The N.R.A. Takes Cover in the G.O.P.
Phoenix, AZ--As the 124th annual convention of the National Rifle Association was ending here in May, a portly Ohio delegate in Bermuda shorts and a polo shirt, walking toward the parking lot, cast a glance at the clump of TV news satellite trucks stationed to our side and, not noticing my press badge, quipped, "What I'd do for a ton of fertilizer and a slug of fuel oil right now!" If anyone in the N.R.A. leadership had heard that comment being made to a reporter he might have reached for his side arm. As public support for the N.R.A. dipped in the wake of the April 19 Oklahoma City bombing and George Bush's resignation over the fundraising letter branding federal agents as "jack-booted gov ernment thugs," the N.R.A. had come to Phoenix intent on revers ing its public relations debacle. But the tension rippling through the three-day meeting, which drew 20,000 members and supporters, had little to do with what turned out to be mostly a media-invented shootout between the current hard-line N.R.A. leadership majority and a supposedly more moderate old guard. The real risk the N.R.A. has been run ning--of being seen as a rogue, fringe organization--comes, ironically, on the heels of a dramatic membership increase of 1 million over the past four years. Public attacks on the group only seem to galvanize and expand its militant membership base. So the dilemma faced last month by the N.R.A. brass was how to throttle down its political locomotive enough to keep it on the Beltway's insider track without smothering the grass-roots pas sions that keep its membership and financial boiler rooms pump ing. The political strategy the N.R.A. came up with was sophi- sticated and threefold: Feint left by whispering soothing anti- militia soundbites to the assembled media elite. Then jab right by tossing out rhetorical red meat to the aroused foot-soldiers bunkered at the convention. And then, ultimately, scurry straight up the middle toward the sheltering skirts of the Republican Congressional establishment. Indeed, in Phoenix, the N.R.A. made a risky strategic shift. More than the lobby it has been in the past, pressuring, punishing and rewarding politicians of both parties, the new N.R.A. will be an appendage to the Republican Party, much like the Christian Coalition. Just as liberal labor unions and civil rights groups troll the waters to the left of the Democrats only to ultimately and unconditionally serve up their catch to The Party every election day, so will the N.R.A. now serve fundamen tally as an intake port for the G.O.P. In Phoenix's Civic Plaza exhibition hall, Colt handguns, Marlin and Ruger carbines, and Browning shotguns were for sale. The curious and the faithful could also shop for high-performance black powder, muscle-cutting expansion ammo, "pistol-concealing" handbags and fanny packs, and laser-driven sights while their children hefted full-size shotguns and blew away life-size video assailants who were dressed remarkably like the "Ninjas" of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. In the auditorium the N.R.A.'s entire battery of officers mustered itself before the delegates and took turns portraying the association as the last bastion between them and citizen disarmament and government dictatorship. "The N.R.A. is the largest civil rights group in the world," proclaimed its presi dent, Tom Washington. "People must realize we are defending a fundamental right in people's lives." "Cynical politicians allied with a partisan media elite have seized upon a terrible national tragedy to try and take away our rights," chimed in first vice president Marion Hammer. "Many in the national media would like to silence us. They use their barrels of newspaper ink, crank up their TV satellites and spill their meanspirited rhetoric all over this country." That potshot at the press, however, did not deter the newspapers and networks from conveying the convention's message as choreographed by N.R.A. strategists. Most press coverage of the event took executive vice president Wayne LaPierre at face value as he complained, "All of a sudden, N.R.A. patriots are being confused for Grade A terrorists. I hope the national media is listening because I'm going to put a stop to the confusion right now.... There's a difference between reason and sheer trea- son...between 3.5 million united N.R.A. members and a scattered band of paranoid hatemongers. Anyone who doesn't understand the difference? There's the door." Apparently, the only people who exited were a gaggle of correspondents rushing to phone in a flash to their editors that the N.R.A. leadership had disavowed militias. Why else did most of the rest of LaPierre's speech go unreported? LaPierre went on to serve up to his hooting and clapping audience the now familiar and fashionable cocktail of rightist political paranoia that fuels the militias he had supposedly just stepped away from. "It's not just about your gun freedoms," he warned. It's about a federal plan for a "domestic rapid deployment force," about a proposed "multi-agency super police force," about "micro- chips" that will monitor private communications, "about 300 Ma- rines...asked on a written test if they would fire on U.S. citi zens who refuse or resist confiscation of firearms banned by the U.S. government," about a farmer's tractor being confiscated by federal agents upset over his having run over an endangered kangaroo rat. "We will meet the millennium in a dangerous and daring way," LaPierre bellowed, "by living on the leading edge of defining what patriotism means." And just what, a fired-up N.R.A. patriot might ask, does that signify in practical terms? The answer: unconditional sup port for the Republican Party. LaPierre, Washington, Hammer, chief lobbyist Tanya Metaksa and the association's gray eminence, second vice president Neal Knox, all led the assembled membership through the same political mantra. They told the faithful that 80 percent of N.R.A.-supported Congressional candidates, buoyed by nearly $4 million in association contributions, had been victori ous in the 1994 elections. The N.R.A. can thus take credit for the Republican seizure of Congress. And in 1996 it will finish the job. "Dogs don't bark at tombstones," said a defiant Neal Knox. "They bark at people and things that are vivid and moving and that they fear. The people on the other side in Congress and the White House fear we will do to them in '96 what we did to them in '94, and I have news for them--we will!" The N.R.A. is banking on what it calls the New Partner ship, an unprecedented alliance with the Republican political leadership forged in private meetings that Metaksa held with both Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole less than twenty-four hours after Bill Clinton's last State of the Union address, in which the President vowed to uphold the hated assault-weapons ban. The G.O.P. deci sion, in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, to postpone Dole's promise to repeal the ban was downplayed by Metaksa and other leaders, who insist the stall is temporary. Metaksa brought the convention to its feet promising: "There will be a repeal and we will give Bill Clinton the chance to veto away his presidency. Those were our rights he took away, we want them back and we will take them back!" Metaksa likes to spell out the middle syllable of her name as "AK, as in AK-47." A longtime Reagan/Bush activist and a former staffer for New York Senator Al D'Amato, Metaksa is a hard-line Madonna to the group's 80-85 percent male membership. When it was revealed last month that she had met earlier in the year with representatives of the Michigan Militia, her stock only soared higher among the True Believers--much as Maggie Thatcher won the hearts of the Young Tories a decade ago when she smashed the coal strike. Metaksa's company, Bullet Communications, is under con tract by the N.R.A. to run the group's Gun Talk computer bulletin board (which recently suffered a public relations setback when it displayed recipes for making bombs). And as head of the N.R.A.'s lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action (I.L.A.), Metaksa is one of two women on what is effectively the ruling troika of the association. The other is first vice president Marion Hammer, who likes to call herself "the Mother of the Right to Carry" because her organizing efforts helped pass the 1987 Florida law allowing citizens to carry concealed handguns. At the center of organizational gravity is the troika's third member, Neal Knox, who, while carrying only the title of second vice president, holds all the N.R.A.'s strings of power. Knox heads his own Firearms Coalition and publishes a newsletter titled "Hard Corps." His rise within the N.R.A. stems from help ing to lead the 1977 revolt that displaced the apolitical sports men, shooters and hunters from leadership and threw the associa tion full tilt into the partisan arena. The Knox revolution brought forth an N.R.A. golden age that flourished with Reagan but started to tarnish under Bush as more gun-control laws were passed. After being thrown off the board by some of his acolytes, Knox made a triumphant return in 1991 and has consolidated his power as the N.R.A. has once again prospered. The rifle associa tion's phenomenal growth--a one-third increase since Knox came back--is ascribable to the symbiosis of the troika's No Compro mise posture and the Bill Clinton Bogyman. In a 1994 column for Shotgun News, Knox went as far as suggesting that the assassina tions of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.; the 1989 schoolyard massacre in Stockton, California; and a number of other high-profile slaughters might have been staged by an antig- un conspiracy. "There have been far too many coincidences to ignore," Knox wrote. "There is no more hard line than Neal Knox, there is no one to his right," says Josh Sugarman, author of the authorita tive NRA: Money, Firepower, and Fear. "And Tanya Metaksa is his clone." The N.R.A.'s public faces, LaPierre and Washington, are elected by the seventy-six-member board of directors and cur- rently serve at the pleasure of Knox. It's an open secret that at next year's convention, Marion Hammer will be moved in to replace Washington, who on occasion has shown too much softness. As for LaPierre, N.R.A. insiders consider him an empty suit whose scrip- ts are written by Knox. To his credit, Knox's insistence on an unflinching, unapologetic militancy has energized the rank and file and in stilled in it a military-like loyalty to the leadership. He's also emphasized grass-roots organizing, providing members if not a new, gun-driven political party then at least a sort of gun owners' trade union that affords the trappings of democratic participation. You can join as a Regular N.R.A. Member, a Golden Eagle Member, a Lifetime Member or as an activist in the I.L.A. or in the fundraising N.R.A. Foundation. Your children can learn how to handle guns in the Eddie Eagle program, which so far has produced 6 million graduates. Women are encouraged to participate in the I Refuse to Be a Victim training program. And the 1.2 million members who have at least five continuous years of good standing are mailed ballots to elect the board of directors. Although only about 95,000 actually vote, and a board-member committee "sug gests" the nominees, that's probably as much internal democracy as you can find in many progressive organizations. National funding is also being allocated for an expanded Members Council movement, growing out of a successful California experiment. In the past five years some fifty such councils-- neighborhood N.R.A. chapters--have been organized in California on a strictly political basis. In monthly meetings members come together to plan letter-writing and phone-banking campaigns, and during election periods to interview and grill local candidates on gun issues. "You haven't seen this level of participation and growth in a left-wing organization since the C.I.O. in the late 1930s," says Golden Eagle Member Lee Smith, who spent fifteen years in the Socialist Workers Party before devolving toward the John Birch Society. "Yes, there's a certain element of careerism and opportunism among the leadership, but you can't have this much growth and acceptance without touching something the mass wants. The present N.R.A. leadership has pegged the gun issue to the whole rise of conservative populism. They have stirred a grass roots that genuinely wants to see less federal intrusion into and control over their lives. It's a lesson the left could learn." Knox's influence has also given the N.R.A. a political coloration that, one could argue, not only rationalizes the existence of militias but begs for their creation. How else could we ever survive the totalitarian onslaught that the N.R.A. con tinually warns is being cooked up in the White House and in the handgun-control lobbies? The whole N.R.A. appeal has become so permeated and laced with militialike rhetoric that for the press to have come up with the "smoking gun" of the "jack-booted gov ernment thugs" letter is as inconsequential as discovering that an N.R.A. delegate brought a handgun to the Phoenix convention. (Arizona is a "right to carry" state, so dozens of delegates brought their pieces, which had to be checked at the sign-in counter.) And when it came time at the convention to give out this year's Law Enforcement Officer of the Year Award, the honors went to Sheriff Richard Mack of Graham, Arizona, who defended the militias on network television. "The Oklahoma City bombing no more changes my opinion of the militias than the O.J. Simpson trial changes my opinion of retired black professional football players," Mack said. When I asked LaPierre if he might not be sending a mixed message about militias by presenting the N.R.A. award to someone who defends them, he answered that "Mack does a lot of other things as well, like suing to oppose the Brady Bill. And about the militias, what more can I say? Those groups are not part of the N.R.A., we don't support them, we don't fund them, they are not what we are about." Despite LaPierre's protestations, much of the N.R.A.'s grass-roots work and some of its pork have been turned over to people with close ties to militias. Take the case of T.J. Johnston, an Anaheim, California, businessman. With avid support from both the N.R.A. bureaucracy and membership, Johnston was the one board member this year re-elected directly from the conven tion floor after identifying himself as the "hard-core" candi date. "Eighty percent of the board is hard-core. I am. So is Wayne LaPierre," Johnston told me. In last year's Congressional election he received a $10,000 grant from the association for work as a "political consultant." His fiance, Cathy Tolley, is a fundraiser for the N.R.A. Foundation. Johnston sits on several board committees and has become a key player in the Members Council organizing effort. Johnston is also commander of a group--not a militia, he says--called the Orange County Corps, founded in November 1994. This un-militia has 1,000 armed members divided into "twenty- eight local units," Johnston says. Three hundred people are grouped into a Ready Response Team, "armed and ready to meet any challenge at a mo- ment's notice." That challenge might be "an earthquake or it might be civil unrest." In the case of the latter, Johnston promises, "we're not going to have any repeat of the 1992 [L.A.] riots. If the rioters come south we are going to set up armed roadblocks at the corner of Artesia Boulevard and Knott Avenue and hold the line right there." "The N.R.A. and the Corps share the same belief system," Johnston maintains. "The biggest driving force is that people are no longer secure. The government they elected is no longer the government they control." That last statement and much about the N.R.A. in general has to be put into proper context. LaPierre is not completely fudging it when he says the N.R.A. and the militias are two different ducks. Although there is an overlap in some areas, much of the appeal of the N.R.A. is based on niche marketing. Like Disneyland, it offers a controlled, predictable and safe experi ence. Its jacket patches and bumper stickers, its magazines and paraphernalia, its rhetorical swagger, its redolence of cordite, its gun shows--all available for $35 a year--make the N.R.A., for many, the Jungle Boat Cruise of the insurrectionary right--a safe ride for people who hate the government but aren't really serious about overthrowing it themselves. And while the N.R.A. leaders come from the ranks of real shooters, they long ago became doughy, comfortable Washington insiders sitting on top of a staff of 400 and a budget of 4100 million. Thus the entente with the G.O.P. elite represents the limit of their revolutionary poli tics. The facile interpretation is that Phil Gramm's keynote speech at this year's convention banquet was proof positive of the N.R.A.'s mighty political clout. Even with the stink of Oklahoma still in the air, Gramm, trying to outflank Dole on the right, had to kiss rifle butts. But there's another way to look at it: Gramm--who lags far behind Dole in the polls, who Kevin Phillips said would require a "personality transplant" to be elected President, who isn't even an N.R.A. member (as is Dole), and who during his half-hour speech never specifically addressed the N.R.A.'s legislative agenda--was the only Republican honcho they could get to come to the convention. Moreover, Gramm said nothing there about repealing the assault-weapons ban, while he did pop up the morning after on the Sunday talk-show circuit and criticize the "jack-booted government thugs" letter as excessive. For the moment, the N.R.A. seems to have weathered the latest storm and emerged unified and revved up from its convention. It's Right to Carry Concealed Weapons campaign has passed in six more states since the beginning of the year and is poised to win in several others. But the leadership has staked its credibility on the certainty that its "New Partnership" with the G.O.P. will come through on the "Second Amendment Agenda" and its crown jewel, repeal of the assault-weapons ban. With 69 percent of the American people supporting the ban, however, Messrs. Gingrich and Dole might just sell out their N.R.A. partners. If by next year's convention the repeal has not yet been challenged, then the N.R.A. might face the same bleak future that subsumed labor unions and civil rights groups after they let their agendas be overridden by the electoral strategies of the Democrats. "The leadership has got us all cranked up and ready to fight and that's good," says leftist-turned-Bircher Lee Smith. "But all our eggs have been placed in the Republican basket. If they screw us, this N.R.A. leadership is going to have hell to pay when we come back next year." # # #