The Nra: It's Not Pro-Gun, It's 'Anti-Crime'

WAYNE LaPIERRE SAYS the idea to seize the crime issue came to him when he was lobbying against a Virginia law to limit gun sales to one per month per customer last year. "People were telling me, 'Wayne, we know this won't do anything, but this is not about stopping crime. This is about headlines'," he recalls. On his way home, the National Rifle Association's executive vice president dreamed up an ad campaign featuring a lawmaker brainstorming with his staff. The politician dismisses tougher sentencing laws and building more prisons as too costly. Then one aide proposes a gun-control bill, which is quickly adopted. The ad ends with a slovenly-looking criminal laughing uproariously at the idea. The message LaPierre hopes to drive home by airing this "laughing criminal" ad: lawmakers are too cowardly to fight crime, so the NRA will do it for them. "This rotten stinking [justice] system is going to change," he says. "If we have to be the shock troops, we will."

For the NRA to position itself as a crime-fighting group is a little like streetwalkers spearheading a drive against sexually transmitted disease. But that's exactly how the gun lobby is billing itself these days--despite a high-profile loss on the Brady bill last week--arguing that violence can be curtailed only by getting tough on criminals, not by passing gun-control laws.

In recent months the NRA has supported ballot initiatives to keep three-time felons in jail for life in Washington state and to build more prisons in Texas, It has also launched a $2 million campaign, called CrimeStrike, to spread the word that the criminal-justice system is seriously flawed. (Officials cite a litany of alarming statistics: 60,000 people convicted of violent crime this year will be given probation; 38 states are under court orders to release prisoners.) The new NRA is also positioning itself as a defender of women (a $1 million ad campaign says, "Refuse to Be a Victim") and as a gun-safety advocate for kids. (A seven-minute video features Eddie Eagle, a cartoon character, telling kids--in a catchy rap ditty--what to do if they see a gun: "Stop. Don't touch. Leave the area. Tell an adult.") "I give them credit," says one GOP Senate aide. "They're calculating the political winds in an awfully shrewd way."

Appeals to city dwellers' and suburbanites' fear of crime have helped boost NRA membership to 3.3 million, up 30 percent since 1988. Bill Clinton's election has also given NRA strategists their first White House opponent in 12 years--always a boon to organizing. But some of the group's anti-crime messages have actually backfired. Led by New York Democrat Nita Lowey, 26 female House members blasted the pitch to women as "a thinly veiled promote gun ownership by preying on women's legitimate fears." And some local officials say the "new" NRA hasn't changed much after all. Salt Lake City Mayor Deedee Corradini says that the group tried--in vain--to defeat a measure curtailing firearms sales to youths aged 18 to 24, and that on other crime-control measures, such as a gun buyback program, a teen curfew and putting police substations in neighborhoods, the NRA was nowhere to be found.

Jeffrey Muchnick of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence says the NRA's crime-fighting offensive is really a sign of desperation: "It's a diversionary tactic, because they're losing the PR wars." The Brady bill's passage was arguably its biggest loss ever, and a symbol of the changing political tide. In the past, "you paid a price for voting against the NRA," says New York Rep. Charles Schumer, the bill's chief sponsor. "Now you pay a price for voting for the NRA."

That may be going too far. The NRA remains one of the most formidable lobbying forces in Washington, thanks in part to having friends in high places. Four Congress members sit on its board of directors' House Judiciary Committee chairman Jack Brooks and Speaker Tom Foley are supporters. The NRA's grassroots organizing skills are legendary, as is the money it raises, chiefly from gun manufacturers. In the 1990-92 period, the NRA's political-action committee was the nation's ninth largest, contributing $1.74 million to congressional candidates.

Muchnick says the NRA has built up an aura of invincibility: "Some members figure that if they vote against [it], they'll be watching the next legislative session on C-Span." But in 1992, 23 of the 25 congressional incumbents the NRA targeted for defeat won re-election. It remains to be seen whether the gun lobby can convince Americans that cracking down on criminals, not weapons, is the answer to their fears. For now, though, the lesson of the Brady bill is that interest groups don't pass laws, legislators do, and they are not as afraid of the NRA as they once were.