Lobbyist Takes Fight to Bear Arms Personally

Article excerpt

Even detractors will tell you he doesn't seem like a political brawler - let alone one who'd try to paint the president as a liar.

He's unfailingly polite. He moves more in the world of tailored suits than camouflage. And after all, the Clark Kent-looking lobbyist with pudgy cheeks nearly went to work for liberal House Speaker "Tip" O'Neill once upon a time.

Nevertheless, National Rifle Association Vice President Wayne LaPierre is at the forefront of a risky maneuver questioned even by some Republicans.

As the feud between the White House and the NRA erupted into full- blown rhetorical warfare - complete with television ads - Mr. LaPierre escalated the war of words further Wednesday, laying responsibility for the shooting death of a former coach of Northwestern University at the president's door.

He claims the president has failed to enforce existing gun laws, preferring to play politics with the issue.

"I've come to believe that he needs a certain level of violence in this country," LaPierre said in his first salvo last weekend. "He's willing to accept a certain level of killing to further his political agenda...."

Perhaps more than any other lobbyist in history, LaPierre is challenging the president politically - and personally - on gun control.

The strategy reflects his deep personal interpretation of the Second Amendment to the Constitution and a willingness to step over a line of protocol observed even by a president's harshest critics.

But taking on a sitting president and his bully pulpit is not the same thing as winning at it.

"It plays right into the administration's hands," says Robert Spitzer, author of "The Politics of Gun Control" and a professor of political science at the State University of New York in Cortland.

"Even if they [the administration] don't get gun legislation out of Congress, they've made the NRA the poster child of everything that's wrong with the gun debate," Mr. Spitzer says.

Some close to LaPierre say the strategy is an extension of his deeply held belief that in the United States, freedom to bear arms as a basic right has been under assault since the beginning of the Clinton White House.

The current campaign, they say, is a commensurate response to the White House's full-court-press effort to pass a new round of firearm restrictions, disingenuously using tragedy to push that legislative agenda. They point to the recent shooting in Michigan, in which a first-grade boy took a .32-caliber handgun to school, killing a classmate.

"He was very literal in saying if Congress had passed his gun law bill that young girl wouldn't have died, no ifs, ands, or buts about it," declares gun author John Lott, a senior research scholar at Yale University Law School. In that case "you had a six-year-old boy living in a crack house with drug addicts, and all the relatives had warrants out for their arrests," Mr. …