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Grace Under Fire

The NRA takes potshots at assault-weapon opponents

NRA

National Rifle Association Convention, Denver, Colorado, 1981

John Preito/Getty

Max Baucus, three-term democratic senator from Montana, has a problem, and its name is Gary Marbut Jr. Marbut is what in most places in this country would be considered “gun crazy.” In Montana, however, where guns are said to outnumber people by a considerable margin, he is merely considered a “firearm enthusiast.” Marbut was a Baucus supporter until November 1993, when the senator cast a surprising vote to ban 19 types of so-called assault weapons. “Max has blown it,” Marbut now explains. “He has crossed over the double yellow. He is no longer a friend; he is a foe.”

Baucus told Rolling Stone that he “agonized” over the vote and expected it to cause controversy at home. He did it, though, because “it would in a small way reduce crime in my state and our country.” Moreover, he adds, seated in shirt sleeves at his office desk, beneath a hanging buffalo hide, “it does not infringe on the legitimate rights of sportsmen. You don’t need an Uzi to bag an elk.” True, perhaps, but neither does Baucus — who has always enjoyed the National Rifle Association’s financial support for his campaigns — need to pique the enmity of a former ally when he is about to face re-election. The gun lobby — like Gary Marbut — sees the world exclusively in terms of friends and foes. It doesn’t cotton much to compromising with its opponents.

Having lost the first vote by a thin margin, the NRA promises to put the whole Congress through the exercise again — and again and again — until the hated ban on all Americans’ “constitutional right” to stockpile Uzis and AK-47s is finally repealed. According to chief NRA lobbyist Tanya Metaksa (who spells her name “A-K, as in AK-47, S-A, as in semiautomatic”), if they don’t win this time, “I plan to keep coming back.”

Metaksa and her gun-lobby cronies may rue the day they made those plans. While the NRA may be the single most-feared special-interest lobby in Washington, its forthcoming onslaught to repeal the assault-weapons ban may prove to be its Vietnam: a costly overreach that strengthens its opponents and weakens its own internal cohesion. Gun-control proponents in New Jersey, Maryland and even in conservative Virginia have proven in recent years that the NRA can be beaten. Of the five senators the NRA targeted for all-out attack in 1994, only one, Jim Sasser, went down in defeat.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, from pro-gun New Mexico, took out ads attacking the NRA and defending his vote for the assault-weapons ban. Bob Kerrey managed to stare down Charlton Heston, who called on Nebraskans to “protect freedom” and dump Kerrey in an ad financed by the NRA. Kerrey disarmed the man who played Moses with his own direct reply — a commercial in which he explained that as a hunter, Kerrey needed a “good gun like this Ruger Red Label,” which he held in his hand. “Twenty-five years ago,” Kerrey continued, “in the war in Vietnam, people hunted me. They needed a good weapon like this AK-47. But you don’t need one of these to hunt birds.” Go down, Moses.

The NRA may also have hurt its cause with its heavy-handed tactics vis-à-vis those senators who wavered in their views last time around. Colorado Sen. Ben Night-horse Campbell, for instance, who recently switched his affiliation from Democratic to Republican, denounced the “malicious NRA-inspired barrage during consideration of the [Clinton] crime bill.” Angry gun owners called him up to accuse him of treason and threatened to “get Campbell and scalp him by his ponytail” for his vote to ban assault weapons. “That was it for me,” Campbell explained. “I am now an ex-NRA member.”

Keep in mind that Baucus, Kerrey and Campbell are senators from out West, where the NRA is traditionally strongest. If they will take it on over the assault-weapons battle, then so should any representative whose conscience winces at the prospect of even more semiautomatic weapons on our streets.

Many gun controllers believe that while the NRA did demonstrate tremendous muscle in 1994, it has already turned on every spigot it has and is now tapped out. In New Jersey, where the NRA tried a few years back to repeal a statewide assault-weapons ban, the issue actually rebounded to the advantage of Jim Florio, the Democratic governor defeated for re-election in 1994, adding what his pollsters say was at least 10 points to his otherwise hopeless effort. While the initial ban motivated the gun lobby in the beginning, the attempted repeal, according to Geoff Garin, a pollster for Florio, mobilized the gun-control majority. Garin predicts that the NRA’s national strategy could backfire in a similar way.

Indeed, the NRA Seems not to understand that even many gun owners distinguish between what they believe is their sacred right to own weapons for hunting or for the protection of their homes and the NRA’s insistence that that “right” allows them to stock up on the kind of weapons that Colin Ferguson used to spray deadly gunfire in a Long Island, N.Y., railroad car. Even in pro-gun Montana, the influential Missoulian newspaper editorialized, following Baucus’ risky vote, that “restricting access to these weapons no more infringes on anybody’s rights than laws restricting ownership of live hand grenades.”

But just as it makes no sense to view the NRA as King Kong, neither is it Bambi. The organization’s obsessiveness, combined with its take-no-prisoners political philosophy, is truly bad news for suddenly vulnerable senators who are clearly in the majority on banning assault weapons but who hardly need to keep reminding the furious minority of voters of this fact.

No public-opinion poll can measure the emotional intensity of the millions of Americans who fear for the fate of their gun collections. The NRA, which counts 3.5 million dues-paying members, is peopled with the most dedicated single-issue voters in America. In 1994, according to Gallup and Harris polls, more than 15 percent of all voters — 23 million to 27 million — identified themselves as NRA members.

Gary Marbut Jr., who looks like a skinnier Dennis Weaver and meets me at a family restaurant, did not want to wait for the NRA to launch its national campaign to defeat Baucus in 1996. So Marbut started one of his own. He tried to get a statewide resolution passed calling on Baucus to resign last year, but this was disallowed by Montana’s attorney general, who Marbut says is a close friend of the senator’s. (Marbut’s plan called for a vote during Montana’s annual Right to Keep and Bear Arms Week in early March.) So Marbut threw his statewide organization, the Montana Sports Shooting Association, into the effort. Currently, its sole raison d’etre would appear to be the political destruction of Max Baucus. Raising money through advertisements in gun magazines, Marbut and company have, according to his own count, broadcast more than 4,000 anti-Baucus radio spots and printed up 50,000 handbills with the headline Betrayed and another 30,000 bumper stickers that read Ban Baucus. Next, he plans to start buying space on billboards. He is also talking to candidates who might oppose Baucus in the coming election. When asked if any of them are intimidated by Baucus’ already formidable war chest, Marbut answers, “No amount of money that Max can spend can recover his image in Montana. I think Mickey Mouse could run against Max and win.”

That the assault-weapons issue has taken on Waterloo-like proportions for both sides is powerfully ironic. It is hardly the most effective gun-control measure ever passed, due to the fact that while it does ban 19 types of weapons, it explicitly protects another 650. (Assault weapons purchased before the ban are also grandfathered into legality.) The Brady Law, on the other hand, according to the White House, has stopped more than 40,000 attempted purchases of illegal guns so far.

Yet the ban has become a symbol for both pro- and anti-gun-control forces. The NRA, says Tanya Metaksa, has made the repeal of the assault-weapons ban its No. 1 priority for the new Congress. And the organization plans to put its money where its mouth is. This one group boasts annual revenues of more than $120 million. It spent an estimated $4 million in the 1994 elections — more than twice what it spent two years earlier — to buy itself a more sympathetic hearing. In the House, where Georgia Republican Bob Barr introduced a repeal measure on April 7, the NRA has succeeded handsomely: 225 members of Newt Gingrich’s House of Representatives get A ratings from the NRA, seven more than the necessary 218 votes needed to win. Lest anyone worry that these votes may not be firm, it should be noted that the NRA is one organization whose marking system is not prone to grade inflation.

THE NRA’S FORTHCOMING ONSLAUGHT TO REPEAL THE ASSAULT-WEAPONS BAN MAY PROVE TO BE ITS VIETNAM

Even before the Oklahoma City bombing, both the timing and the arithmetic of the Senate vote looked trickier. The procedural vote that ultimately allowed the ban to pass last time around hung by a slender thread. If Baucus or anyone else had voted no on that initial vote, the ban would have failed. (Vice President Al Gore, who can be depended upon to cast the tiebreaking vote in the Senate when necessary, was busy debating Ross Perot over NAFTA on the Larry King show when the vote took place.) No one claims to have an accurate vote count yet, though it seems a safe bet that all 11 new Republican members of the Senate will hardly be eager to take on the NRA in the first big gun votes of their Senate careers. Majority Leader Bob Dole has thrown down the gauntlet, promising Metaksa in writing that “repealing the ill-conceived gun ban passed as part of President Clinton’s crime bill last year is one of my legislative priorities. . . . I hope to have a bill on President Clinton’s desk by this summer.” Republican Orrin Hatch, chair of the key judiciary committee, all but licked his lips at a recent NRA meeting, promising the group “substantial opportunities to make inroads into the despotism of gun control” in the new Congress. George Stephanopoulos, the president’s senior adviser, says his guess is that “the NRA can find the votes.”

Democrats seem uncertain of their strategy. They were caught by surprise by Dole’s letter to the NRA. They felt as if they had done their painful part for gun control in the last Congress, according to Democratic pollster Guy Molyneux, by voting for the Brady Law’s five-day waiting period, for a bill that outlawed the purchase of all handguns by minors and for the assault-weapons ban. The exit-poll numbers, which showed seven of 10 NRA members voting Republican in the last House election, says Molyneux, “scared a lot of Democratic politicians.”

The Democrats know that the more desperate they appear, the more blood the NRA can be expected to spill in the next election, picking off vulnerable candidates one by one. Baucus and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia will face much tougher races than they would have otherwise in 1996 because of their votes in favor of the ban.

The Democrats are also weakened by the retirement of many of the gun-control movement’s most dedicated and energetic champions in the Senate. Howard Metzen-baum, the movement’s hero of the 1990s, is gone, and so are such stalwart gun controllers as former majority leader George Mitchell and Arizona Sen. Dennis De-Concini. Mitchell was replaced by Tom Daschle, who has promised that the Democrats “will be on the floor a long time if [Dole] wants to repeal the assault-weapons ban.” But coming from the pro-gun state of South Dakota, Daschle is hardly eager to be the energetic gun-control partisan that his predecessor was.

Dianne Feinstein, who led the effort to ban the weapons last time around, declined to be interviewed for this article. This demonstrates that Feinstein is either unsure how to proceed or unwilling to share her tactics with the opposition in advance. She did, however, promise “the mother of all filibusters” should Dole amass more than 50 senators to repeal the ban but less than the 60 necessary to close debate.

Gun-control lobbyists are focusing their efforts on those senators who have at some point flip-flopped on the gun-control issue. Those heading the gun controllers’ list are Hank Brown, Republican of Colorado, who is retiring this year and is hence not vulnerable to NRA pressure tactics; Dan Coats, Republican of Indiana; Slade Gorton, Republican of Washington; and Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada.

The gun-control advocates, according to Jeff Muchnick of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, are out to convince members that it is pointless to switch back to supporting the NRA because “they are going to be after you no matter what.” Take the case of Texas congressman Jack Brooks. The autocratic chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Brooks was the “chief enemy” of all gun-control legislation, according to Handgun Control lobbyist Bob Walker. He battled ferociously to try to eliminate the assault-weapons ban from the crime bill. But because Brooks ultimately did support the Clinton crime bill after losing the battle over assault weapons, the NRA refused to endorse him for re-election. The now ex-congressman caught it from both ends. “Those people,” Walker says with considerable understatement, “are an unforgiving lot.”

Sen. Richard Bryan of Nevada provides another cautionary example. He voted for the Brady Law after supporting the NRA on every gun-control measure before the Senate. The NRA then spent $130,000, according to Muchnick, in an unsuccessful effort to defeat him in 1994.

Almost everyone who supported the ban last time around can be expected to stick with it, since there is no point in seeking to appease a lobby that does not believe in forgiveness.

Yet while anti-gun votes can be a liability for some congressmen, for some Democrats the issue is actually a boon. After all, an assault-weapons ban has the support of more than two in three Americans in nearly every poll taken, and it is clearly a winning issue for Democrats in states with large and growing crime rates.

The White House, too, senses that this issue is, for the time being, a winner for the president. In his State of the Union message, Clinton noted that “a lot of people laid down their seats in Congress so that police officers and kids wouldn’t have to lay down their lives under a hail of assault-weapon attacks, and I will not let that be repealed.” Stephanopoulos, always the cautious one, says, “I never underestimate the NRA. They’ve got a real stranglehold over an awful lot of members of Congress, but the people are with the president on this one.” Neither he nor anyone else in the White House will discuss strategy in advance, but clearly they are relishing the opportunity for the president to stand up for something, particularly on an issue that puts Bob Dole on the wrong side of public opinion. Even advisers of the Republican front-runner reportedly concede that their man has made a “big mistake.”

THE WEAPONS BAN HAS THE SUPPORT OF MORE THAN TWO IN THREE IN AMERICA

A senior White House official who insists on remaining anonymous explains that “the president will not allow this Congress to repeal the ban on assault weapons and to allow the weapons for gangbangers or major drug pushers.” He calls Dole’s position “a payback to a special interest” and notes rather gleefully that “Bob Dole cut a deal with the NRA, and that is something [the Republicans] are going to deal with.”

Tanya Metaksa says she is “guardedly optimistic” about Clinton’s veto threat, adding cryptically that “there’s a lot of water to go through before we get to that point.” The NRA no doubt wishes Clinton would adopt its argument for tougher measures dealing with criminals and abandon any attempts to control the types of weapons they might legally obtain. Stephanopoulos replies that Metaksa is “wrong” to entertain any hopes of Clinton’s changing his mind. Indeed, a switch would be politically impossible at this point even for Clinton. Some Democratic staff members in Congress hope the Republicans will inadvertently save other politically sensitive issues in last year’s crime bill, particularly those measures tied to prevention and drug treatment, by tying them to the repeal of the ban. Although Clinton would not be likely to veto the repeal of those measures alone, he would have no choice but to kill anything that contains a repeal of the assault-weapons ban.

The Republicans, moreover, cannot be grateful to the NRA for forcing them to focus so much attention on so unpopular an issue and one that makes them look like wimps for caving in to a powerful right-wing special interest so soon after the Oklahoma City bombing. Indeed, the unpopularity of the NRA’s position is precisely why Gingrich and Co. left the repeal out of their campaign-oriented “Contract With America.” Forced by the logic of a primary process that gives added weight to conservatives, presidential candidates such as Dole and Sen. Phil Gramm are paying the issue a great deal of lip service as a result. New Hampshire, which leads off the primary season, is a particularly pro-gun state, and Republican primary voters are the most pro gun of the pro gunners. (Gramm recently posed for the cover of the American Rifleman with NRA head Wayne LaPierre, Tanya Metaksa and Charlton Heston.) But paying lip service to the issue is not the same as winning on it; the American people who support the ban are much more likely to hold its repeal against Bob Dole, should he win the Republican presidential nomination, than they are his willingness to let it pass and then be vetoed. Look for lots of rhetoric on the issue from these men but not too much arm twisting to try to overturn Clinton’s promised veto.

Gun-control organizations like Handgun Control and the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence have taken the opportunity presented by the issue’s high profile to try to forge a new coalition of church groups and community activists to fight the NRA across the board. Following the 1994 election, they put aside their turf struggles and are ready to try to put together a broad-based coalition with some political muscle behind the gun-control position. They are in the process of launching something called the Campaign to Protect Sane Gun Laws. So far they have secured the active support of more than 90 different anti-gun organizations.

The NRA will not win this round. But the gun-control victory will not come without casualties. Because it must now focus on re-fighting the assault-weapons fight, the gun-control movement will not be able to focus attention on other, perhaps more effective means of controlling the epidemic of violence on America’s streets. This may be the bottom line of the NRA’s otherwise countereffective strategy.

Efforts like those of Rhode Island Republican John Chafee’s to ban handgun sales outright and New York Democrat Pat Moynihan’s to tax ammunition are no longer under consideration. The Democrats’ loss of both houses, furthermore, has cost the gun-control movement two of its most effective forums for explaining the hazards of uncontrolled gun sales and some of the questionable tactics employed by the gun industry. New York Rep. Charles Schumer had been planning a set of hearings on the gun industry’s attempts to target women for gun purchases, along with the industry’s insistence on producing more and more lethal weapons. These hearings won’t be happening under the Republicans, and not many politicians on either side are likely to stick their heads up for gun control and thereby put themselves in the cross hairs of the NRA’s gun sights.

Congressmen will inevitably be more vulnerable than senators, since the NRA can swing its political fists more forcefully in a small congressional district than in a large state. And unless gun-control organizations can turn out numbers to match the NRA’s, the gun lobby will continue to enjoy a political advantage despite the unpopularity of its cause, and American democracy will continue to fail us on this literally life-and-death issue.

Montana’s Max Baucus, who lacks both the war record and the charisma of Nebraska’s Bob Kerrey, still thinks that Charlton Heston, Tanya Metaksa and the rest of the gun lobby can be defeated on this issue with just common sense and respectful dialogue.

Baucus tells a story of a trip to Missoula, Mont., he made with a Budweiser distributor last June as part of one of his “workdays.” Introducing himself to a guy in a bar, Baucus met with a cold response. Asked why, the man explained that he was a member of the Citizens for the Protection of the Second Amendment, and they were meeting that night. If Baucus were really a man of conviction, the man said, he should have the guts to come speak to the group. Baucus did, rearranging his schedule to appear before the audience. He spoke for six minutes and then took questions. One man called out from the back of the room, “Ex-Senator Baucus . . . you have violated your oath. You are a disgrace to your office.” Baucus said he respected the man’s views but did not share them. The meeting went on this way for 90 minutes, with the hostile questions drawing cheers and Baucus’ responses drawing jeers. Still, when it was over, Baucus recalls, “I got a standing ovation. It wasn’t the most enthusiastic standing ovation in the world,” but it convinced Baucus that he could overcome the anger his vote had engendered.

If Baucus is right, and the gun lobby loses yet another battle on its home turf, then perhaps more and more politicians will follow his example and refuse to cave in to the extremist tactics of the gun lobby. If not, well, then we all may want to practice dodging bullets the next time we go out to vote. Time (and organizing) will tell.

In This Article: Coverwall, Gun control, NRA

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