Political Snipers

Anybody doubting the political clout of the National Rifle Association should speak to the members of Congress-and the now former members-who supported President Clinton's ban on assault weapons as part of the 1994 crime bill. In the campaign cycle surrounding that close vote, the NRA spent some $70 million on political activities, including nearly $7 million through its political action committee, much of it targeting Democrats who had supported the measure. Although polls showed the majority of Americans approved of the weapons ban, the NRA campaign was by most accounts a success. Democrats say the NRA cost them no fewer than 20 seats, and President Clinton told one reporter that "the NRA is the reason the Republicans control the House." Speaker Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, has promised the group's service will be rewarded: "As long as I am Speaker of this House," he wrote in a letter to an NRA official, "no gun control legislation is going to move."

This is the story of how the NRA managed to accumulate so much influence over the democratic process. It is an unnerving ride through the loopholes in federal election law, which allow a powerful special interest to bring almost overwhelming force to bear in a single congressional district. It is the story of how the firearms lobby bludgeoned its opponents with slashing, near-anonymous attack commercials and buried them with bulk mailings on hot-button themes unrelated to guns. It is the story of how conservative financiers and the Republican Party used the NRA to do some of their dirty work, and the price the NRA is now extracting for those services.

This story leads to the question of how the NRA gets its money in the first place, and here, too, there is more than first meets the eye. Despite its image as a membership organization subsisting entirely on $35 membership dues, the NRA actually collects much of its money in large donations from upper-middle-class and even wealthy supporters. Big contributors, bequests, fundraising dinners, and backing from the gun industry have combined to provide the NRA with a substantial block of funds. The NRA uses that money for direct-mail solicitations, in effect converting large contributions into many smaller ones, which it then channels into political campaigns.

 

The GOP Cause

Over the past several years, as the NRA's PAC income has grown dramatically-from $3.7 million in 1989-90 to $5.0 million in 1991-92 and finally $6.8 million in 1993-94--its spending has tilted increasingly into the Republican column. That tendency reached peak intensity in the 1994 election cycle, with the NRA's PAC devoting 79 percent of its direct grants to Republican campaigns, along with 87 percent of its independent expenditures aimed at influencing voters. This trend coincided with the NRA's shift toward a hard-line, no-compromise stance on gun issues-the result of an insurgency led by Neal Knox, a longtime NRA radical, and Tanya Metaksa, a former Reagan-Bush aide who is now executive director of the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) and chairman of the PAC, which is called the Political Victory Fund.

According to Metaksa, this pattern of giving represents kindred interests, not behind-the-scenes coordinating: "We're not the National Republican Association," she says. But other sources, including former NRA officials and Republican and Democratic consultants, say that during the months leading up to the Republican sweep in November 1994, the NRA closely coordinated its election strategy with Republican Party officials. According to Tom King, a Democratic political strategist who calls the NRA a "wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party," the Republicans provided the NRA with polling data and lists of vulnerable Democrats in order to coordinate campaigns. Indeed, in October, on the eve of the elections, Metaksa solicited contributions explicitly to help Republicans take over. In a special mailing to NRA members entitled "It's Payback Time!" Metaksa said, "Make no mistake: a revolution is afoot. Just a handful of wins in key Senate races could turn the tide," resulting in "a Republican Senate."

In addition to strategizing with the Republicans, the NRA-ostensibly a single-issue organization-was throwing its lot in with other conservative groups, many of whom had little interest in guns but shared the NRA's desire to unseat Democrats. Together, these groups pursued lower taxes, free market economics, a smaller federal government, and a cutback in safety and health regulations. The NRA's "CrimeStrike" conference last year was cosponsored by the American Conservative Union, Americans for Tax Reform, and the Cato Institute, and today the NRA remains an active member of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a public-private venture that boasts "3,000 pro-free enterprise legislators" from state capitals as members, along with most of the Fortune 500. Grover Norquist, an iconoclastic Republican ideologue and Newt Gingrich strategist who heads Americans for Tax Reform, says that the NRA played an indispensable role as a linchpin of the Republican Party alliance, which he calls "the leave-us-alone coalition." As the Republicans eyed their chances in November, says Norquist, they saw the NRA as a useful tool for undermining about 50 to 70 moderate Democrats in conservative districts.

That the NRA would work closely with the Republican Party and its supporters is no great surprise. But the fervor ran so deep that the NRA was even willing to mislead its own members on how fervently senators and congressmen supported the NRA position on guns. Going all out for a Republican sweep, the NRA fudged its traditional system of rating candidates for office. According to Joseph P. Sudbay of Handgun Control, who made a detailed study of the election for the gun-control group, the NRA gave borderline Republicans the benefit of the doubt, liberally handing out "A" ratings, while being far more hard-nosed about high ratings for Democrats. A former senior NRA official confirmed the pattern, noting "fairly glaring discrepancies" in the 1994 ratings and adding, "You can play a lot of games with that rating system."

Once the NRA made its decision to back the Republicans, the NRA's PAC followed suit, with devastating results for Democratic office seekers:

  • In 52 House races where there was an open seat-that is, where no incumbent was running-the NRA either supported the Republican or remained neutral. In all, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) data and the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, the NRA spent $227,000 to help Republicans win 37 of those seats.
  • In the nine races for open Senate seats, the NRA backed the Republican every time, spending more than $500,000. Republicans won them all.
  • Where Democratic incumbents were running, the NRA abandoned many of its traditional friends on the pretext that they voted in favor of the Clinton administration's crime bill, which contained the provision that banned certain types of semiautomatic assault weapons. Such key members as Speaker of the House Tom Foley, Representative John Dingell of Michigan, and Representative Lee Hamilton of Indiana either lost all NRA support or found themselves the target of intense NRA opposition. Foley, who had long worked with the NRA to oppose gun-control legislation, was narrowly beaten by George Nethercutt, who received more than $80,000 in NRA support in the form of independent expenditures.
  • Representative Jack Brooks of Texas, another longtime NRA supporter, was chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. In mid-1994, on the eve of the House-Senate conference to assemble the final version of the crime bill, Brooks thought he had worked out a compromise with the NRA over the controversial ban on assault weapons. Rather than ban the weapons, Brooks proposed limiting the number of rounds in magazines designed for the guns, thereby restricting their firepower. That deal, worked out by NRA lobbyist James Jay Baker, a relative moderate in NRA circles, was torpedoed by Metaksa and Knox. According to an insider, Metaksa at that point wanted to use the assault weapon ban to mobilize the NRA's hard-core activist base and deliberately wrecked chances of a compromise in order to go into the November election guns ablaze. Brooks, embittered, voted for the final crime bill and was abandoned by the NRA. His Republican successor is Steve Stockman, elected with strong support from pro-gun groups.
  • The NRA's PAC concentrated more than $720,000 in independent expenditures in support of Republican Senate candidates in just six states: Tennessee, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Nebraska, and North Dakota. The first three states elected four Republican senators, defeating two incumbent Senate Democrats, Harris Wofford and Jim Sasser. In Nevada, Nebraska, and North Dakota, the NRA's big-spending ways failed to bring down Democratic incumbents. In Nevada, the NRA gave $130,000 to the Republican challenger, even though the Democrat, incumbent Senator Richard Bryan, had voted consistently with the NRA during the 103rd Congress.
  • The NRA vastly stepped up donations of so-called "soft money" to the Republican Party in the 1993-94 election cycle, largely through two checks totalling $275,000 to the Republican National Committee in October 1993. That infusion of cash was the NRA's contribution to successful Republican efforts to defeat New Jersey Governor Jim Florio and Virginia gubernatorial candidate Mary Sue Terry, both Democrats. The NRA also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in independent expenditures to help beat Florio and Terry. In New Jersey, their last-minute $200,000 spending spree to fund a professional phone bank ran afoul of the state's campaign finance laws, and the NRA was fined $7,000. "They made several hundred thousand phone calls, from paid phone banks, without the opposition campaign knowing it was occurring," says Representative Robert Torricelli, who complained about the NRA's illegal spending to New Jersey authorities. "The NRA and the Republican Party . . . operate according to a single strategy."

 

Stealth Bombers

Perhaps nowhere in the country was the NRA-Republican alliance more evident than in Oklahoma in 1994, where the NRA caught former Representative Dave McCurdy by surprise in a closely fought race against Republican Jim Inhofe for an open Senate seat. "It was a much bigger issue than I ever would have imagined," McCurdy says, marvelling at the campaign that the NRA waged against him. First elected to Congress in 1980 in Oklahoma's fourth district, which stretches south and west from Oklahoma City to the Texas border, McCurdy had long had NRA support. But his vote in 1993 for the Brady Bill, which called for a waiting period for buying handguns, and for the ban on assault weapons in the 1994 crime bill meant that he could no longer count on NRA backing.

"I knew I was drawing the line and could not cross it," says McCurdy, who did not even bother to ask the NRA for help in 1994. Yet the ferocity of the NRA's opposition took him by surprise. The NRA's PAC spent more than $150,000 in independent expenditures to run television and newspaper advertisements and put up billboards denouncing McCurdy in addition to the $9,900 it gave directly to Inhofe, just under the maximum $10,000 allowable under FEC regulations. The NRA also spent thousands of dollars more urging its Oklahoma members to turn out for Inhofe. It was an all-out attack that turned the tide against McCurdy.

But what was crucial about the NRA's attack on McCurdy was that rarely, if ever, in their onslaught did the NRA mention the issue of guns. Instead, in keeping with the Republican candidate's strategy, the NRA bankrolled a campaign to paint McCurdy as a "Clinton clone." An NRA-sponsored television ad began with a closeup of an AIDS ribbon on a lapel, then pulled back to show that the person sporting the ribbon was none other than Dave McCurdy, who was standing behind a podium delivering a speech supporting Bill Clinton at the 1992 Democratic National Convention. The NRA also paid for billboards throughout the state reading: "No Clinton Clones. Inhofe for U.S. Senate."

McCurdy says his aides detected a clear pattern that showed that the NRA was sharing the "buys" on Oklahoma television stations with the Republican Party and the Inhofe campaign-which would have been illegal under FEC rules that require that so-called "independent" expenditures not be coordinated with any election committees. McCurdy says that his staff tried to raise the issue with the FEC, but in the heat of the election campaign, just days before the vote, it was useless. (A spokesman for Senator Inhofe said that there was no coordination between the Inhofe campaign and the NRA on television advertising.)

"I wish they had come directly on gun issues," says McCurdy. "I think I could have won on the assault weapon ban with reasonable people." But, thanks to the work of pollster Frank Luntz, who also did the polling that helped Gingrich, Representative Dick Armey, and others assemble the Contract with America, the NRA knew that few Americans got excited about reversing the ban on assault weapons. (In fact, the NRA, for all of its vaunted, no-compromise reputation, meekly submitted when Gingrich did not include a promise to repeal the assault weapons ban in the Contract.) So, rather than give McCurdy and other Democrats around the country a chance to fight back, they simply ran ads thematically coordinated with Republican campaigns.

The NRA had learned that lesson in another Oklahoma race in 1992, against Representative Mike Synar, a liberal Democrat who had been a thorn in the NRA's side for years and had repeatedly crossed oil and gas, cattle, mining, and tobacco interests. In 1992 the NRA launched a high-profile attack on Synar, spending a reported $261,000 to defeat him. In that race, the NRA also ran ads against Synar on issues that had nothing to do with guns; one print ad read, "When Mike Synar voted for flag burning, so did you." According to Tom King, the Democratic consultant who worked on the Synar campaign, the NRA's PAC routinely coordinated its work with other business PACs who wanted to oust Synar. "They'd meet regularly, the different PACs-all the business PACs and the NRA got together and tried to beat Synar," he says. "And they met quite openly. They'd discuss strategy, what they were gonna do, how much money was needed."

But the NRA opened itself up to counterattack by making the gun issue a central part of its effort, and Synar countered by blasting the NRA as an extremist "special interest" group from Washington, out of touch with the views of most Oklahoma gun owners. Jim Brady, the namesake of the Brady Bill and a principal in Handgun Control, Inc., campaigned with Synar against the NRA. In a primary, a runoff, and the general election, Synar won each time.

The NRA vowed to continue its attack against Synar, and in 1994 it succeeded. But this time, the NRA ran a stealth campaign. Rather than adopt a high profile, the NRA quietly funded Synar's opponent in the Democratic primary, an NRA member named Virgil Cooper. "There were no full-page ads, no TV ads by the NRA," says Amy Weiss Tobe, a Synar aide. But anonymous flyers started showing up in union halls and shop floors around the district, carrying a reproduction of a nonexistent bill allegedly tied to Synar that would have banned hunting rifles. The NRA sponsored phone banks and mailings to its members in the district, but it was difficult for Synar to fight back. "It was different," says Tobe. "They were smart. It was like boxing ghosts."

"The NRA went in and went underground. And they've been more effective when they go underground than when they blatantly go in, because then they become a special interest and it can be used against them," says Tom King. In 1994, "there was nobody to fight against. It was an invisible target."

Synar lost the September 1994 primary, a stunning upset and a harbinger of the disaster that would befall the Democrats in November. It was a major victory for the coalition of Republicans, business groups, and the NRA, and it was trumpeted as such by Metaksa, who called Synar's defeat the "NRA's first scalp." But, though Metaksa told a reporter at the time that the NRA spent as much against Synar in 1994 as it did in 1992, none of that spending shows up on FEC records of campaign expenses-meaning that the NRA truly ran a stealthy, off-the-books effort that skirted FEC regulations. (Ironically, after helping Cooper to beat Synar, the NRA stayed out of Cooper's race against Republican Tom Coburn, who won. The NRA gave both Cooper and Coburn "A" ratings.)

Across the country in 1993-94, the NRA ran numerous ads that attacked Democrats on issues from taxes, the budget, health care, and education to the alliance with President Clinton. "They will write to my constituents about a business issue, a tax issue, or a spending issue, but guns are never mentioned. And often the NRA will never even identify itself," says Representative Torricelli, still burning about the 1993 Florio race. "Members of the National Rifle Association may be giving money to the organization because of a sporting purpose, but find the NRA is spending their money to attack a Democratic member on a Medicare or education issue."

"Unlike purists, they want to be effective," says Victor Kamber, a Washington public relations executive. "What they say is, `We are using whatever the polling data show makes them vulnerable in their district. We're saying that Jim Florio is a bad guy because he raises taxes. The fact is that the voters cared about taxes, so we're going to the voters with a message about how bad this guy is.'" Thus the NRA integrated itself into the business-Republican coalition, consciously reinforcing the antitax, antigovernment message of the free marketeers that dominate the Republican right.

 

Lawyers, Guns, and Money

What made the NRA such a useful tool to conservatives, of course, was its ability to raise and spend vast amounts of money. In 1994 the NRA was the nation's single biggest spender on elections. But how did it raise all the cash? Although the NRA's closemouthed tradition makes answering that question somewhat difficult, interviews with many current and former NRA officials, along with experts on the pro-gun movement, provide a fairly detailed picture-a picture that looks somewhat different from the grass roots, middle-American image NRA officials have nurtured for years.

It is true that like most direct-mail operations, the bulk of the NRA's daily operating revenue comes from small contributions, averaging about $18 per donor, and from annual dues of $35. Not surprisingly, most of this money comes from the ranks of American gun owners, who at last count were some 70 million strong. But that is not the entire story. Like the Republican and Democratic parties, which tout the fact that their average giver sends them between $10 and $25, the small average can obscure the presence of large backers. The NRA maintains an additional base of big contributors, who are clearly a few income levels above the typical working-class NRA member. This list includes the nation's 20,000 gun dealers and manufacturers and a small group of wealthy conservative financiers.

According to Brad O'Leary, the NRA sustains a block of 35,000 people who contribute at least $250 per year, and another 15,000 who give the NRA $125 per year. Those 50,000 people annually kick in more than $10 million. In addition, Metaksa said in an interview that she sees a fairly steady stream of checks up to $10,000 from NRA donors and has heard that the NRA treasury sometimes receives gifts "in the five figures."

The NRA conducts a broad fundraising campaign for several of its organizations, from the NRA itself to the ILA, the NRA Foundation, and the Political Victory Fund PAC. In a column in the American Rifleman, the NRA's monthly, NRA President Thomas L. Washington cited a single dinner held in Corpus Christi, Texas, where 907 people donated more than $175,000 to the NRA. And the NRA recently published a list of 214 "Friends of the NRA" fundraising events scheduled between April and October 1995.

The American Rifleman routinely lists the names of groups and individuals around the country who give the NRA at least $1,000 at a time; until earlier this year, the magazine listed those who donated special, onetime gifts of $250 or more but dropped that practice because of space limitations. And some NRA members have left the NRA bequests in the hundreds of thousands of dollars-their parting shot, so to speak.

Finally, there is the gun industry. It has long been assumed that the NRA receives financial support from firearms dealers and manufacturers, yet Metaksa, when asked about this, replied, "Baloney. Absolutely nothing." Yet the NRA in 1993 earned $8.6 million from advertising income, largely through ads from the gun industry in NRA magazines. And the NRA has arranged with gun dealers around the country to help the NRA solicit contributions from gun buyers. According to Tom Washington's "The President's Column" in the American Rifleman, just one dealer-Midway Arms of Columbia, Missouri-raised more than $678,000 for the NRA in four years. "It isn't just individual volunteers who benefit our Association," wrote Washington. "Many businesses donate their time and efforts as well."

Thanks to the Federal Election Commission, those millions raised by the NRA cannot be spent on federal campaigns. The FEC carefully regulates how a PAC, in this case the Political Victory Fund (PVF) of the NRA, raises or spends its cash.

Or does it?

The answer is: It does, but not very well. There are so many loopholes in the FEC rules that an organization like the NRA can do just about anything it wants to do for political objectives. Here's how.

A glance at the NRA's PAC records on file at the FEC, provided by the Center for Responsive Politics, shows that the overwhelming bulk of the NRA's PAC money comes into the PVF in donations of less than $200. Anything more than $200 must be reported to the FEC on an itemized basis. Yet over the six-year period ending December 31, 1994, the PVF reported itemized donations of only $278,631. During the same period, the PVF raised a total of $16,499,000.

One might conclude that large donors stay away from the PVF. But the FEC is not required to verify the accuracy of the NRA's filing. The forms that the NRA fills out simply list the itemized gifts as a line item, then present a lump-sum total for the bulk of the PVF income under the nonitemized heading. Even if the FEC suspects that there is something fishy about the lopsided nature of the PVF's income, it cannot investigate on its own without evidence of wrongdoing. The FEC takes the NRA's report on faith, just as it does with every other PAC.

More important, though, the FEC does not regulate the so-called "administrative and fundraising" costs associated with a PAC. That means that the NRA can spend unlimited sums, millions of dollars, to raise PAC funds, paying for repeated mailings to the NRA's 3.4 million members-and it does not have to report a single cent of those fundraising costs to the FEC. (That is also true for all other PACs, but it is particularly important for a large organization that can harvest small contributions, as opposed to, say, a trade association with a few dozen members whose executives kick in big bucks.)

And that is exactly what the NRA does. Using its corporate treasury, which is "soft money," that is, not regulated by the FEC, the NRA in 1994 spent at least $2 million-and probably much more-asking NRA members to contribute to the PVF. That, in turn, is what raised the PVF's $6.83 million during 1993-94. Through the science of direct mail, the NRA can estimate how much each dollar spent on soliciting donations to the PVF will bring in. So, while the FEC rules prevent a wealthy donor from giving more than $1,000 to a PAC, nothing prevents that donor from giving the NRA $5,000 in soft money, which the NRA then plows into PVF fundraising. A direct donation of $5,000 in soft money suddenly becomes $5,000, $10,000, or more in "hard money"-in other words, legally usable, reportable PAC cash.

That's not the only loophole the NRA has exploited. For example, the FEC has issued regulations saying that no association can solicit PAC money from its members unless (1) those members pay their dues and (2) those members have the right to vote for the governing body of the association. The purpose of these rules is to distinguish genuine member-controlled organizations from closely controlled direct-mail operations.

Under the NRA's bylaws, only so-called Life Members and Five Year Members, who pay larger chunks of dues at a time, have the right to vote for the NRA's 75-member board of directors--a none-too-subtle bit of class distinction. Thus, under the law, the NRA would be disallowed from soliciting the bulk of its membership, who pay only one-year dues of $35 and have no voting rights. To avoid FEC action, however, the NRA in 1994 engaged in a subterfuge so brazenly transparent that it boggles the mind. It added one position to its board to be elected at the NRA's annual meeting, to which any and all NRA members may come. Any NRA member, therefore, has the theoretical right to vote for one director, and one director only. Of course, only a minuscule portion of the NRA membership actually goes to the meeting.

This construct, laughable in its intent to subvert an FEC regulation, has not been challenged in court--yet. In the meantime, the subterfuge allows the NRA to continue to send PVF PAC mailings to its full membership and to put millions of dollars into the PVF bank account. And, by the way, the FEC conducts no audits of the NRA's membership records to determine how many members the NRA has and whether or not they are actually paying their dues.

 

Not-So-Independent Expenditures

Those who have found themselves in the NRA's sights, however, are generally more familiar with the organization's use of another legal loophole that allows the NRA to support candidates well beyond the limits on direct donations to campaigns.

Because the FEC cannot regulate free speech (thank goodness), the NRA--like any individual, corporation, or group--can spend unlimited amounts of money to promote its cause, even during an election, as long as the NRA does not engage in what is called "express advocacy." Express advocacy means that the NRA must cross a fuzzy line by explicit, campaign-style promotion of a particular candidate. If a promotion crosses that line, the thinking goes, the money spent on it ought to count as a direct political contribution, thus subject to the limits set by the FEC.

But the line is so fuzzy that the NRA can run television commercials criticizing a candidate and supporting the NRA's laissez-faire attitude toward semiautomatic weapons without falling under FEC regulations at all. In the 1992 Synar race, the NRA liberally took advantage of this loophole, running one attack advertisement with "hard" PVF money blasting Synar and then, sandwiched around another commercial, following up with a second spot that used the same spokesman, Charlton Heston, yet did not mention Synar by name. That second commercial was paid for by the NRA's corporate account, not by its PAC-thus giving the NRA a double bang for its buck.

All of these loopholes, including the biggest one of all, the use of independent expenditures, were used expertly by the NRA in 1994. To put the NRA's use of independent expenditures in perspective, consider this: In 1993-94, the NRA accounted for fully one-third of all independent expenditures by all groups during the election.

Asked about the role of independent expenditures, Metaksa is unable to suppress a sly grin before the questioner even finishes. "It's a chance for the organization to put itself into the political arena," she says. "And if the purpose is to get our point of view across, then it takes more than five or ten thousand dollars, especially in a big state." Indeed-and it doesn't hurt that nobody's figured out a way to regulate those amounts. The Clinton administration's campaign finance reform bill had a provision to offset the impact of independent expenditures, by providing public subsidies for candidates victimized by them. But that bill succumbed to the threat of a Republican filibuster a few months before the 1994 election.

 

Self-Inflicted Wounds

Stricter campaign finance law or tougher FEC regulation of the NRA seems an unlikely possibility as long as Republicans control Congress. But the NRA's coziness with the Republican Party may yet cost the organization some loyalty among its many lower- and middle-class members, many of whom find the Republican stances on economics less appealing than the party's opposition to gun control.

In the past the NRA has been able to whipsaw organized labor, many of whose members oppose gun control. But the trade union rank-and-file is only beginning to appreciate that the NRA is an ally of bitterly anti-union legislators. Already, the AFL-CIO is launching a labor counteroffensive against the NRA. That movement is starting in the West, where key AFL-CIO state presidents and affiliates are studying the NRA's role in the 1994 elections. Don Judge, president of the Montana AFL-CIO, in a state where the NRA and the militia movement are powerful side-by-side forces, says that his organization is trying to educate union members that the candidates supported by the NRA are precisely the ones who, once in office, vote against labor on every issue from the minimum wage to right-to-work to safety and health provisions. "Many of us have decided, what have we got to lose in confronting this?" asks Judge. "The kind of people being promoted by the NRA, with rare exceptions, typically do not support the kinds of things that are important to working people, beyond the issue of gun ownership."

In Pennsylvania, the AFL-CIO was rocked by the Democrats' rout in 1994, and Rick Bloomingdale, president of the AFL-CIO there, is ready to confront the NRA. Bloomingdale points out that the NRA backed the victorious Republican Representative Tom Ridge in Pennsylvania's governor's race last year, even though Ridge had voted for the assault weapon ban in Congress in 1994. Says Bloomingdale, "We finally know what the NRA-PAC stands for: the National Republican Association." When the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO began running ads last year featuring a union member and the slogan, "I'm the NRA and I'm supporting Harris Wofford," the NRA's lawyers hit them with a cease and desist order because "I'm the NRA" is copyrighted by the organization. Adds Bloomingdale, "The same people who support the NRA are the people trying to bust unions."

A study by Professor Paul Clark of Pennsylvania State University shows that the NRA consistently backs candidates whose positions on economic issues are far to the right. "While [the NRA] claims not to take positions on overtly economic issues, the candidates they support clearly do," he says. "Significantly, they have had some success at convincing union members to support their organizations and their candidates."

Warren Cassidy, a former NRA executive vice president, card-carrying Republican, and backer of the Dole campaign, worries openly that the NRA's lurch to the right may involve a quid pro quo to support the Republicans on issues that have nothing to do with guns. "When does that quid pro quo begin to hurt your organization?" he asks. "With all the connections to a strong conservative movement, NRA got caught up in that tide and they might not be able to extricate themselves." He warns: "It isn't necessarily true that all those chits should fall to one party, the Republican Party . . . because we have always had a strong, strong blue-collar element, both rural and urban, in the NRA. And many, many, many of these people are union members."

In addition, many former NRA board members and leaders say that the NRA is driving away its longtime friends and allies by its roughshod tactics. Oklahoma Congressman Bill Brewster, who served on the NRA's board until 1995, quietly withdrew this year. High-profile resignations by George Bush, John Dingell, and other NRA supporters have hurt the organization's political clout. Dole, who voted for the Brady Bill in 1991 (but later opposed it 1993) and now keeps the NRA at arm's length while supporting most of its agenda, is warily watching the NRA's close relationship with Senator Phil Gramm, his rival for the 1996 presidential nomination in the Republican Party.

In the meantime, NRA officials have more immediate concerns. In its single-minded fervor to defeat even the most hesitant supporters of gun control, the NRA may have recklessly stretched its spending to the breaking point. The direct-mail scheme upon which the NRA has built its empire has been costly, and the organization recently traded a sizeable chunk of its inheritance for a posh new headquarters building. All of this has led many former NRA officials to say that the organization will crash in the near future. Reports of financial difficulties have attracted the scrutiny of the Internal Revenue Service.

Still, on Capitol Hill a healthy symbiosis between the Republicans and the NRA continues to thrive. While a good number of mainstream Republicans see the NRA as a loose cannon and an organization of zealots flirting with the far right, these Republicans still want the NRA's money and grassroots army at election time, and they still worry that any misstep--even in the course of the routine give-and-take that occurs in a legislative session--could bring the NRA down on their heads.

On January 25, as Gingrich, Armey, and company moved to implement the Contract with America, the NRA convened a summit meeting in the Speaker's office. Attending were Gingrich, Armey, House Republican Conference Chairman John Boehner of Ohio, Republican Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, National Republican Conference Committee Chairman Bill Paxon of New York, and Crime Subcommittee Chairman Bill McCollum of Florida. From the NRA side, participants included Neal Knox, Tanya Metaksa, Wayne LaPierre, and, interestingly, NRA Board of Directors member Senator Larry Craig of Idaho. Following the meeting, Gingrich and the NRA announced that they had formed a "partnership" on gun issues in the House, inviting conservative Democrats like Brewster and Harold Volkmer of Missouri to join in. Shortly after that meeting, Gingrich sent Metaksa the letter promising his opposition to gun control, characterizing their meeting as "both a discussion among friends but more importantly among like-minded individuals."

Were it not for the Oklahoma City bombing, which tarred the NRA because of its association with some militia groups, Congress would likely have taken up a repeal of the assault rifle ban. The NRA worked so closely with congressional committees investigating the Waco disaster that there was no clear line between congressional and NRA staffers. And the NRA has thrown its weight around in committee action on so-called "cop killer" bullets. With the 1996 election just around the bend, it is a safe bet the Republicans will be reaching out to the NRA once again, confident that the group can accomplish its mission and willing, in exchange, to do its political bidding.

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