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Gun lobby targets Gore, Democrats

NRA prepares to play major role in Election 2000

May 23, 2000
Web posted at: 2:41 p.m. EDT (1841 GMT)


In this story:

NRA has close ties with GOP

'We'll have a president ... where we work out of their office'

Gore's turnabout on guns

Gun lobby's key congressional showdowns

'That's what our members expect us to do'


CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (CNN) -- While the defeat of Al Gore is the National Rifle Association's top priority in this year's elections, the group also plans to use its considerable political and financial muscle to target many other politicians, mostly Democrats.

"I intend to dedicate my remaining time as president of the NRA to ensure that the Second Amendment is safe from Al Gore and all those who threaten it," actor Charlton Heston said Monday in Charlotte, North Carolina, after he was unanimously re-elected to serve another year as NRA president.

VideoCNN's Wolf Blitzer examines the history of the National Rifle Association and its politics.
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VideoCNN's Wolf Blitzer examines the political power of the NRA.
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As the gun enthusiasts ended their annual convention, he predicted the group's membership of 3.6 million will reach 4 million by Election Day. And Heston, who supports Republican George W. Bush for president, leads a group in position to play a major role in dozens of key races.

"Fortune" magazine has ranked the NRA second in terms of lobbying and political clout, just behind the AARP, the senior citizens lobby group, and ahead of the nation's largest labor union, the AFL-CIO.

In short, when the NRA talks, politicians listen.

"Whether or not they're in agreement with the NRA's views, they see the NRA as having ... financial resources ... (and) supporters who are very involved in politics," says CNN political analyst Stuart Rothenberg.

Such strength is nothing more than bluster, argues an NRA critic.

"They have a very vocal tiny minority of American citizens who overwhelm the majority because they are so vocal and they're so vehement. So politicians are afraid of them," says Mike Barnes, president of Handgun Control Inc.

Whatever the gun lobby's true organizational power, there's no question it is putting its money where its mouth is.

NRA officials acknowledge the group could spend as much as $15 million on political races across the country. The aim: elect pro-gun candidates and defeat anti-gun candidates at the local, state and congressional levels.

"I think it may be the most important election in the history of the Second Amendment," says Wayne LaPierre, who was re-elected to another term as executive vice president, the NRA's highest-ranking paid officer. "We're telling people, if they value the freedom to own a firearm, this is the election you'd better get out and vote."

NRA has close ties with GOP

Former congressman Mike Barnes, now President of Handgun Control, Inc., believes the majority of the public may side against the NRA on gun control (Audio 84 K/8 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)  

As has been the case in recent elections, most of the NRA's money is going to Republican candidates and the Republican Party. An analysis by CNN and the Campaign Study Group shows that so far this year the NRA has contributed more than $650,000 to the various arms of the Republican National Committee.

That's more than twice what it gave the GOP in the entire 1998 election cycle, and a whopping 7 1/2 times what it gave the party in the 1996 election campaign.

In addition, the NRA has given nearly $650,000 more in direct contributions to 197 congressional candidates, 80 percent of them Republicans, the vast majority incumbents.

Though it has supported a few individual Democratic candidates, the NRA hasn't contributed to the Democratic Party at all.

"The Democratic National Committee is virtually 100 percent anti-firearms ownership, and the Republican National Committee stands on the side of the freedom," says LaPierre.

While the NRA downplays its increased Republican Party donations, there are unmistakably close ties between the GOP and LaPierre. He was one of the co-chairmen at last month's RNC gala, billed as a tribute to Bush, that raised a record $21.3 million.

'We'll have a president ... where we work out of their office'

(Audio 112 K/10 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)  

During his first six years in office as Texas governor, Bush signed into law two controversial gun measures. One allowed for the possession of concealed weapons. The second banned local governments from filing lawsuits against gun manufacturers.

Bush's relationship with the gun lobby concerns gun control advocates for another reason.

In a series of meetings earlier this year videotaped by the NRA but distributed by gun control advocates, NRA First Vice President Kayne Robinson boasted: "If we win, we'll have a president ... where we work out of their office. Unbelievably friendly relations."

A somewhat defensive Bush was forced to respond. "I don't want to disappoint the man, but I'll be setting up shop in the White House. It will be my office. I'll make the decisions," the Republican candidate said.

The NRA later explained the comment meant the organization simply hoped to have access should Bush become president, as anti-gun organizations now have access with Bill Clinton.

But the message underscores the NRA's top priority this year: helping put a friend in the White House, a place where the NRA has been shut out of for nearly eight years.

Gore's turnabout on guns

Ironically, it was Gore, who represented Tennessee in the House and Senate for 16 years, who used to be in the NRA's good graces, often voting with the gun lobby.

"He voted the way that state wanted him to vote," says LaPierre. "I mean, he used to call us up. We used to have meetings. We contributed to him. And I kind of look at him now, and I go, 'This is a conversion worthy of investigation by the church.'"

The vice president's campaign tells CNN the NRA did pay for an independent mailing on his behalf while he was running for the Senate in 1984 but never directly contributed to any of his campaigns.

This year, gun control advocates are enthusiastically embracing Gore, now that his new position has been thoroughly entrenched.

"When Al Gore went to the Congress, he was (a) fairly conservative, Southern Democratic congressman from rural Tennessee," says Barnes. "But as he learned more about national issues and he saw the tragedies happening because of gun violence all across the country, he's grown."

Gun lobby's key congressional showdowns

While the Bush-Gore showdown highlights the NRA's election year agenda, the gun lobby is also plotting its strategy for what are expected to be some of the country's tightest congressional contests:

  • Missouri -- Senator John Ashcroft, a Republican seeking re-election, faces Democrat Mel Carnahan, the state's governor. Carnahan helped defeat a concealed weapons referendum in his state last year that the NRA reportedly spent nearly $4 million to support. Ashcroft has already received nearly $10,000 in NRA PAC money since his last election.

  • Virginia -- Democratic Senator Chuck Robb is up against a serious re-election challenge from Republican George Allen, a strong pro-gun former governor. The NRA has given Allen nearly the maximum in PAC donations this cycle.

  • Kentucky -- In the 6th Congressional District, freshman Republican Ernie Fletcher is in a hard-fought re-election battle with former Democratic congressman Scottie Baesler.

    Baesler knows all about the impact of the NRA. When he ran for the Senate in 1998 against Republican Jim Bunning, the NRA helped mobilize activists and spent nearly $200,000 directly and indirectly to elect Bunning, who won by fewer than 7,000 votes.

    'From my cold, dead hands': NRA President Charlton Heston held a musket as he addressed NRA members during their convention this past weekend (Audio 204 K/18 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)  

    Still, the NRA's track record is mixed at best. It spent more than $1.3 million on its top 12 congressional targets in 1998, but only four of those candidates actually won.

    'That's what our members expect us to do'

    One of the few Democrats the NRA has supported is influential 23-term Rep. John Dingel of Michigan.

    A former NRA board member, Dingel rallied 44 other House Democrats last year to support an amendment to limit gun show background checks. The amendment passed by just seven votes and effectively scuttled gun control legislation for the year.

    So does the NRA plan to reward those Democrats this election?

    "We sure do," says LaPierre, "just as we help Republicans that help us out. That's what our members expect us to do."

    Correspondents Wolf Blitzer and Brian Cabell contributed to this report.

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    March 17, 2000

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