Frank Church and the politics of guns

This past decade, especially since forming its Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) in April, 1975, the 1.6 million-member National Rifle Association (NRA) has become increasingly influential. Under its pragmatic director, journalist Neal Knox, the ILA is currently demonstrating its effectiveness in the presidential primaries. However, the forthcoming 1980 Idaho Senate race, where Democrat Frank Church is seeking a fifth six-year term, has the NRA in somewhat of a dilemma on the brink of its annual meeting this weekend in Kansas City.

Mr. Church is the first Idaho politician of national stature since William Borah. Elected to the Senate in 1956 as a boy wonder of 32, he made a famous keynote speech at the 1960 Democratic national convention. Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson put him on the Foreign Relations Committee; he became chairman two years ago. Mr. Church tried for the presidency in 1976, winning some Western primaries, but faded out and Walter Mondale was picked over him as Jimmy Carter's running mate. Now he seems to have banked his long-range ambitions and is concentrating on Senate work, where his other committee, Energy and Natural Resources, lets him care for Idaho's irrigation interests.

With a 70 percent Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) rating, but only 23 percent from the American Conservative Union (ACU), Senator Church has political difficulties in Idaho, a state growing steadily more conservative. He voted for the Panama Canal Treaty, has been tight on military spending, and a few years ago said some nice things about Castro's Cuba, albeit in the context of seeking to get some prisoners released. In trouble with the foreign policy intellectuals recently for braggadoccio over the Soviet brigade in Cuba, he has shown a steady management of the Foreign Relations Committee in the Iran and Afghanistan crises and he has been prominent on TV.

The gun control issue will be critical in Idaho. The likely Republican nominee next November is Representative Steven D. Symms (100 percent ACU, 10 percent ADA). The NRA rates congressmen too, giving Mr. Symms a deserved "A." But Mr. Church also rates an "A" in the NRA's estimate. His failure to surpass 70 percent in ADA's mathematics is partly because of long and consistent opposition to firearms controls.

Unlike Eastern liberals, whose political philosophy comes largely from the ethos of the American labor movement and big-city intellectuals' ideas, Mr. Church's roots are in the West. His politics originate in the prairie populism of William Jennings Bryan and Robert La Follette, and in Western suspicion of Eastern money. Gun ownership has never been alien to that tradition.

Thus an attack on Senator Church in the August 20 Time magazine, by Alan Gottlieb of the Citizens' Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear ARms, was grossly unfair. This committee is not an essentially hobby-oriented organization like NRA, which got into politics in self-defense. Instead, it uses the firearms control debate to cover the promulgation of a forcefully conservative political philosophy. Mr. Gottlieb, one of the hardest-working people of the New Right, said: "there's no question that Steve Symms would be a better Senator on our issue. Church votes the way he does because he'd be tarred and feathered if he didn't."

Mr. Gottlieb's remarks irritated the substantial part of the progun movement which is neither a captive of, nor captivated by, the far right. More than just giving lip service to gun owners, Mr. Church wrote the foreword to Professor Don Kates's new book, "Restricting Handguns: The Liberal Skeptics Speak Out," a powerful compendium of articles by liberals attacking gun control. He has been circulating the book to his colleagues, to law schools, and to Eastern editors. He is trying to see that the book and especially his own views opposing gun control, receive wide attention.

Idaho's junior senator, personable James McClure, is very close to the NRA and perhaps its chief Senate champion. A straight-arrow Rocky Mountain conservative, he badly wants Church out and Symms in. But Church is also staunch against gun controls. Neal Knox surely knows that a liberal who will not vote for gun controls is a pearl beyond price. And liberal or conservative, a progun senator who heads a major committee is worth far more to NRA than a Senate newcomer.

But given the internecine politics of the National Rifle Association, there is probably no way that it can or will support Church over Symms. Indeed, since it professes to care only about candidates' attitudes on gun control, perhaps it should not choose between them. But Frank Church, and American sportsmen, will be greatly served if next fall the NRA will at least make it entirely clear to Idaho's ranchers and hunters that in its eyes, he is as firm a keeper of the Second Amendment flame as Steve Symms or even Jim McClure.

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