NRA's New Aim: To Its Soften Edges and Re-enlist Moderates

Longtime sports hunters hopeful about new image, but skeptics await policy changes, new safety effort.

Back when Wheeler Johnson was a kid, he'd skip down a path from his back door and fly fish in the Potomac River. He and a few pals rode endless laps around their neighborhood on a motor scooter. And after school he'd shoulder a double-barrel 12-gauge shotgun, hitch a ride from adults who never gave his gun a second thought, and squirrel hunt until dark.

Completing the Norman Rockwell childhood in his neighborhood, just a few miles upstream from the White House, was an outdoorsman father who wrote the sportsman's column for The Washington Post. Back then, Johnson's play, including his shooting, was utterly normal and nonthreatening.

Those days of innocence that came long before the Pearl, Miss., Paducah, Ky., or Jonesboro, Ark., shootings are a time the National Rifle Association hopes to resurrect. It has a new ad campaign, a tempered message, and new president, Charlton Heston, who once split the Red Sea on the silver screen. But delivering the children of Israel from Pharaoh may seem a modest act compared with his new task.

At its 127th annual meeting that ended June 9, the group began its new tack, appealing to its moderate core of sportsmen and skeet shooters.

The new buzzword is "mainstream." For lifetime NRA members like Mr. Johnson who are tired of the NRA's tarnished image, the goal has been a long time coming. "I hope people will stay open-minded enough to give [the NRA] a chance," says the white-collar professional who still shoots sporting clays (a cross between golf and skeet).

Gun-control proponents, meanwhile, are waiting to see how the moderate course unfolds. But they're skeptical. "We think they are far from the mainstream," says Nancy Hwa of Handgun Control Inc. in Washington.

Yet Mr. Heston's appointment signals a clear change for the 2.8 million strong group that even some members believe has been existing for its most extreme, fringe membership. In recent years a gap deepened between moderate elements, keen on protecting their right to bear sporting firearms, and other members advocating the right to own virtually any firearm.

"Mainstream doesn't mean giving up anything. It means getting back everything," Heston said this week. He backed firearm-purchase limits in 1968 after Robert Kennedy's assassination. Last year he said, "AK-47's are inappropriate for private use," a statement he has hedged on since. It's not clear if the NRA will change its policies.

But its new strategy does include a $5 million dollar "I'm the NRA" ad campaign. It could lure back many in the sporting crowd who failed to renew memberships in recent years or became inactive in the wake of NRA efforts including "the" fund-raising letter. It called some government agents "jack-booted thugs" and prompted former President George Bush to quit the group.

And in the midst of the antigovernment sentiment following the siege at Waco, Texas, some members to question the direction the organization was headed.

But now, "they're getting the picture," says Donald Ditmars, a surgeon at Detroit's Henry Ford Hospital and a bird hunter. "They have tempered their advertising to get the message to people like me. To people who enjoy shooting sports but don't particularly care to have a state-of-the-art military weapon," Ditmars says.

"A lot of us have been like the Eisenhower silent majority," says another NRA member in Connecticut who asked to go unnamed. "I'm not in favor of them compromising. But I've seen them miss so many opportunities to explain their education and safety programs."

In a country with 200 million to 300 million firearms, where some rural schools still close for opening day of deer season, most members think the NRA should play a key role in teaching basic firearm handling.

But while many support the new campaign, they don't back compromise on gun laws and want to see roll backs of gun restrictions passed during President Clinton's tenure.

"I would like to see the assault-weapon ban overturned and ammunition- and magazine-capacity limitations removed," says NRA member Jim Erdman, also the Executive Director of the California Rifle and Pistol Association in Fullerton, Calif.

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