`WE'RE rethinking our position on gun control...."
Those words, spoken by the senior aide of a Republican senator who usually opposes legislation to restrict firearms, are like a dagger in the heart of the National Rifle Association (NRA).
In the past, this senator, a top recipient of NRA campaign contributions, has found it politically easier to keep the state's vocal minority of gun and hunting enthusiasts happy. And he did vote against the recently signed Brady bill, which requires a five-day wait for the purchase of a handgun.
But now, the aide says, "It's time to pay attention to the other five-sixths of the state."
This is but one bit of evidence of a widely perceived shift in the congressional landscape on gun control. Handgun Control Inc.'s hard-fought victory to pass the Brady bill has established that organization as a force to be reckoned with. Perhaps more important, the pro-gun-control public, fed up with the epidemic of gun-related violence, has begun to raise its voice, especially in calls and letters to members of Congress.
Further, having a president who supports gun control, the first since Jimmy Carter, has helped embolden the silent majority. Vocal support for gun control from two high-profile Republicans - Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and New York Mayor-elect Rudolph Giuliani - has helped build bipartisan momentum.
Osha Gray Davidson, author of "Under Fire: the NRA & the Battle for Gun Control," says since he began researching the NRA in 1989, he has never seen such a period of sustained public attention to gun control. And that, he says, is bringing Congress more into line with public opinion on gun restrictions. "Gun control has moved out of the realm of emotion and into the realm of reason," Mr. Davidson says.
For decades, public opinion has supported gun control. The latest survey, released Friday by the Times Mirror Center for the People & the Press, showed that 57 percent of those polled support President Clinton's efforts to restrict the use of handguns. And by a margin of 61 percent to 28 percent, Americans favor Mr. Clinton's promise to challenge the NRA.
At the same time, 51 percent of those polled oppose legislation to "ban the sale of handguns." And 60 percent opposed a "law that would make it illegal for ordinary citizens to own handguns, except in special circumstances."
The second part should lend some comfort to the NRA, which operates on the idea that even limited restrictions on the ownership of guns could lead down the slippery slope toward the banning of handguns.
So why has the NRA wielded so much influence in Congress even though its positions have historically enjoyed low levels of public support? Part of the answer is money. For a private grass-roots organization, the NRA has one of Washington's wealthiest political-action committees, and many members have relied on NRA campaign contributions. Sen. Paul Coverdell (R) of Georgia, who barely defeated Sen. Wyche Fowler (D) a year ago, tops the list of NRA recipients at $95,806 between Jan. 1, 1987, and Sept. 30, 1993.
More important, though, are the 3 million NRA members, who feel strongly about the right to bear arms and who vote.
"Not only is its membership large, it's dispersed," says James Thurber, an American University political science professor who studies Washington lobbying. Professor Thurber credits the NRA's leadership for focusing successfully on its goals and for building up its membership by providing gun owners …