NRA, in Crosshairs of Critics, Fires Fresh Volley of Words

Members vow to defeat Clinton in '96 and any new antigun laws

WHITE-HAIRED ladies in sneakers wander the carpeted aisles, admiring antique and miniature pistols. Husbands and wives take turns squeezing off shots at paper targets with the soft pop-pop of air rifles. Parents buy T-shirts for their children and enroll them in gun safety classes.

Here at its annual meeting, these are the non-threatening family images the National Rifle Association (NRA) likes to present. ''We are mainstream Americans,'' says one woman on the group's 75-member board.

But critics and NRA dissidents say the nation's most powerful gun-rights lobby is alienating its traditional base of hunters and target shooters by taking a hard-line against any legal restrictions on guns and by using inflammatory antigovernment language.

The image of the 3.5 million-member NRA has been tarnished in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing. The organization's leadership has been criticized for refering to federal agents in afund-raising letter as ''jack-booted government thugs.''

The wording echoes language used by citizen militia members allegedly involved in the bombing. Former President Bush was so outraged that he resigned his life membership in the NRA. A new Time-CNN poll finds that 47 percent of American gun owners say they are in overall agreement with the NRA -- down 20 points from a 1989 survey.

While the letter controversy was the talk of the Phoenix convention this weekend, many of the estimated 22,000 attending seem more bothered by executive vice president Wayne LaPierre's apologizing for the ''jack-booted thugs'' remark than by the remark itself. Nor do many believe that Bush's widely publicized resignation will hurt the NRA.

''He's a two-face and a turncoat and we don't need him,'' says Paul Ebeyer, a real estate broker and 35-year NRA member from Scottsdale, Ariz. Mr. Ebeyer is one of many NRA members who have not forgiven Mr. Bush for supporting legislation banning the importation of some assault weapons.

Even those who acknowledge that the controversy has damaged the NRA's image say they understand why the leadership takes hard-line positions.

''The minute you compromise, you're perceived as not caring about what you stand for,'' says Tom Bullock, a hunter from Colorado Springs, Colo. ''What are they going to say: 'We kind of like our guns?'''

''They've let a fringe group take over the organization,'' says Phoenix Mayor Skip Rimza, who let his membership lapse two years ago after the NRA opposed a city ordinance banning minors from carrying guns in public without parental consent.

Osha Gray Davidson, author of a 1993 book called ''Under Fire: The NRA and the Battle for Gun Control,'' says the organization has become increasingly hard-line since a group of what he calls ''Second Amendment fundamentalists'' took over the leadership in 1977.

NRA officials counter that their tough antigun control position has attracted more than 1 million new members since 1991.

And since Bush's resignation, they say, eight times as many people have called to join the NRA as to quit. ''A number of people have tried to get Bush's life membership number,'' says the NRA's federal affairs director Joseph Phillips.

The NRA also points out that it is not alone in criticizing overzealous behavior on the part of some federal agents.

Numerous groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have joined the NRA in calling for an investigation of the botched 1993 federal raid on the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas, in which scores died, and other incidents of alleged government misconduct.

NRA members say that, if they're increasingly hard-line, it's only because their rights are being increasingly threatened.

In recent years, the organization has suffered two major legislative defeats at the federal level: the Brady Bill, which requires a background check and waiting period for handgun purchases, and the assault-weapons ban contained in last year's Crime Bill.

NRA members are angry that Republicans in Congress, many of whom they helped elect last fall, are, in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, backing away from a promise to overturn the assault weapons ban. After all, they say, no assault weapon was used in Oklahoma.

Despite its current public-image controversy, Mr. Davidson believes that the 124-year-old NRA will continue to have a great deal of influence in Washington and at the grassroots level. There's no other place for America's millions of gun owners to go, he says. ''The NRA is the Rasputin of American politics,'' Davidson says. ''It's always predicted dead every few years, and then it comes back to life.''

One test of their strength will come in the 1996 elections. Leaders are vowing to help defeat President Clinton.

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