Clinton Versus the NRA: Ready, Aim, Fire

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President Clinton and the National Rifle Association have never enjoyed a warm and cozy relationship, but on Sunday the level of rancor reached new heights — a preview, perhaps, of the battle to come. ABC’s "This Week" aired an interview with the President in which he blasted the NRA's "ruthlessly brutal" tactics in defeating gun control legislation. After listening to the President's remarks, LaPierre fired back with a savage accusation: "I believe Clinton needs a certain level of violence in this country," the NRA official told a visibly startled Cokie Roberts. "He's willing to accept a certain level of killing to further his political agenda." This is a familiar song, of course — sung at a more abrasive and confrontational pitch. Clinton wants to expand gun-show background checks to include a 72-hour waiting period for those gun buyers whose criminal or mental-health records aren't immediately available. NRA officials counter that such a time frame is too restrictive and that the technology is, in most cases, already available to make the checks within 24 hours.

So why now? Rather like the current saber-rattling between China and Taiwan, it's the prospect of a presidential election that has raised the political temperature over the issue. If his eagerness to debate gun control is any indication, Clinton obviously feels his vice president is sitting pretty on this issue. And given the general public's rising anger over the recent spate of gun deaths — a frustration reflected in recent polls — he may be right. While Gore has embraced the stance favored by the Clinton administration, Governor Bush's gun control record in Texas has never given the NRA reason to complain. Watch for gun control to take center stage as the presumptive candidates hone their message points in anticipation of a nasty fight.