For the pledge of NRA support, a candidate need only step forward at appropriate moments to decry gun-control activists as dupes or traitors, and, of course, recite on cue that guns don’t kill people, people do. (Babe Ruth hit home runs, too, but the Bambino would have been a bum without a bat. Oh, what’s the use?)
If a political hopeful doesn’t mind doublecrossing his intellect and shredding what may pass for his morality, the NRA (membership: 3.3 million) offers a pretty good deal. Hell, chances are the pol isn’t going to personally know anyone who gets snuffed by a Saturday Night Special or wasted when the full moon prompts the next whackinola to play Tet offensive at a fast-food joint. To reward candidate Joe Blow’s loyalty, NRAers rally the troops on election day and thereby keep the country safe for democracy–and the owners of AK-47s. As Abraham Lincoln said, it is quite possible to hoodwink some of the people all of the time. On this premise do the NRA and its political footmen survive and, often, flourish.
In obeisance to NRA doctrine, Bush faltered only slightly during his presidential term by backing a laughably weak curb on imported semiautomatic weapons and failing to oppose with sufficient ardor a waiting period imposed on Americans eager to buy guns. Piqued, the NRA withheld its endorsement for Bush’s re-election bid in 1992. The president took his lumps like a man and, even though he lost the race, continued paying NRA membership dues. Then one day not long ago, Bush–who so far as we know does not intend to run again for public office–came across an astonishing NRA fund-raising letter. This thing was a beaut, all right, a renegade, incendiary masterpiece, and, by golly, it made George Bush furious.
Signed by NRA executive vice-president Wayne LaPierre, the letter took a swipe at federal law-enforcement agents in terms that might have seemed intemperate even for the feverish minds at Hairtrigger Central. LaPierre is the guy who goes on TV all the time to suggest that if America is disarmed by so much as a single .22-calibre rifle, constitutional freedoms will be rendered worthless and the nation soon shall perish. While you know understatement is not exactly LaPierre’s gift, it still was remarkable that a man paid to issue public policy statements described federal law-enforcement agents as thugs in “Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms” who wanted nothing more than to “harass, intimidate and even murder law-abiding citizens.”
That did it. Bush whipped off a letter of his own saying he was quitting the NRA because of the far-out language employed by LaPierre. On a sombre note, Bush said he knew an agent who had been killed in the April bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City and another who died during the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian religious compound near Waco, Tex. The NRA fund-raising salvo, Bush said, “deeply offends my own sense of decency and honor.”
It was not considered polite to ask where the former chief exec’s “sense of decency and honor” had been hiding for so many years in regard to the NRA. Indeed, Bush was saluted by Clinton, who blistered the organization himself and demanded that the NRA donate proceeds gained from the notorious letter to families of police officers killed in the line of duty. Though LaPierre apologized for not making clear that he was referring only to certain–and not all–government agents in his letter, the NRA official demurred on Clinton’s call for a philanthropic gesture. “We thank the President for his suggestion,” LaPierre replied. The cheque most definitely is not in the mail.
The subtext to this whole affair is that public pressure for gun control in recent years has hardened attitudes at the NRA. In turn, the organization has fallen more deeply into the embrace of the irascible right. As New York City Newsday writer Marie Coco noted in a recent essay, NRA legislative director Tanya Metaksa privately runs a computer network called Bullet N’ Board that, among other priceless bits of information, posted a recipe for home-made bombs. Not to be outdone, says Coco, the NRA’s own institutional computer service has excoriated agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms–which organized the raid on the Waco compound–and summoned up images of “BATF flesh roasting over an open campfire.”
This is rough stuff–maybe, as Bush illustrates, too rough even for some NRA members. A recent Time magazine/CNN poll showed that American gun owners’ support for the NRA’s positions has dropped 20 percentage points in five years. Maybe the gun crowd is slowly coming to its senses. In an odd way, maybe the NRA leadership is, too. At the organization’s recent convention in Phoenix, Ariz., delegates were walking the floor with empty holsters. Why? Because the NRA insists members leave their shooting irons at the door. NRA officials argue that people–not guns–kill people, but you can’t blame them for worrying about exceptions to the rule.