not speak.

* Corbin has followed Yaqui guides into Mexico in pursuit of century-old whispers about bars of buried gold. His highest fever centers on the Lost Dutchman Mine of the Superstition Mountains east of here.

Corbin has spent 40 years and made 300 treks in search of the mine without finding enough ore for a pair of cuff links.

* Corbin may not know where that tha'ar gold is hiding, but he certainly knows where its miner is buried. He once lead a municipal drive that restored a pioneers' cemetery near downtown Phoenix and the weedy, cracked, 1891 grave of Jacob Waltz, last known digger of the Lost Dutchman.

* In 1965, Corbin, as Maricopa County attorney, handled the rape and kidnaping prosecution of Ernesto Miranda, whose appeal of an earlier criminal tangle produced the Supreme Court's sine qua non decision on suspects' rights.

Corbin won conviction. Miranda went to prison for four years. In 1976, in a fight in a Phoenix bar, Miranda was stabbed to death.

"There were witnesses," Corbin remembers. "But nobody said a word. They knew their Miranda rights and that murder remains unsolved."

* The only creak in Corbin's career was over his friendship with the financially powerful developer of the Phoenician resort. When Corbin contemplated a run for governor, his friend donated $39,000 to the campaign. That was in 1986, when there seemed nothing wrong in accepting money from Charles Keating.

In 1990, with the savings and loan scandal unraveling, with political enemies after a hard-nosed attorney general's hide, Corbin made a typically pugnacious gesture. He refunded Keating's $39,000--but to the Resolution Trust Corp., which is prosecuting and overseeing the S & L bailout.

*

If there was a trademark to Corbin's public service, it was always an office with props of a territorial lawyer: roll-top desk, spittoon, the bass tick of a Regulator clock and a framed invitation to a 19th-Century public hanging.

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