The NRA Wants You
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.