WASHINGTON — WHEN Alabama ammunition developer David Keen decided to trumpet the destructive power of his new bullets, he probably didn't think he would be stoking the fiery debate over gun control.
But a furor over the new cartridges this week serves as a preview of the coming battle over crime legislation on Capitol Hill.
Bolstered by the Republican sweep of Congress last month, the National Rifle Association (NRA) is preparing to push for repeals on recently passed regulations on firearms.
But gun-control advocates see the storm over the ammunition as proof that growing numbers of Americans want stricter regulations at a time when society is becoming increasingly violent and guns are easy to obtain.
Mr. Keen, chief executive of Signature Products Corporation of Huntsville, Ala., has designed two new bullets. Rhino Ammo shatters on impact into thousands of flesh-tearing shards. Black Rhino, he claims, pierces body armor and then shatters. Both are plastic, and therefore sidestep a national ban on so-called cop-killer ammunition.
Law enforcement officials, gun-control advocates, and the American Medical Association united in demanding a ban on the bullets, prompting Keen to back off marketing of the Black Rhino.
Tanya Metaksa, NRA chief lobbyist, dismisses Keen as a fraud: ``If I were paranoid, I would say he was a great plant for the other side. What we are all reacting to is media mob hysteria.''
The NRA seeks to repeal the 10-year ban on manufacturing and sales of 19 types of assault weapons contained in the Clinton crime bill. It also seeks to weaken the 1993 Brady Law. Named after James Brady, who was disabled in 1981 by a bullet fired at then President Reagan, the law requires a five-day waiting period for a handgun purchase pending a background check.
But the incoming Republican congressional majority, which stormed to victory in November's elections by decrying government regulation, is openly divided on gun control. Many Republicans voted for the Brady Law and the assault-weapons ban.
``We don't have a consensus,'' admits Rep. Bill McCollum (R) of Florida, a staunch gun-control opponent who will head the House subcommittee on crime, where gun-control legislation is considered. An NRA loyalist, he says even he would likely vote to outlaw the kind of bullets Keen claims to have developed.
The potential for discord is reflected in the omission from the ``Contract With America,'' the GOP's legislative agenda, of measures sought by the NRA and conservative Republicans to roll back gun-control laws.
The NRA appears ready to do battle, spending $5.8 million for antigun-control candidates in this year's congressional elections. According to the Federal Election Commission, most of that money was spent on behalf of the GOP.
But the NRA also spent funds to defeat Republicans it believed would oppose its legislative wishes. One such Republican was William Gormley, a New Jersey state senator. The NRA spent more money - $41,707 - to ensure Mr. Gormley lost the GOP primary than it did against any Democrat in the country.
``I am their national target,'' says Gormley, a former Marine. ``In 1990, I voted to ban assault weapons in New Jersey. On many issues, I agree with the NRA. But they adopted an approach based on that one vote.''
``The NRA believe they were responsible for the outcome of the elections,'' says Bob Walker of Handgun Control Inc., a Washington-based advocacy group formed by Mr. Brady's wife. ``They are certainly going to pursue their agenda very strongly.''
He points out that the NRA, which launched legal challenges to the Brady bill in six states, announced after the Nov. 8 elections that it had given A or A+ ratings to 224 incoming House members.
``We are guardedly optimistic that when the gavel comes down on the 104th Congress, we will have achieved some kind of repeal or reform,'' Metaksa says.
McCollum will hold hearings on gun control, offering the NRA and its backers an opportunity to move for a repeal of the assault-weapons ban and to weaken the Brady Law.
Another opportunity will come during the debate on the ``Taking Back Our Streets Act,'' the Contract crime proposal, which would allow amendments on any crime-related matters to be introduced on the House floor.
GOP gun-control supporters say they believe they can count on the backing of many GOP leaders. These include Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois, the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, under which McCollum's subcommittee falls. Mr. Hyde backed both the Brady bill and bans on assault weapons.
Law-enforcement officers and organizations also oppose the NRA's agenda. ``My recommendation to the leadership would be: Let's leave it alone,'' says Robert Scully, executive director of the National Association of Police Officers. ``We took a lot of years to pass the Brady bill and assault-weapons legislation and let's first see if they work.''