Locked and loaded, the National Rifle Association is mapping out its battle plan for Election 2000, flush with cash and boasting a membership that could reach an all-time high of 4 million by November. Half a decade ago, after losing bruising battles over the 1993 Brady Bill and the 1994 assault- weapons ban, the gun lobby was in trouble. Facing a financial crisis after running huge deficits several years in a row, it began losing large numbers of members and found itself involved in a bitter and divisive internal struggle that pushed it to the brink of collapse.
But it’s back. Having purged itself of elements considered too hard-line even for its militant core, the NRA has reinvented itself as a slicker and more sophisticated organization, fronted by Hollywood’s Charlton Heston and fielding a team of polished lobbyists on Capitol Hill. Its $135 million budget this year is close to 1994’s record, and its political arm, the Institute for Legislative Action, has raised $25 million for 2000. The NRA’s political action committee, the Political Victory Fund, had brought in $5.5 million by the end of February, well on its way toward its biggest total ever. And, in case anyone doubted the NRA’s continuing clout on Capitol Hill, its lobbyists pulled off a masterful coup last year–killing a gun-control package in Congress at the very height of the clamor for action in the wake of the tragedy at Columbine High School.
The NRA would love to engineer a repeat of 1994, the last time it went into an election year this strong. That year, though it would shortly start its spiral downward from a peak strength of 3.5 million members, the NRA played a critical role in helping the GOP sweep to power in Congress, with pro-gun voters making the difference in perhaps two dozen House races. Long allied with the Republican Party, the NRA has bound itself even more closely to the GOP in 2000, lavishing $550,000 in soft money on party committees. Above all, the NRA intends to help elect George W. Bush, the gun-friendly Texas Governor, as President. Kayne Robinson, the NRA’s first vice president, who is also chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, privately told members in February that if Bush wins “we’ll have…a President where we work out of their office.” The organization will also go all out to help the Republicans maintain control of the House, whose most powerful member, Tom DeLay, the majority whip from Texas, is a close ally and two of whose members–Republicans Bob Barr of Georgia and Don Young of Alaska–sit on the NRA’s board. In these battles, an important factor will be the NRA’s cash–both in the form of campaign contributions and independent expenditures (which are regulated by the Federal Election Commission) and issue-advocacy ads (which are not). But even more crucial will be the NRA’s ability to mobilize its grassroots base, especially in the band of states that includes Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Missouri, all swing states, whose votes are likely to decide the presidential contest.
But this isn’t 1994. It’s precisely in those states where the NRA may find itself fighting an uphill battle, and that’s what makes this year the most severe test of its political muscle in memory. Raising the stakes even further, Handgun Control, Inc., the nation’s largest gun-control group, plans to spend $2 million in PAC money in 2000, concentrating on a select list of House and Senate races.