Gun Control: Even After Littleton, The Nra Will Keep It At Bay

Has public outrage at long last pierced the National Rifle Assn.'s full-body armor? One would think so in the aftermath of the Littleton (Colo.) school massacre, a shooting spree that left 15 dead. As Americans watched gruesome footage of the carnage at Columbine High School, the NRA was put on the defensive--forced to scale back its Denver convention and look on in silence as politicians readied a barrage of anti-gun legislation.

But so much for defining moments: When the rhetoric subsides, the NRA will still be standing--maybe not as tall, but in the same feral crouch that has kept it one of the nation's most resilient lobbies.

That's not to say that Littleton hasn't hurt. It has. The massacre had NRA-loving lawmakers from Colorado to Florida keeping a low profile and snatching back pro-gun bills. In early April, Missouri voters defeated an NRA bid to allow concealed weapons. And President Clinton was quick to respond to the tragedy: On Apr. 27, he unveiled proposals that seek to limit gun purchases to one a month and make parents responsible for some gun crimes committed by their children.

STATE STRATEGY. Yet the ability of the 2.8 million-member NRA to weather such challenges can hardly be overstated. Armed with a slick grassroots organization and lobbyists adept at battling for "the right to keep and bear arms," the NRA has managed to withstand six years of an anti-gun Democratic Administration and make major progress at the state level. In fact, President Charlton Heston has kept NRA membership stable and its bank account full: The group has a $150 million annual budget and a $100 million cash cushion. Even the Brady Law requiring background checks of gun buyers has proven porous: Only 10 people have been prosecuted under the law in five years, according to the NRA.

True, Senate Democrats made headway on Apr. 27 when Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) promised that they will be able to offer a package of anti-gun provisions, including Clinton's proposals and others, as a floor amendment in May. But with elections looming, some Dems fear that the issue could backfire by galvanizing pro-gun voters. Some of the party's toughest races next year will be in the gun-friendly South and Mountain States. And Dems don't want a replay of 1994, when two dozen House candidates lost after voting for the Brady Law.

BACKPEDALING. Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), usually an outspoken liberal, sent a chill through gun-control advocates when he said: "I'm not sure that gun legislation is what we need" to prevent future Littletons. Daschle's survival instincts may be kicking in. Just a few weeks before Littleton, South Dakota lawmakers joined four other states to pass laws prohibiting cities and towns from suing gun manufacturers for abetting violent crimes--the latest tack of anti-gun forces. Even after the shootings, the NRA was able to push a similar bill through the North Carolina House.

The NRA has also persuaded 31 states to liberalize statutes to make it easier to carry concealed weapons. It expects several more to follow suit this year. In Colorado, however, the future of concealed-weapon legislation looks doubtful.

For now, NRA reps in Washington are walking softly. But the gun-control crowd shouldn't be misled by the lull. The organization has lots of campaign cash to throw around. The NRA and like-minded groups donated some $4.2 million to federal candidates and parties during the '98 elections, up 25% since '94. In the near term, anyway, the disarming of America will remain a pipe dream.