WASHINGTON — President Clinton on Monday denounced the National Rifle Assn. in his bluntest language yet, saying that the powerful gun lobby should be "ashamed" for describing federal agents as "jackbooted government thugs" in a fund-raising letter.
Clinton renewed his attack on critics of federal law enforcement during a somber ceremony for fallen police officers, saying that no one has a right to "run down" law enforcement "or to suggest that it is somehow all right for them to be put in harm's way."
"That is not the American way," he told 5,000 mostly uniformed police officers in a memorial observance for the 157 officers and federal agents who were killed last year in the line of duty. "And anybody who does it ought to be ashamed of themselves."
Clinton also criticized political foes who have sought to delay Administration-backed anti-terrorism legislation in order to allow for hearings into the government's conduct in the 1993 Branch Davidian standoff in Waco, Tex., and the 1992 Idaho gun battle with white separatist Randy Weaver. In Waco, more than 80 people--including some federal agents--died; in Idaho, Weaver's wife and son and a U.S. marshal were killed.
While not explicitly mentioning the GOP, Clinton said that congressional leaders who after the Oklahoma City bombing had vowed to complete the anti-terrorism legislation by Memorial Day were now indulging in the "old politics of diversion and delay." A bomb virtually demolished the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, killing 168 people.
The legislation is aimed at strengthening the ability of federal agencies to investigate and prosecute international terrorism and to expand the authority of federal agents to fight domestic terrorism.
"This plays into the hands of those who would blame the law enforcement officers who keep the law, rather than the criminals who break it," Clinton said.
The White House believes the American mainstream is on its side in the growing debate over the proper scope of federal law enforcers' performance.
In the bombing's aftermath, the Administration wants to prevent the focus from shifting to the government's conduct in the Waco and Weaver shootouts.
White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said the President commented on the Waco hearings because NRA officials and others sought to create "a smoke screen of diversion" on a side issue that "has nothing to do with the need for strong anti-terrorism legislation."
Clinton also praised George Bush for the "fine letter" the former President wrote last week resigning his lifetime NRA membership because of the language used in the fund-raising appeals.
Clinton's comments marked a further escalation of his battle with the NRA and its political supporters. The President and the NRA, foes during his days as Arkansas governor, more recently have clashed over the federal ban on some types of assault weapons and on the Brady Bill, which requires a waiting period for handgun purchases.
Clinton taunted the NRA on its desire to repeal the assault-weapons ban.
"When the NRA holds its annual meeting later this week, I want them to know they can pressure Congress all they want . . . but as long as I am President, that ban will be the law of our land," he said.
Clinton called Bush from Kiev last week after he heard that Bush had resigned from the NRA, aides said. The two talked of a Secret Service agent killed in the Oklahoma City bombing who had worked for both of them.
The NRA ran full-page advertisements in several newspapers Monday, including The Times, to urge Bush to delay canceling his membership pending hearings on federal agents' abuses of authority in the Waco raid.
But a spokesman in Houston said Bush was not considering changing his mind.