IT'S crunch time for the National Rifle Association, one of the most powerful lobbies in the nation.
The NRA already has lost key battles in Virginia, New Jersey, and Connecticut, where state legislatures voted to impose restrictions on gun sales. To add to its woes, Bill Clinton, a gun-control advocate, has replaced George Bush, a lifelong NRA member, in the White House.
And now gun-control advocates are redoubling their efforts to pass the Brady bill, which would create a five-day waiting period and a background check for gun buyers. President Clinton renewed his call to pass the measure as part of a larger crime bill that would include $3.4 billion for 50,000 additional beat cops.
"It is long past time to pass it," the president said Wednesday. "If the Congress will pass it, I will sign it." Given such statements, the NRA's long winning streak, which has kept Congress from passing a gun-control measure since 1968, seems in jeopardy. But NRA members warn: Don't count the organization out.
"The odds have been against the NRA since the day it was formed," says Tom Korologos, an NRA lobbyist. "We always seem to be behind the eight ball, but somehow we always come out winning."
The reason for the NRA's success is no secret: It combines a formidable fund-raising machine with a huge grass-roots base.
Last year, the group donated $1.7 million to congressional candidates and spent another $868,000 on independent campaigns, according to the National Library on Money and Politics. From 1982 to 1992, the NRA gave $6 million to congressional candidates and spent $3.5 million on independent campaigns - as opposed to only $669,828 in contributions and $275,179 for independent campaigns by its chief rival, Handgun Control Inc.
As important, the NRA can draw on the support of its 3.2 million members. That figure has increased by 750,000 over the last two years. The rank and file, whom Mr. Korologos describes as "zealots," are legendary for their ability to inundate Capitol switchboards with nonstop calls and Capitol offices with piles of mail.
"The NRA is always a formidable force," says one House staff member who favors gun control.
The NRA's unbending opposition to any waiting period for buying guns has kept the Brady bill (named after President Reagan's press secretary, who was badly wounded in an assassination attempt) bottled up in Congress since 1987. The NRA says the measure will do nothing to stop crime since most crooks buy guns on the black market. Instead, it favors a computerized check on gun buyers at the point of sale, although gun-control advocates say that isn't technologically feasible yet.
Both the House and Senate passed the Brady bill in 1991, but it was part of a larger anticrime package that was killed by a threatened GOP filibuster in the Senate. This year, the future of the Brady bill seems to hang on whether it will be included in the larger crime bill or whether it will be introduced as separate legislation.
House leaders want it to be part of the crime bill because they believe it is necessary to win the votes of liberal Democrats who might otherwise balk at some of the larger measure's law-and-order provisions. But Senate Democrats want it considered separately because they fear its inclusion may stall the rest of the crime bill.
"Brady is ready to go. It's got the votes, it's got momentum, it's got the public behind it," says Richard Aborn, president of Handgun Control Inc. "But it's important for it to remain a separate bill because in the past, crime bills have either failed or taken a long time to pass."
It looks to be no different this year, despite administration attempts to win bipartisan support for its anticrime package. Last year, the crime bill was sunk in part because prosecutors criticized provisions dealing with death-penalty appeals as too liberal. This year, Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware, the Judiciary Committee chairman, has won prosecutors' support for an expedited death-penalty review process.
DEMOCRATS also hope they can gain GOP backing for the crime bill's expansion of the death penalty to cover 47 new crimes and its increase in federal funding for community policing and boot camps. But Republicans are likely to criticize the measures as not going far enough. There's also a large dollop of politics involved: Neither party wants to give the other credit for combating the crime problem.
Many Republicans are opposed to two gun-control provisions that might be in the crime bill: the Brady bill and a measure banning assault weapons. Even gun-control advocates admit they don't have the votes to pass the assault-weapon ban yet, in part because no one has been able to define what constitutes an assault weapon.
As for the Brady bill, Rep. Charles Schumer (D) of New York says "we're going to need the full force of the president behind us" to get it passed.