At a time when firearms in the U.S. are involved in more than 30,000 deaths each year and drug gangs sport arsenals that a small army might envy, that militantly progun position has put the National Rifle Association at odds with the majority of Americans. To its opponents, the N.R.A. is the Darth Vader of special-interest groups, a force of 2.8 million members who can launch a tidal wave of constituent letters toward any legislator who ventures a word in support of gun control. Speaking before Congress last year, James Brady, the former White House press secretary who was wounded during John Hinckley's 1981 shooting of Ronald Reagan, called the N.R.A. an "evil empire" that tries to block any effort to redress the tragedy of gun violence.
That kind of hyperbole too often characterizes the gun debate on both sides. For one thing, Brady's description hardly does justice to a complex association that is partly a lobby, partly a sporting group and largely a gathering of the faithful. It also won't do because the N.R.A. is not just another special-interest group. It is the pivotal player in the evolving national concern about guns. What the N.R.A. is, and what it becomes, will do much to determine the outcome of that debate.
In a nation of 70 million gun owners, the N.R.A. speaks to a venerable American attachment to firearms. There may be no other society in which guns enjoy such a deeply embedded prestige or such enduring glamour. Many Americans contend that the wide distribution of firepower among all levels of society was crucial to establishing the republic and is essential to maintaining it. The N.R.A. has gone further, putting firearms at the center of a faith so fierce that the ordinary terms of political belief -- words like "conviction" and "position" -- may not be sufficient to grasp it. Says N.R.A. Executive Vice President J. Warren Cassidy: "You would get a far better understanding if you approached us as if you were approaching one of the great religions of the world."
Like most religions, the N.R.A. must contend with heretics and schisms. And like many empires, it may not be as imposing as it looks. Some N.R.A. members complain that the organization is in the grip of extremists who have turned off the public, while others grumble that the pinstripe leadership in Washington has grown too accommodating. Hard-liners have split off to form their own bristling grouplets, while constant maneuvering has become a fact of life among the factions on the N.R.A.'s 75-member board. With more than 50 state and local gun-control bills awaiting action around the country, the group's leaders and many of its members are wondering how often -- if ever -- they should compromise. Just how fiercely should they stick to their guns?
Though it once enjoyed the reputation of being an invincible lobbyist, the N.R.A. has recently been forced to accept legislation that it instinctively resisted at first, including laws to ban "cop killer" handgun bullets that pierce protective vests and plastic guns that could elude metal detectors at airports and public buildings. Taking stands that made it easy for opponents to paint the group as wantonly indifferent to public safety, the N.R.A. has found itself repeatedly battling police organizations, whose leaders complain that they are being outgunned by gangs and drug dealers. In 1988 it suffered its first statewide referendum loss. Maryland voters that year refused to repeal a law that would allow the banning of some kinds of handguns. This was despite an N.R.A. campaign that cost $6.6 million, nine times as much as the opposition spent.
Then came Patrick Purdy. A year ago last week the deranged welder used a semiautomatic "assault rifle" to spray bullets at an elementary school in Stockton, Calif. When the shooting and screaming had ended, five children lay dead; 29 others and one teacher were injured. For many Americans, a long-held misgiving hardened into a compelling certainty: too much firepower was too easily available. One year later, California and five cities elsewhere have laws restricting or prohibiting weapons like the one Purdy used.
Even gun owners seem inclined to accept such restrictions. In a poll for TIME/CNN by the firm of Yankelovich Clancy Shulman, 56% of the gun owners questioned described themselves as supporters of the N.R.A. Yet 73% approved of mandatory registration of semiautomatic weapons. Also, 87% said they would support passage of a federal law to require a seven-day waiting period and a background check for anyone wanting to buy a handgun. Those are proposals that the House will consider again in its upcoming session.
Shifting public attitudes are one reason that the most potent N.R.A. weapon -- the threat to swamp opponents on Election Day -- has been proving harder to deliver. The association's political-action committee, the fifth most generous in the country, spent nearly $4.7 million to back political candidates in the 1988 election, up from $876,000 in 1980. Yet according to a study by the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, the N.R.A. has failed to unseat a single one of its targeted incumbents in the past two congressional elections.
If the N.R.A. appears down, it is by no means out, especially since the same fear of crime that leads some people to call for gun control sends many others running to buy a side arm. "It's great to have the N.R.A. out there battling for us," says Jean Pitman of Vero Beach, Fla., who bought a pistol after her home was robbed. "The real worry for me is losing the right to own my gun."
Though N.R.A. membership has declined by 300,000 since 1984, the group set a fund-raising record of $15 million in 1989. It spent $1.5 million to defeat Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential race, and its efforts are credited with turning a portion of the vote against him. And since 1981, when Morton Grove, Ill., became the first American town to pass a comprehensive handgun ban, the N.R.A. has persuaded 38 states to pass pre-emptive laws that prohibit similar actions by local communities.
Nowhere is its enduring clout more evident than in Congress, where the group is preparing for another round in its fight against the Brady bill. (The proposal takes its unofficial name from James Brady and his wife Sarah, who became a gun-control activist after her husband was shot.) When the measure first went before the House in 1988, it lost by a vote of 228 to 182. This year few expect it to pass the House or even to emerge from committee in the Senate. Prospects are not much better for Senate passage of a bill to ban assault-style weapons. Concedes Michael Beard of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence: "We know it's going to take another tragedy for them to take any action."
One of the N.R.A.'s brightest stars is its chief lobbyist, James Jay Baker, 36, a former assistant county prosecutor in Missouri, who is sometimes touted as the organization's next leader. Baker can talk like a true believer. "Gun control is a cop-out," he says, "an easy solution to a complex problem. And it doesn't work." But in Washington legislation is an art of compromise, and you cannot do much logrolling by digging in your heels. So Baker can also be more accommodating, recognizing the public's changing mood on gun owners' rights. "There are no absolute rights," he acknowledges. "It's a question of where you draw the lines."
A long-running advertising campaign features diverse gun owners displaying their weapons and declaring, "I'm the N.R.A." But who really is the N.R.A. ? Though the group may boast its share of heavyset hunters with rifle racks in their pickups, typical members come from a more domesticated breed: white suburban men -- only 3% are women -- somewhat more affluent and better educated than the American norm. The dues-paying roster includes actor Charlton Heston, writer-editor Michael Korda and actor Jerry Mathers, the Beaver of sitcom fame.
Some of the most powerful figures in Washington carry N.R.A. cards, including Speaker of the House Tom Foley. That John F. Kennedy was a member may be ironic but not surprising: so were Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Likewise George Bush, though after he announced a ban last year on the importation of military-style semiautomatic weapons, some disgruntled N.R.A. stalwarts launched a wobbly attempt to revoke his membership.
The N.R.A. was founded in 1871 by a group of former Union Army officers dismayed that so many Northern soldiers, often poorly trained, had been scarcely capable of using their weapons. For many years it concentrated on marksmanship and gun safety. Fending off gun control did not become an important N.R.A. concern until the 1930s, when Congress passed a law restricting sawed-off shotguns and machine guns. Then came the 1960s and the grim wave of political assassinations. In the grief and anger that followed the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, Congress passed the Gun Control Act of 1968, which banned interstate and mail-order shipment of firearms and ammunition and permitted federal inspection of gun dealers.
Though it opposed the bill, the N.R.A. was still largely an association of hunters, collectors and sport shooters, not yet an outfit honed for hard legislative battle. It became more aggressive in the mid-1970s, when frustrated hard-liners began to form splinter organizations. A political- action committee was established, along with a lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action. The group launched a recruiting drive that in ten years tripled the membership to 3 million.
The militants wanted more. At the 1977 national convention they staged what is known in N.R.A. lore as the Cincinnati Revolt. They installed Harlon Carter, a former head of the U.S. Border Patrol, as executive vice president, the seat of day-to-day power in the organization. Neal Knox, another unyielding hard-liner, was made head of the lobbying operation.
Geared for action, and heartened by a Reagan Administration that was unsympathetic to gun control, the N.R.A. entered its most bellicose phase. In 1986 it realized a long-sought objective when Congress diluted the Gun Control Act of 1968. Even that victory left some members unhappy because a provision in the bill outlawed the future possession or transfer of machine guns.
Then came another turnaround. Carter retired to Arizona in 1985, though he is still said by many to be a power behind the scenes. Knox had already stalked off to form a militant splinter group called the Firearms Coalition, after being ousted by Carter and a majority of board members who were opposed to his unbending attitudes. In Knox's place as chief lobbyist the board installed J. Warren Cassidy, a Dartmouth graduate and a former mayor of Lynn, Mass., who went on to become executive vice president four years later.
If Carter and Knox were too belligerent for some tastes, Cassidy is too supple for others. His relative polish makes some true believers suspect he is too comfortable in Washington. Though Cassidy is a retired Marine lieutenant colonel, some whisper that he is not a real gun enthusiast, a heresy by N.R.A. standards. With the N.R.A. board divided between old-style sportsmen and newer militants, there have been fitful attempts by factions loyal to Carter to unseat Cassidy. "If you want to understand the N.R.A. board," advises Knox, "you study the Politburo." Cassidy protests that the divisions are grossly exaggerated. "It does not impair the daily operation of the National Rifle Association," he insists.
The emphasis on legislative battles has taken the spotlight and a fair amount of the budget away from the N.R.A.'s more traditional sport-shooting and training activities. "General operations" include hunter-safety programs and the 64 firearms courses for police offered around the country. That got just 11% of N.R.A. resources in 1988, down from 19% in 1980. Lobbying got 25% of the 1988 budget. "We have been forced to give it priority," explains N.R.A. First Vice President Richard Riley. "Or there wouldn't be a right to keep and bear arms."
At one N.R.A. facility, the gun controversy has made large contributors "scared and worried," says Eric Sundstrom, chief fund raiser for the N.R.A. training center in Colorado Springs. The N.R.A. trains U.S. shooting teams there for international competitions at a gleaming indoor complex that it funds jointly with the U.S. Olympic Committee. Last year the center fell ! $50,000 short of a training budget of $450,000 that depends partly on private and corporate contributions. "The N.R.A. needs to promote positive sports more," says center director Lons Wigger.
There is little evidence to support accusations that the N.R.A. is a tool of the firearms industry. Almost 60% of its $77.6 million in 1988 revenues came from membership dues, now $25 annually. Only about 10% comes from advertising, mostly for guns, in its five publications. The N.R.A. has taken positions against the domestic firearms industry, including its support for gun imports. The organization has also bared its fangs at manufacturers who seem fainthearted, like Colt Industries when it withdrew one of its semiautomatic rifles from the market following the Stockton massacre.
Nothing stirs N.R.A. passions like the Second Amendment. "The right to keep and bear arms" is the mantra of the N.R.A., the phrase repeated until the words ring in the ears of gun-control advocates. Actually, the N.R.A. emphasizes only the second half of the amendment. The full text says, "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."
Many judges and legal scholars -- including former Chief Justice Warren Burger -- have said the amendment was intended to protect the formation of citizens' militias, not to ensure the right of every individual to possess weapons. The N.R.A. offended conservative groups in 1987 by refusing to support the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court after learning that Bork disagreed with the N.R.A. stand on the Second Amendment.
In its handful of Second Amendment rulings, the Supreme Court has never unequivocally supported the interpretation preferred by the N.R.A. When the N.R.A. challenged the local handgun ban in Morton Grove on the ground that it violated the state and federal constitutions, four lower courts rejected that argument. In 1983 the Supreme Court declined to hear the case on appeal.
Critics of the N.R.A. say the group avoids bringing court cases because its leaders know their claims about the Second Amendment have little legal standing. "It's not that the N.R.A. is losing in court. They're not trying," says Franklin Zimring, a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley. However, the organization has been building an indisputable legal foundation in state courts. It has succeeded in getting 43 states to introduce provisions into their constitutions guaranteeing individuals a right to bear arms.
Even if the gun lobby eventually gains court recognition for its reading of the Constitution, that would not guarantee gun owners absolute immunity from government regulation. "It's very difficult to find an absolute right in the Constitution," explains University of Virginia Law Professor A.E. Dick Howard.
There are few things that anger N.R.A. leaders as much as their reputation for recklessly opposing even the most sensible gun limits. Their goal, they insist, has been to ensure that gun-control laws are drafted tightly enough so that legitimate weapons and ammunition are not affected. They say their no- retreat, no-surrender approach to most battles is just tactical. "You don't give up ground from the first day," says chief lobbyist Baker.
Opponents charge that the organization agrees to compromise only when it sees that its blanket opposition to a new law is going down to defeat. That's what happened, critics say, in the 1985 fight over the bill to ban "cop killer" bullets and the 1988 battle over plastic guns. Moreover, many N.R.A. activists believe any attempt to regulate firearms is part of the "salami game": a slice-by-slice diminishing of their rights. Says N.R.A. past President Jim Reinke: "If we give in on the handgun waiting period and assault rifles, we'd lose half our membership, and six months later the antigunners will want our long guns."
The bruising zealotry of some N.R.A. members has begun to hurt their cause. California used to be the kind of place that the N.R.A. could count on. A typical police chief was Daryl Gates of Los Angeles, who liked to urge law- abiding citizens to keep a gun at home. Many Californians needed no such urging. In a 1982 referendum, the state's voters clobbered a ballot measure that would have banned the sale of handguns and required those already held to be registered.
Within days of the Stockton massacre, several bills to prohibit the sale or possession of semiautomatic weapons came before the state legislature. The proposed bans were supported by police groups, by Republican Governor George Deukmejian and even by Chief Gates. Enter the N.R.A. Mounting its typical take-no-prisoners campaign, the group mobilized California's 260,000 N.R.A. members and inundated legislators with mail and phone calls. This time it didn't work. The ban squeaked through by a single vote in the state assembly. Recall attempts launched by independent progun groups against three legislators who supported the law fizzled out.
One target of the progun groups was Democratic Assemblyman Bruce Bronzan of Fresno, a longtime gun owner who had been endorsed by the N.R.A. "The way the N.R.A. lobbies, there is no give of any kind," Bronzan says. "The people who called my office, who wrote letters, who lobbied my staff daily considered you anti-gun owner and anti-Constitution if you considered any strictures on ownership at all. You either had to agree with them 100% or you were against them." The tactic backfired, says Bronzan. "I received calls from lifelong N.R.A. members who felt annoyed that the N.R.A. was out of touch with the rank and file on this particular issue."
Nevertheless, some California progun activists complain that the N.R.A. failed because it was too slow and timid. While it quickly takes charge of legislative fights in Washington, the organization rarely enters local or state battles until it is summoned by one of its affiliates, and even then not before testing the waters. When it does jump in, it tends to do so with both feet. That was one important reason the N.R.A. lost its battle to repeal a Maryland law that set up a Governor-appointed committee to prohibit certain handguns. The gun lobby enraged Governor William Donald Schaefer, a supporter of the law, by distributing a broadsheet that accused him of "untruths" and "flip-flops." That made the popular Schaefer so angry that he became an active campaigner against the N.R.A.
"When they targeted him, it boomeranged," says Schaefer's former press secretary, Bob Douglas. Some of the N.R.A.'s legislative allies have also been put off by the group's habit of turning upon old friends for a single departure from gospel. Arizona Democratic Senator Dennis DeConcini, a longtime N.R.A. supporter, is now targeted in N.R.A. literature because he sponsored one of several bills before Congress that propose to ban assault rifles.
The growing rift between the N.R.A. and some police groups is another important reason lawmakers feel freer to resist gun-lobby pressure. Last year the N.R.A. went up against Texas police groups over its lobbying for a law permitting citizens to carry concealed weapons. "They're an 800-lb. gorilla with no finesse," complains Ronald DeLord, president of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas. "Every issue isn't the Alamo."
Disenchantment of that kind may explain why N.R.A. membership has been stagnant while gun ownership overall is climbing. "Most of the gun owners of America are riding on the coattails of the N.R.A.," complains President Foss, "content to let us fight the fight to save their guns and be the bad guys in the media."
The question for the N.R.A. is whether it will continue to speak for a large body of opinion or dwindle into sound and fury from the margins. That will probably depend on whether it can match its voice to the sentiments of people who are citizens as well as gun owners. If the N.R.A. has the appeal of a faith, it also has the weaknesses of many religions. Faith can be too blunt and brittle, too full of certainties to engage all the dense dilemmas of American life. In a matter as complex as gun control, the mind that allows room for question marks can have its advantages over the one that says "period." It may be, as Joe Foss says, that gun owners in America are content to let the N.R.A. fight their battles. Then again, perhaps gun owners are not sure that it is always their battles the N.R.A. is fighting.