THE National Rifle Association was once a powerful and respected lobbying force on Capitol Hill that could marshal its forces and torpedo most gun-control legislation before it was launched.
The NRA is still powerful. But it no longer commands the respect it once did from me and many others who are fed up with the organization's extreme element and radical tactics. There are moderate, solid-citizen NRA members, but they are being overshadowed by those on the fringe.
After a particularly malicious NRA-inspired barrage during consideration of the crime bill in the Senate last month, I quit the NRA.
I have been a member and supporter of the NRA for many years for good reason. I agree with the NRA that the federal government should - must - in most cases avoid limiting the right of lawful citizens to ``keep and bear arms.''
But I believe the Second Amendment - like all of our rights in a free and orderly society - has some limits. I voted for the Feinstein Amendment to ban military-style assault weapons when the Senate passed its version of the crime bill, and I maintained support of the crime bill when it came back from the House.
I come about my views on the crime bill honestly and cautiously. I gathered as much information as I could, studied the issue carefully, and made up my mind, which is my job as a representative of more than 3 million Coloradoans.
The NRA doesn't tolerate disagreement with its rigid point of view. I was targeted by its lobbying effort. But they miscalculated by assuming that if they managed to motivate every one of their members in Colorado to call me up and scream, I'd change my mind. The NRA should know me better.
I don't respond well to obscenities, threats, and belligerent phone calls and letters. That is what the NRA unleashed. I saw their misleading television ads but was not privy to their direct mail or telephone campaigns. What they were putting out seemed to bring out the very worst in people.
Let me offer a few examples typical of hundreds of calls to my Washington and state offices. None of us knows how many callers actually were NRA members or were motivated to call by the NRA's disinformation campaign. Because the NRA claims 3.4 million devotees, we assume many were.
(A similar campaign occurred while I was serving in the House. We had been getting a heavy volume of phone calls, all repeating the same lines about a gun-control bill. One man was stumbling over what he wanted to say: ``I'm a con-sti ... a con-sti ... a con-sti-TOOT-ent from Colorado.'' It was obvious he was reading from a script, because I doubt he would have chosen on his own a word he couldn't pronounce.)
During the crime bill debate, many calls were filled with language that would make a sailor blush - by people so cowardly in their convictions that they wouldn't leave their names or addresses.
One caller threatened that a motorcycle rally I help sponsor in my hometown over Labor Day ``won't be peaceful.'' (It was.)
``Sen. Campbell is committing treason and he ought to be arrested.'' This from someone who believes, apparently, that any restriction on weapons is a violation of the Second Amendment. (The Supreme Court is the final arbiter, of course, on the constitutionality of laws passed by Congress. If the gun ban is unconstitutional, the Supreme Court will tell us so.)
Another chose the racist tack: ``We're going to get Campbell by his ponytail and scalp him.''
Dozens of callers said they were going to ``take [me] out'' in one way or another. But the decisive moment came when a caller told a staffer: ``I hope you get killed with an assault weapon.''
That was it for me. I am now an ex-NRA member.
Apparently, the NRA leadership condones this ``grass-roots'' bullying; it did nothing to rein it in or apologize for it.
While these people were jamming phone lines for several weeks, constituents concerned about other issues could not get through. Whether a senior citizen was missing her Social Security check, a veteran was having trouble with a disability claim, or a businessperson needed help with a small-business loan, they had to wait while my offices weathered the onslaught of vicious calls and visits.
I am always happy to hear from citizens who want to comment on legislation or any issue that affects them, their families, and their communities. But I expect principled, rational discussion and respectful treatment of my staff. The crime bill debate deteriorated to name-calling, threats, and hateful rhetoric. I blame the NRA for ratcheting up this venomous assault.
The experience reinforces my view that too much public discourse lacks old-fashioned manners and a thoughtful exchange of views. Anyone who doesn't like my votes can exact revenge at the polls. But we can't have government by whoever screams the loudest. That isn't democracy - it's anarchy.