`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.
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 with services such as
gun-safety training programs. …