Under The Gun The more pressure there is to regulate firearms, the stronger the National Rifle Association becomes. But like the besieged tobacco lobby, the NRA can't resist forever.
By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum

(FORTUNE Magazine) – If ever there was a time when the gun lobby should be vanquished, it is now. This year alone, there have been Columbine (15 dead, 23 wounded), the Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth (eight dead, seven wounded), and the North Valley Jewish Community Center near Los Angeles (five wounded). Then Atlanta (nine dead, 13 wounded), and just the other week, Honolulu (seven dead) and Seattle (two dead, two wounded). But the National Rifle Association is not only alive, it is also thriving. Despite the shootings, the NRA is raising record amounts of political contributions, experiencing record growth in membership, and boasting about its strongest financial position in years. "I've been here through good times and bad times," says Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's executive vice president. "We've never been in a better position."

Such is the upside-down world of gun control. The NRA's defenders become most active, inspired, and effective when the right to bear arms is under assault. The organization itself seems to get stronger when its issues are in the cross hairs, even if that means--as it always does--mayhem, destruction, and death. All of which helps explain why in 1999, the worst year in memory for mass shootings, the NRA tied for No. 2 in FORTUNE's Power 25 survey of clout in the capital, its highest rank ever. It was rated No. 1 among Congressmen and their staffs, the people on the frontlines of lobbying.

At the same time, lawmakers and the NRA know that the outlook over the long haul isn't so sunny. Ultimately, shooting people is not good PR. As long as guns are freely available, the NRA is condemned to be in one form of retreat or another. Like the resilient but reviled tobacco lobby, the gun lobby's best hope is to maintain a holding action against forces that won't rest until they get more stringent regulation. No one, not even the NRA, imagines that gun restrictions already on the books will ever be rolled back. Here's how a longtime NRA supporter on Capitol Hill explains the future of the gun-control debate: "We are engaged in a very long, very grim, very hard-fought war. If we are successful, the [gun control] issue will be plaguing our kids and grandkids. If we aren't successful, they won't be dealing with it because we will have lost."

The politics of gun control, in other words, is a constant contradiction. On the one hand, the NRA is permanently under the gun, itself a victim every time there's another mass shooting. In the past few years alone, the NRA has been forced to accept the Brady bill, which imposed a five-day waiting period before a handgun could be purchased, and a ban on 19 categories of assault weapons. Yet day to day, the NRA is a force with few equals in Washington. It is so feared on Capitol Hill that gun-control measures don't come up unless lawmakers are compelled by events to bring them up. Politicians don't want to toy in any way with a group that can make the difference between victory and defeat in hundreds of districts across the land. This story will examine both sides of the NRA: its short-run strength and its long-term weakness.

At the moment, the NRA is keeping losses to a minimum. Despite the spree of killings, it appears to have bottled up for this year a bill that would have required background checks for buyers at gun shows, banned the importation of high-capacity ammunition clips, and required safety locks on all new guns. There's at least an even chance the bill could be stalled next year as well. How is this possible? Because the NRA is famous for being among the very few lobbying groups (the Christian Coalition is another) that can deliver the most important commodity in politics: votes. More lawmakers than are willing to admit it are in Congress today because the NRA mobilized an extra two or three percentage points on election day, which made the difference between winning and losing.

The NRA's power begins with its three million dedicated members and its annual budget of $137 million, numbers that make it one of the nation's largest and wealthiest cause-oriented groups. Of course, not all that money and those people are political. The NRA uses its three magazines--and will soon use an Internet portal--to push the sale of equipment and services like insurance and NRA credit cards, for which it collects a steady stream of royalties. The association's base is composed of hunters, gun collectors, and outdoorsmen who just love their weapons and the rustic way of life that goes with them.

Over the years, though, NRA leaders have kept an eye on legislation and elections, and have carefully sifted their membership lists so that they now have a die-hard group of 175,000 activists to whom they can turn to stump for a candidate or lobby a Congressman. NRA headquarters in northern Virginia features a 30-phone telemarketing center to alert the troops during congressional battles. The association has a Website that is the envy of the Washington lobbying establishment. NRA.org gets 15,000 to 20,000 hits a day and several times more than that when gun legislation is under debate. In order to broadcast its message unfiltered by the national press (which the NRA despises), the Website has a daily netcast of its own version of the news called NRA Live With Wayne LaPierre.

Then there's the money. Lots of it. With $7 million to disperse, the NRA's political action committee, confidently called the Political Victory Fund, regularly ranks in the top ten of givers to candidates for federal office, mostly Republicans. Its infamous antigovernment, pro-gun direct-mail solicitations (which once referred to federal employees as "jackbooted government thugs") bring in nearly three times as much money by tapping a loyal band of 900,000 donors. Small but regular contributions from this group help finance lobbying efforts in Washington and in the states by the NRA's fearsome advocacy arm, the Institute for Legislative Action. Lately the NRA has even begun airing a late-night infomercial starring its president, Charlton Heston, to buck up the faithful and recruit new members.

Election time is when the NRA really homes in on its targets. In 1998 it spent $150,000 on behalf of pro-gun Senator Jim Bunning (R-Kentucky). The NRA's PAC also gave the Hall of Fame pitcher $10,000 directly, and Heston hosted a fundraiser that collected even more. At the NRA's direction, 200 activists fanned out across Kentucky putting up signs and visiting gun shows to talk up their man. The NRA even mailed out bumper stickers: SPORTSMEN FOR BUNNING. Every little bit helped; Bunning won by just 6,766 votes out of 1.1 million cast. Because so few people vote (barely half those eligible during the last presidential election and just over a third in the last nonpresidential year), any group that can persuade a few thousand people to support its cause is a major player in Washington. The NRA does that with a vengeance.

Another reason for the NRA's influence is the single-mindedness of its members. Gun-control advocates support candidates who want restrictions on guns, but they rarely cast their votes on that issue alone. NRA members regularly vote one way or the other solely on that issue.

A decade ago few would have predicted the NRA's rise to power. It remains, in fact, an organization in recovery from a series of financial, managerial, and political blows. Over the years managers had allowed the group to atrophy. It was viewed mostly as a men's club that sponsored shooting tournaments. Membership stagnated, and the NRA's imperious black building in downtown Washington was filled with asbestos and antiquated computers; nothing much had been updated since 1958. Worse, the NRA was losing money. According to figures provided by the organization, it had a deficit of nearly $10 million in 1991, $38 million in 1992, and $22 million in 1993. "The NRA was decaying and was in danger of dying," LaPierre says now.

In 1991, LaPierre took charge. He and his legislative right hand, a leather-vested, big-game hunter named James Jay Baker, began the long struggle to revive the group and overhaul its physical plant. LaPierre started new programs that targeted women shooters and taught young people and children safety techniques. The NRA also invested in new computers and a new $17 million building.

After two years of rebuilding, the NRA played a major role in the surprising Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in 1994. Its victims included such powerful Democrats as Speaker Thomas Foley (D-Washington State) and Congressman Jack Brooks (D-Texas), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. NRA members went after both men because they supported the assault weapons ban. Republican leaders acknowledged the gun lobby as central to their victory. President Clinton, too, highlighted the NRA's new prominence, perhaps as a way of stifling it. "The NRA is the reason the Republicans control the House," he told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Hyperbole aside, the NRA clearly had friends in high places.

And that was the problem. The worst thing that can happen to a cause-based group is to get what it wants. After the 1994 election, NRA membership declined, in part because it raised its dues from $25 to $35, but also because its members didn't feel threatened anymore. The apathy led to yet another challenge for the organization: the growing influence of right-wing gun zealots known internally by some as the "crazies." The NRA's lead lobbyist for a time was a hard-core gun advocate named Tanya Mataksa. She would spell her unusual last name this way: "It's 'a-k,' as in AK-47, and 's-a,' as in semiautomatic."

Led by Neal Knox, a militant NRA agitator, the zealots forced the group's policy positions to become more strident. The NRA refused to show any flexibility, for instance, in its stands against banning the most vicious sorts of semiautomatic weapons, "cop killer" bullets, and the use of chemicals that would mark explosives for easy identification. After the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, when that infamous fundraising letter likened federal agents to "jackbooted government thugs," longtime NRA enthusiasts (including President George Bush) resigned from the organization, and Congressman John Dingell (D-Michigan) left its board. Even police organizations, once among the NRA's closest allies, abandoned the organization as a bunch of nut cases. "People were wondering where the NRA was heading," admits LaPierre.

Once again, the NRA righted itself. After years of losing on the issues, especially the Brady bill (1993) and the assault weapons ban (1994), the Knox wing fell into disrepute, and the moderates (a relative term) began to ascend. Last year LaPierre persuaded Heston to become president, giving the organization a more friendly public face. Who could complain about Moses? James Jay Baker also returned after a five-year exile; as chief lobbyist, he is credited with being a comparatively reasonable voice on Capitol Hill. This year the NRA will have a budget surplus of about $5 million. It rents out enough of its headquarters building to pay its operating costs. And the organization itself has morphed into a fraternal as well as a political organization. The group holds 650 Friends of the NRA dinners yearly that attract between 400 and 1,500 people each. LaPierre is the inspirational speaker at many of them. Parents sometimes bring their children just to get his autograph.

To the extent that the NRA can position itself as the protector of a way of life, the sheer number of its adherents could help it hold out for many years. More than 16 million Americans buy hunting licenses each year; 80 million people own guns; and over 250 million firearms are already in circulation, making confiscation a daunting, if not impossible, task. "We're not the bad guys," LaPierre asserts.

"Oh, yes, you are," reply the advocates of gun control, who regard the NRA not just as bad but as evil. Handgun Control, the NRA's lead accuser, is headed by Sarah Brady, wife of Jim Brady; he was wounded in the 1981 assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, and the Brady bill is named for him. The group's latest tactic (besides taking political advantage of every new shooting tragedy) is to use the courts as well as Congress in its cause. Its ally in this mission is a group that rivals the NRA in clout: trial lawyers. Gun-control advocates have joined with trial lawyers to sue gun manufacturers on behalf of 24 cities and counties around the country. One gunmaker, Colt, has already said it will stop making certain types of handguns. Gun-control advocates shrug off the decision. They say the company would have discontinued those models anyway because they weren't as profitable as other brands that Colt is making now or plans to market soon.

Handgun Control is also preparing for more combat with the NRA in Congress. It is trying to raise bigger sums for its anemic PAC; its ambitious (and probably unachievable) goal this election cycle is $2 million. And it is beginning to form a network of activists of the kind that the NRA has long had to promote its cause. "We are the ones making progress, not the NRA," maintains Robert Walker, Handgun Control's president. "The NRA is basically running out of gas." Not yet. For now Walker's group is, pardon the expression, outgunned. Despite achieving its highest ranking in three years, Handgun Control still placed 60th in the Power 25 out of 114 groups tested.

Ultimately, the fight over guns is bigger than any single lobbying group, much like the battle over tobacco. The similarities are instructive. Scientists knew the hazards of cigarette smoking for decades before the tobacco companies were finally forced to pay a share of the cost that their product imposed on society. Likewise, gun advocates and manufacturers know the toll firearms take, especially in cities, and have grudgingly given ground to more and more regulation.

As with tobacco, the defeats and concessions never seem to satisfy reformers. President Clinton is pressing yet another suit against the cigarette industry to collect damages he says are owed to the Medicare program because of illnesses caused by tobacco use. (The previous settlements around the country dealt with Medicaid.) Likewise, the suits filed by cities and counties against gun manufacturers are probably only the first wave. "If 25% of these suits are still going forward at this time next year, there'll be a second wave," predicts John Coale, one of the lawyers involved in the early gun cases. "It's like tobacco. Once cities and counties see that these things can happen, the suits will just start rolling." At which point the federal government might join the battle. Coale says federal officials are interested in filing a suit of their own if the local cases make headway. But such a decision would have to await the next President. If a Republican wins the White House, the chances of a class-action suit are nil. But if a Democrat wins, gunmakers had better watch out.

The partisan underpinnings of the battle make it ripe for a protracted conflict. "This is going to be a major issue in the presidential election," says Senator Charles Schumer (D-New York), the Senate's leading gun-control advocate. "It could be George W. Bush's Achilles' heel." In general, Democrats love to depict the NRA as the devil incarnate, while Republicans accuse Democrats of failing to enforce the laws already on the books. Democrats are secretly as eager as the other side to delay action on gun-control legislation through next year--even if compromise were possible--in order to bludgeon Republicans on election day for being in the pocket of that particular special interest. Few things sell better among die-hard Democrats than NRA bashing.

But that strategy misses two key points. First, plenty of Democrats, especially those who represent rural regions, need to keep the NRA's interests in mind; some gun lovers do vote Democratic. Second, no matter how pro-NRA a lawmaker is, he rarely wants to trumpet that fact. Sure, Republicans and a hearty handful of Democrats are often willing to say the next new gun-control idea goes too far. But they mostly say so quietly, and they almost never give a full-throated defense of the organization itself. FORTUNE contacted several lawmakers whose reelections were greatly aided by the NRA; none would speak for the record.

Although NRA membership has been growing lately, overall gun ownership is not. According to the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, the proportion of men who say they owned a gun dropped from 52% in the 1980s to 38% last year (female ownership has stayed steady at 11%). The U.S. manufacture and importation of guns, while spiking occasionally, has declined by about 20% since the late 1970s. What's more, public sentiment overwhelmingly favors more, rather than less, regulation of guns. A recent national poll by Newsweek showed that 74% of the American people support registration of all handguns, 93% back a waiting period for people who want to buy handguns, and 50% of people who don't own firearms favor banning handguns altogether.

The NRA is a pariah even among some of its friends. One well-known lobbyist, who agrees with the association on many issues, never invites it to participate in his legislative coalitions. Its political style is simply too aggressive. "The NRA is anathema to business; its game is always to attack," the lobbyist says. "I don't let tobacco join, either, and for the same reason. If they are members, lots of business groups won't join."

To change its image, the NRA would have to become less fanatical in its devotion to the Second Amendment. But a gentler, more compliant gun lobby would also be a less effective one. Blind faith in the cause and proud inflexibility in the face of an arrogant enemy are what bind the rank and file together. The NRA's right flank may seem scary or even borderline insane to many Americans. But its fervor and single-mindedness are what make it so politically potent. That won't save the NRA forever. But with no dearth of opposition, the gun lobby will be as dangerous as a cornered rattlesnake for a long time to come.