The NRA Wants You
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.