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.

Traditionally a political powerhouse in the Midwest, the NRA has suffered a series of stunning setbacks there since the massacre in Littleton, Colorado, a year ago. In Michigan, Illinois and Ohio, Republican governors have crossed the NRA on key gun issues, and in Missouri the NRA lost a hard-fought referendum over citizens’ right to carry concealed weapons. Not only statewide but also in swing Congressional districts the NRA is running up against an unprecedented passion among anti-gun voters. According to pollsters and gun-control activists, a new phenomenon is occurring: For the first time, a constituency of anti-gun voters–led by city-dwelling and suburban women, Democrats and Republicans alike–is emerging to match the fervid intensity previously manifested only by the NRA’s militant, pro-Second Amendment voter base. The mobilization of anti-gun sentiment, galvanized since Columbine, helped spark the so-called Million Mom March in Washington and dozens of other cities on May 14–Mother’s Day–led by the soccer moms of political lore. “Columbine was a scary event for people,” says Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster. The Midwest, she says, is “one of the places where you’ve seen the biggest shift, and it’s also one region where the suburbs have grown the fastest.”

The ersatz prophet who’s led the NRA out of its mid-nineties wilderness and into the new millennium is Charlton Heston, 75, who was elected to the NRA board in 1997 and rose quickly to its top post. (Reads an NRA bumper sticker: My President Is Charlton Heston.) At a packed forum at Georgetown University in March, hundreds of students leapt to their feet, shouting, whistling and stamping as Heston strode to the podium. As he started to speak in his trademark basso profundo voice, he was interrupted again by loud and sustained applause (interspersed with a few boos and catcalls). “A couple of years ago, I accepted the office of president of the National Rifle Association,” he intoned. “And that’s when the bombshells of the cultural war blew up all around me.” Blasting political correctness and its alleged proponents (politicians, the media, Hollywood, academe), Heston proclaimed: “Right here and now, we are again engaged in a great war. And this campus is one of the battlegrounds.”

While Heston does not always seem in full command in public situations–he tripped over his lines several times during the Georgetown speech, even referring to “George M. Bush,” and announced during a recent ABC-TV appearance that the NRA had 33 million members instead of 3.3 million, despite his use of cue cards–he has played a key role in rebuilding the organization. As its public face, he has lent it credibility and star appeal, and in one important instance he threw his weight behind one faction in a key struggle for power.

Since the late seventies, the NRA has rooted itself firmly on the far right of the political spectrum. From 1991 until 1997, however, the organization was led further and further toward the radical-right political fringe by Neal Knox, an influential member of the board who stamped out the last vestiges of the more apolitical hunters and target shooters who’d been the NRA’s backbone for decades while appealing to hard-core gun-culture aficionados. Knox also engineered the firing of the deft James Jay Baker, its chief lobbyist, who was replaced by Tanya Metaksa, a steely woman wont to spell her name thus: “M-E-T-A-K (as in AK-47) S-A (as in semiautomatic).” Spending tens of millions of dollars on costly direct-mail recruitment drives, the NRA built its membership to 3.5 million, but its strident militancy alienated Republican allies. Then, in April 1995, when it was revealed that Oklahoma City bomber Tim McVeigh was a card-carrying NRA member and that the NRA was sidling closer to the militia movement, the organization’s stock plummeted. Former President George Bush resigned his lifetime NRA membership in disgust over the NRA’s comparing of federal law enforcement officers to “jackbooted thugs,” and in 1996 Senate majority leader Bob Dole took pains to distance himself from the NRA in his losing bid for the presidency. The NRA, edging closer to the fringe, declined to endorse Dole–though former lobbyist Baker, in exile, astutely formed Sportsmen for Dole to reaffirm the GOP’s ties to gun owners. In the 1996 elections the NRA’s support for ultraright Republicans ended in a brutal string of electoral defeats.

Eventually Knox overplayed his hand, seeking to replace the NRA’s longtime spokesman and CEO, Wayne LaPierre. Pudgy and bookish, LaPierre wasn’t trusted as a true believer by many of Knox’s hard-line allies, and Knox also coveted the then-$190,000 salary that went with the job. In early 1997, at a raucous weekend meeting of the NRA’s board that lasted till 5 am Monday morning, Knox’s insurrection was defeated by LaPierre. “I don’t intend to stand by and let the NRA be turned into the John Birch Society and made irrelevant,” LaPierre told the New York Times. “It must stay positioned in the mainstream.”

At a subsequent annual convention, Heston ran for the board as a LaPierre ally, and over the past three years LaPierre and Heston have managed to purge nearly all of Knox’s allies. The coup de grâce occurred in April, when Knox himself learned he’d lost his bid to be re-elected. In 1998 LaPierre fired Tanya Metaksa and brought back the savvy and well-connected Baker, a move that draws grudging praise from gun-control activists. “I was very sorry when I saw he was back,” says Mike Beard, president of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “He knows the territory, he knows the people.” After the Columbine shootings, Baker engineered an alliance between DeLay, the Republican leader, and Democratic Congressman John Dingell, a former NRA board member, that stifled the gun-control legislation. “He is a legislative genius, with what he pulled off with the Dingell amendment,” says Kristin Rand of the Violence Policy Center. “He is just a brilliant lobbyist.”

Having gradually righted itself financially through belt-tightening and careful management, and having put in place a smoother Washington team, the NRA was poised to take perverse advantage of the post-Columbine environment. As President Clinton pressed for a package of modest gun-control measures–cracking down on unrestricted sales of firearms at gun shows, mandating trigger locks on weapons and so forth–the NRA went into high gear. Through mailings, phone banks and point-of-sale recruitment at gun dealerships and shows, the NRA’s characteristically overheated rhetoric began to win converts by the fistful. (One example from a recent NRA letter: “You and I are now making history in the final, decisive battle for the future of our precious Second Amendment freedoms…. Al Gore intends to force every American gun owner to carry a national ID card. He didn’t exactly say tattoo a number on your forearm, but you get the idea.”) Membership soared, with as many as 600,000 people sending in their $25 dues. At the height of the war of words between LaPierre and Clinton in March, the NRA added 70,000 new members in a week.

Now the NRA is preparing to mobilize its members for a massive get-out-the-vote effort on behalf of Bush and the GOP Congress in November. Organizing that effort is Chuck Cunningham, a former Christian Coalition official, who claims to have signed up 280,000 election volunteers.

What gives the NRA special clout is its ability to coordinate with fifty-four affiliated groups in all fifty states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, scores of smaller state and local pro-Second Amendment organizations, and hundreds of gun clubs nationwide. The Illinois State Rifle Association, for example, an NRA state affiliate, has 10,000 active members, complementing the NRA’s 140,000 statewide members. According to Jim Vinopal, who heads the ISRA’s political action committee, the group has countywide branches organized in about half of Illinois’s 102 counties. “We’re organized all the way down to the local level, and most of the groups are affiliated with the NRA,” he says. “For instance, in my town of Downers Grove, west of Chicago, I belong to the Downers Grove Citizens for Responsible Firearms Ownership, which has about 200 members.” At a moment’s notice, volunteers can be turned out to put up signs, ring doorbells or visit the State Capitol. Last fall, hundreds of activists turned out for a pair of lobby days, he says.

Similarly, in Michigan, long an NRA stronghold, the statewide NRA-affiliated Michigan Rifle & Pistol Association sits atop a web of allied organizations. Robert Mark O’Donnell, a policeman who serves as its legislative vice president, is also treasurer of Michigan Citizens for Responsible Gun Ownership’s education foundation. “We’re all brothers in arms,” says O’Donnell. Statewide, the Rifle & Pistol Association has 1,200 members, the Citizens group 3,200, while the NRA has more than 100,000 statewide. “As the election nears, the telephone calls and mailings will start, beginning with volunteers who will network out,” says O’Donnell. “Believe me, there has never been a motivation like this since I can remember. It has never been more clear. Gore is for gun registration, and the next step is gun confiscation.”

Because of the AFL-CIO’s organizational strength in the industrial heartland, the NRA is especially important to the Republican Party, given the NRA’s appeal to pro-gun union members. “This is the one thing that will spin the blue-collar union member away from his union,” says Knox. Gun-control activists agree. “For the Republicans, the NRA plays a somewhat similar role to labor on the Democratic side,” says Mark Pertschuk of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

“Gun control is for the right what prayer in school is for the left,” says Grover Norquist, the conservative activist and president of Americans for Tax Reform, who is running for the NRA’s board this year. “It is an issue where intensity trumps preference.” Though most voters back gun control, says Norquist, their support doesn’t move them to the polls. “But for that 4-5 percent who care about guns, they will vote on this,” he says, harking back to 1994. “Like moths to a flame, the Democrats keep coming back to guns,” he says. “It is my favorite issue in the world.”

Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, a conservative pollster, says that Gore will have difficulty using the gun issue to mobilize Democratic voters, while the NRA can easily bring its core constituency to the polls in November. “It’s a galvanizing issue for people who are gun owners,” she says. By focusing attention on guns this year, Clinton and Gore might be able to rouse certain voters, especially suburban women, Fitzpatrick says, but she questions whether, in the end, those voters can be sufficiently motivated to get out and vote against Bush. “They might be able to wake up a sleeping dog here and there, but it’s up to Gore to make that dog growl and bite,” she says. “Wake up and drool is not enough.”

But Celinda Lake, the Democratic pollster, thinks the Republicans will get bitten this year. Thanks to the outrage over Columbine, the intensity among anti-gun voters is as powerful as that on the other side. “What our data show is that single-issue gun-control voters for the first time equal pro-gun voters,” she says. “There’s been a fundamental paradigm shift among women.” In a poll for the Pennsylvania legislature conducted by Lake last June, she says, she found that “single-issue pro-gun-control voters outnumber single-issue anti-gun-control voters two to one.”

Of course, Republicans and the NRA cite polls showing the opposite to be true. Chris Paulitz, spokesman for the Republican National Committee, notes data showing that voters in an ABC News poll preferred Bush to Gore on guns 47-41 percent. Asked whether the GOP is concerned about being too closely tied to the NRA, Paulitz said: “Why would we back off? We’ve always gotten money from the NRA. The NRA is an easy target for the Democrats, and they try to equate them with the devil.”

However, data like Lake’s–and evidence of widespread public anxiety about guns–have clearly emboldened Clinton and Gore to seek to portray Bush and the Republican Party as tools of the NRA. When LaPierre served as co-chairman of a $15 million fundraiser for the GOP in Washington in late April, the Gore campaign lambasted the Texan for associating himself with the gun lobby. “So much for George W. Bush’s moderate makeover,” said Gore’s spokesman. “He has rushed from the warm embrace of Bob Jones and straight into the arms of the NRA.” Clinton crisscrossed the country in March and April hammering away at the NRA, and Gore has shown every intention of making guns a central theme of his attack against the Texas Governor.

In the Midwest there is mounting evidence that the NRA might be playing a losing hand. Last May their top priority in the states–passing laws that allow citizens to carry concealed weapons–ran aground in two key battleground states. In Missouri, despite a multimillion-dollar NRA campaign, voters rejected the “concealed carry” referendum 52 to 48, while in Michigan a coalition of gun-control groups, public health organizations and law enforcement persuaded Governor John Engler, a Republican, that a concealed-carry law passed by the state legislature was better left unsigned. Both were huge defeats for the NRA. In other Midwest states moderate Republican governors have resisted the NRA’s pet issues. In Illinois, Governor George Ryan was elected to office in 1998 over an NRA-backed Democrat in a race in which gun control played the pivotal role. And, even in conservative Ohio, Governor Bob Taft is backing a safe-storage requirement for guns in the home, a bill that has been dubbed “Taft’s Burglar Protection Bill” by an angry NRA.

In House races, too, there are signs that the NRA may be less than successful this year. Ever since Columbine, many Republicans from suburban and swing districts in California, the Midwest and the Northeast have been caught between their party’s allegiance to the NRA and growing anti-gun sentiment in their districts. Two Republican House members quite visibly caught in the vise are James Rogan, an embattled conservative from Southern California who, after voting with the NRA, has flip-flopped to become a supporter of gun control, and Tom Tancredo, an ultraconservative lawmaker whose district includes Littleton, Colorado. Even pro-gun Democrats may be worried: In California veteran Congressman and NRA member Matthew Martinez lost his primary–in which he had heavy backing from the NRA–to State Senator Hilda Solis, who was backed by Handgun Control and spotlighted guns as an issue.

In the Midwest, a key district could be Ohio’s 12th, an open seat created by the retirement of Republican Congressman John Kasich. Mary Ellen O’Shaughnessy, a Democrat contesting that seat, plans to make gun control an issue in her race against Pat Tiberi, a state legislator who supports the NRA’s concealed-carry bill. Signaling that pro-gun voters don’t automatically have the advantage anymore in a district that has historically been safe for the NRA, Tiberi says, “I don’t believe that the issue will end up helping one candidate or the other.”

But the ultimate winner–or loser–over guns will be Bush, whose record in Texas ties him firmly to the pro-gun side of the political equation. The NRA has already virtually endorsed Bush, but some wonder whether Bush will eventually move to create some distance between himself and the organization. Phil Journey, a former NRA board member and Republican activist in Kansas, is one who thinks the NRA’s high-profile battle with President Clinton could hurt Bush. “It would be much better for George W. Bush if the issue doesn’t come up in the national election,” says Journey. “The NRA’s game of chicken may cost them in the fall. Picking this fight now has the potential to activate the base of gun-control supporters.”

Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst, thinks that if Bush is seen as beholden to the NRA it could not only put him in an awkward position but could also create problems for Republicans in close House races. “If Bush were actually painted that way, it might hurt down-ballot Republicans, even in the suburbs,” he says. One candidate aware of exactly that danger is Mark Kirk, a Republican running for Congress in Illinois’s 10th district, in Chicago. Kirk, like his Democratic opponent, Lauren Beth Gash, is a strong supporter of gun control, and he is at pains to distance himself from the GOP’s embrace of the NRA. “There are two key issues on which I will be disagreeing with the leaders of my party: on choice and on guns,” he says. But he acknowledges that Gash will try to hang the NRA-Republican alliance around his neck.

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There are already signs that the NRA might understand and be responding to the problem. Reuters reported on March 31: “Charlton Heston said…gun control would not become a hot-button issue in the 2000 election, which he said was the most important in at least 100 years. ‘I don’t think it’s going to be as important an issue as people think,’ Heston told reporters.” Such a low-key approach would not be without precedent. Indeed, in recent years the NRA has frequently spent millions of dollars in advertising for and against various candidates for Congress without mentioning guns at all, choosing instead to emphasize issues like crime, taxes or family values. Neal Knox suggests that by being too public the NRA risks activating its opponents. “If the NRA is too open in its activity, it’s going to be energizing to the other side,” says Knox. “Since it’s been demonized, I don’t think the NRA is going to be so visible in statewide independent expenditures. We’ll do independent expenditures in certain Congressional districts, but only in areas where it won’t be counterproductive.”

One recent California race offers evidence of the NRA’s stealth approach. In that contest, the NRA sought, unsuccessfully, to defeat a longtime anti-gun state senator in the Democratic primary in March. The NRA urged its members to volunteer to help the opposing Democrat–but to do so secretly. “Do not let on that you are associated with the NRA,” said a memo circulated among pro-gun activists. “Keep the NRA hats and sweatshirts at home…. If our help were widely known, it would stimulate the Democrats…. Do not talk to anyone in the press about this.”

In the end, this year will be a test of whether the NRA can maintain some semblance of its new sophistication or, in the heat of battle, will revert to its former fringe-dwelling. So far, the organization has chosen to emphasize a fairly moderate-sounding theme: that the United States needs no new gun laws, but instead ought to enforce existing ones. Although the Justice Department fiercely disputes charges that it’s failed to enforce gun laws, and although gun-control activists point out the obvious need for tougher laws restricting firearms, the NRA’s mantra is being echoed now by Bush and other pro-gun Republicans, giving them an easy response when asked about gun-control legislation. And anti-gun activists believe that unlike past years, the NRA will give a pass to embattled Republicans seeking re-election even if they stray from pro-gun orthodoxy, sacrificing purity for the larger goal of keeping GOP control of the House.

Still, the NRA is facing a political climate that has changed radically since 1994, the organization’s previous high-water mark. The “angry white man” of the early nineties has given way to the “soccer mom.” The gun-control movement, which for years has lacked a grassroots base, is seeing the emergence of a fledgling network of state and local groups that can organize anti-gun voters and get them to the polls. City attorneys and trial lawyers have thrown gunmakers on the defensive by a wave of liability lawsuits. And with each outbreak of high-profile gun violence, the number of voters intent on voting out NRA-backed lawmakers increases. This could be the year that politicians, Republicans and Democratic alike, learn that they don’t have to be afraid of the NRA anymore.