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THE SUNDAY PROFILE : On the Defensive : Amid both political and public turmoil, NRA chief Wayne LaPierre has stood fast. But the : strains of combat--from within as well as without--are showing.


WASHINGTON — Squinting through aviator glasses, a Beretta 12-gauge poised menacingly skyward, National Rifle Assn. chief Wayne R. LaPierre is a figure straight out of American Rifleman, the gun group's magazine.

But nothing that involves the NRA is ever so simple.

The shotgun is empty. It is pointing in the wrong direction, away from the Fairfax Rod and Gun Club skeet range, where other gunners are banging away at clay pigeons. And LaPierre, who would really be more comfortable debating Second Amendment ideology or scoping out the nearest ice cream shop, is just posing. A merciless newsmagazine photographer will subject him to three hours in the muggy Virginia sunshine on this day to get just the right shot.

For the mild-mannered LaPierre--head of the nation's most powerful, some say most feared, special interest group--this sweaty session as the bull's-eye for a camera lens is a metaphor for the NRA crisis of the last 10 weeks.

In Washington politics, it used to be LaPierre and his 3.4-million-member organization that pulled the trigger. Now, more often than not, they are the targets.

Most recently, the NRA came under intense fire from law enforcement officials and leaders ranging from President Clinton to Republican Gov. Pete Wilson to Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein over a scathing NRA fund-raising letter that labeled federal law officers "jack-booted government thugs" who have the "go-ahead to . . . murder."

Although it had been mailed out early in the year, the letter quickly resurfaced after the April 19 bombing in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people.

LaPierre, who had signed the letter, struggled to defend its allegations of government abuse during a withering series of news program appearances. He finally apologized, saying the harsh remarks were aimed only at certain Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearm agents and not all law officers.

By that time, however, former President George Bush had resigned his lifetime NRA membership in protest and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), a crucial NRA supporter, kibitzed on national television about the association needing "a little image-repair job."

That image had been tarnished even before Oklahoma when the NRA suffered major legislative defeats with passage of the Brady Bill, which requires a five-day waiting period to buy a handgun, and the assault-rifle ban spearheaded by Feinstein.

After the Republicans won control of Congress last fall, there were plans to reverse the hated assault-rifle ban. But those plans were postponed after the bombing and may now be doomed.

Meanwhile, the Internal Revenue Service is scheduled to begin next month a comprehensive three-year audit of NRA finances. And rumors of internal strife at the association are mounting, with LaPierre caught between a hard-line board of directors and a more moderate NRA staff. Three top executives, all moderates, were forced out last month. After 20 years as lobbyist for the NRA, the last four as executive vice president and chief executive officer, LaPierre, 45, is showing the strains of combat. In the aftermath of his recent apology, "Mr. LaPierre was a husk of his old self on the Larry King show," the New York Times said in an editorial.

"It's not easy to go in front of a whole country, believe me, and say, 'I'm sorry,' " LaPierre says now.

He remains bewildered by the fury and wonders how the debate could run so far afield from the Second Amendment. It is a perfect example, he says, of too much heat in the discourse and not enough light on the issue.

"The gun-control people bash the NRA. The NRA bashes the gun-control people. The politicians bash each other and use this issue as they see fit for political advantage," LaPierre says from behind the wheel of his Jeep Cherokee after the recent photo session. "And anything that means anything is lost in the process."

LaPierre reserves his harshest remarks for Washington.

"It's a much more mean-spirited town all the way around," says LaPierre, who grew up in Roanoke, Va., in a home without guns only to embrace the right to own one with near-religious fervor. "It's almost like you get to a point where you've seen too much. I mean it kind of turns your stomach on the whole process. And there comes a time when you just need to save yourself."

It is unusual candor from a man who, despite the recent controversy (or perhaps because of it), has his strongest hold ever on the association. "He's stood up like a man [amid the letter controversy] and done a hell of a good job for us," NRA President Tom Washington says.

LaPierre's position has meant brushes with fame, complete with autograph seekers and countless television and radio invitations. (The limelight, however, is already shifting; he was bounced from a recent appearance on John McLaughlin's "One on One" in favor of a Bosnian official.) His book, "Guns, Crime and Freedom" (Regnery Publishing, 1994), reached No. 11 on the New York Times bestseller list last year and is due out soon in paperback.

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