Oklahoma Bombing Puts Gun Lobby on Defensive

NAZIS. Murderers. Jack-booted thugs.

Most people would apply these terms to the terrorists who blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City on April 19. But six days before the bombing, the National Rifle Association (NRA) used them to describe some of the bomb's victims: federal agents.

These statements, made in a recent fund-raising letter, are typical of the kind of attacks the gun lobby has waged on federal law-enforcement agents since the 1992 raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.

In light of the Oklahoma bombing -- committed on the two-year anniversary of the government's Waco raid -- such tart language is getting more attention.

While few people hold the NRA responsible for the blast, gun-control advocates say that their words could have helped encourage the bombers. Consequently, they say, the gun lobby's influence in Congress will be damaged.

Gun-rights supporters admit that the bombing might slow their momentum, but in the long term, they say, the attack will prompt a long-overdue debate about the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which specifies the right to bear arms.

By all accounts, the bombing will change the dynamics of the gun debate in America, but two questions remain: Which side will benefit most, and by how much?

According to Stephen Hess, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, the shift is liable to be slight, whichever way it goes.

''On some issues, politicians can go to work with an open mind,'' he says. ''But the gun issue is so basic in any campaign these days that nobody is neutral. The lines have already been drawn.''

In the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, however, the pendulum seems to have swung temporarily away from gun advocates. On Thursday, GOP House leaders decided to postpone their attempt to challenge the ban on 19 types of assault rifles in last year's Crime Bill.

Both houses are considering measures that would broaden the powers of the same federal agencies the NRA condems -- an idea that concerns some civil liberties groups, as well.

Here in Oklahoma, lawmakers say that a ''concealed carry'' law that would have made it easier for people to pack heat in public is now in trouble. Critics noted that if Oklahoma had passed such a law before the bombing, Timothy McVeigh might not have been detained by a state trooper on firearms charges.

Also under renewed scrutiny on Capitol Hill is the government's $2.5 million Civilian Marksmanship Program (CMP) which enables gun owners access to military bases for shooting practice.

Then, there's the letter. Written by Wayne Lapierre, the NRA's Executive Vice-President, the six-page document accuses the Clinton administration of giving federal agents permission to ''harass, intimidate, and even murder law abiding citizens.''

The letter warns that gun control measures like the Brady Bill and the assault-rifle ban are tools that ''government agents'' are using ''to deny the Constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens.'' Mr. LaPierre urges gun owners to ''take action'' before ''there's no freedom left in America.''

According to Bob Walker, legislative affairs director for Handgun Control, Inc. in Washington, the strong language reflects a change in strategy the NRA initiated after Congress passed the 1993 Brady Bill, which mandates a waiting period and background check for gun purchases.

Instead of continuing to focus on hunters' rights, he says, the NRA and Gun Owners of America, have shifted to talking about the Second Amendment.

''There's no question the NRA has increased the level of rhetoric in the last two years,'' he says. ''We've been concerned about this vehemence for some time.''

Gun lobbyists say that while the initial reaction to the bombing will not help their cause, the tragedy will serve as a constant reminder to Congress of how fervently many Americans believe in their right to keep and bear arms.

Larry Pratt, President of the 125,000-member Gun Owners of America, says he finds it ''offensive'' to draw parallels between ''people with guns who obey the laws and people with fertilizer intent on murder,'' referring to the contents of the bomb.

The bombing will not have any adverse effect on his membership, Pratt says. In fact, if the Cogress passes stricter antiterrorism measures and further gun-control laws, Pratt predicts his ranks will continue to swell. ''Bill Clinton is the best salesman we've ever had,'' he says. ''Our membership is up 25 percent in the last two years.''

Besides, Pratt says, the tide has already turned. He estimates that Democrats lost as many as 55 seats in Congress in the last election because of their stand on gun control. The US Supreme Court's decision last week to nullify a law restricting guns in school zones marks the beginning, he says, of a judicial effort to peel back the overextended authority of Congress on a host of issues, including guns. This, he says, will usher in a more Constitution-centered form of government. While opinion polls taken after the bombing still show that a majority of Americans support more gun control, Pratt says the percentage went down, not up.

Sander Levinson, professor of Law at the University of Texas, says lawmakers and the media failed to realize the message the Waco raid sent to millions of gun-owning Americans, many of whom saw it as ''an atrocity.''

Today, Levinson says the need for ''a genuine national debate about the Second Amendment'' is more crucial than ever. Gun-control supporters, he says, have to come to terms with the fact that the Amendment may, indeed, have been designed to make sure citizens could overthrow the government if it got too powerful.

''The Second Amendment was written by men who got their training in illegal militias, and had just fought off the Brits,'' he says. ''You can't flatly deny that this was their intention.''

As for the gun lobby, Hess says they also need to be more direct in their arguments and less bellicose. ''I don't think any respectable political group wants to be cast on the side of extremists who want to overthrow the government, but that's just a bandaid,'' he says. ''Any group that believes in the right to have a firearm has to stand up now and make a strong argument.''

Walker, of Handgun Control, offers the gun lobby this advice: ''Think about what you say.''

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