The National Rifle Association is back. After several years of waning influence on Capitol Hill, the venerable association of shooting enthusiasts and gun rights advocates is enjoying a renewal as it gears up for what could be a watershed election this fall.
Membership is on the rise after several years of decline, and the NRA's legislative and political arms have raised more money than ever before. Having so far blocked new limits on gun shows and other controls, the group is expanding it grass-roots network to support favored candidates and maintain the pro-gun majority in the House.
''Our constituency, unlike much of the conservative movement, is very energized,'' said Chuck Cunningham, who has been brought back from a stint at the Christian Coalition to direct the NRA's efforts to mobilize voters.
NRA officials say such energy is the result of the new assault on guns by the Clinton administration and congressional Democrats in the wake of the Columbine High School massacre and other shootings, such as last week's killing of a 6-year-old in Michigan.
''It's become clear what their campaign's about,'' said James J. Baker, the group's chief lobbyist. ''They've decided they were going to make guns an issue in the November 2000 elections.''
How effective the NRA proves to be in fighting back could be critical to whether Congress adopts new gun restrictions in the future. Despite a recent wave of new shootings, a proposal to institute 72-hour background checks on gun show sales is hung up in negotiations between the House and Senate and appears unlikely to make it into law this year. Whether the NRA can maintain a coalition against such controls will be one of the big questions at stake in the fall elections.
While national polls repeatedly show the majority of Americans support new firearms restrictions, the gun lobby has historically been able to offer financial support to its allies and turn out voters and campaign volunteers based on its single issue.
With only a few dozen House seats considered competitive in the coming election, the role of any aggressive outside group can help sway the balance of power in Congress. Some congressional observers believe the NRA could tilt the electoral outcome in several key districts that feature a sizable number of gun activists, including ones in such battleground states as Michigan, Montana and Pennsylvania.
''Clearly they are not in the majority, but they do have a very intense and vocal minority,'' said Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, D-Conn., one of Congress' most outspoken gun control proponents. ''They are willing to thwart the will of the Congress as well as the will of the public.''
NRA officials don't appear nervous that last week's shooting in Michigan or other incidents will hurt their cause. ''I don't think there's really a reasonable person in America that thinks that this horrible tragedy in Michigan says anything about legal gun ownership,'' said NRA spokesman Bill Powers. ''It's says a lot more about parenting and responsibility, and having a bed for a little first-grader.''
Just a few years ago, the NRA was struggling to remain relevant. Its membership slipped from 3.5 million to 2.8 million, and the value of its cash holdings and investments dropped in half over a six-year period. The group's executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, offended Republicans such as former President George Bush when he distributed a fund-raising letter calling federal firearms agents ''jackbooted government thugs.'' Then LaPierre was challenged within his own ranks for not being aggressive enough. Some Republicans became disenchanted with an ally they saw as unyielding in light of certain political realities, and Congress passed a ban on assault weapons and other restrictions during President Clinton's first term.
The NRA has since moderated its tone and focused on rebuilding its financial and political base. The new round of gun control initiatives, including Clinton's recent State of the Union proposal to institute a new gun licensing requirement, prompted an influx of members and cash.
Membership has surged to 3.2 million, and NRA officials predict it will reach 3.5 million by Election Day. The group's Institute for Legislative Action raised $25 million, an unprecedented sum, and its political action committee, the NRA Political Victory Fund, also outpaced past years with a $4 million take in 1999. As testimony to its growing strength, the NRA ranked No. 2 on Fortune magazine's ''Power 25'' lobbying list for 1999.
Unlike other single-issue lobbying groups, the NRA has the resources to entertain lawmakers and their staffs as big corporations do. NRA officials can take them to sporting events at Washington's MCI Center, and they host hunting trips in the Washington area and target practice at the group's Fairfax, Va., headquarters.
''They're one of the few ideological groups who can go toe to toe with the big boys on K Street,'' said one GOP leadership aide.
Much of the NRA's preparations for the fall elections isn't easily visible, making its potential impact harder to gauge. Part of the boost in membership comes from infomercials the group has sponsored -- at a cost of roughly $3 million a month, according to informed sources -- arguing that gun control measures have failed in other countries, including South Africa and Australia. The spots are airing on cable television stations nationwide, and tapes have been distributed in congressional offices recently.
The NRA has launched an ambitious voter identification effort, purchasing voter lists to determine which members need to be reminded to register to vote. Officials are also reaching out to non-NRA members who rank high on their ''favorables list'' -- licensed hunters, gun show attendees and members of local gun and shooting clubs -- and encouraging them to register to vote.
Rank-and-file members will also help get out the vote this fall, working on individual campaigns, posting bumper stickers and putting up yard signs. So far, 280,000 have signed up to be election volunteers, compared with 100,000 two years ago.
Cunningham said he did not want to discuss his election strategy until after November, comparing it to a boxing fight. ''You just don't broadcast your punch before you deliver it,'' he said. While Cunningham emphasized that his group backs candidates based on ideology rather than party affiliation, GOP officials said they are optimistic the NRA is well prepared to help them maintain their congressional majority.
''The NRA will probably have more resources available in this cycle than they have in the recent past,'' said Dan Mattoon, deputy chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. ''As they have been in the past, in many districts across the country, they will be part of our winning coalition.''
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.