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Bringing Out the Big Guns

By George F. Will
Thursday, October 14, 2004; Page A31

Billboards now seen in at least 10 key states show a prancing French poodle, its fur fancily clipped for show, wearing a pink ribbon and a blue Kerry-for-president sweater. The text says: "That dog don't hunt." And: "For 20 years John Kerry has voted against sportsmen's rights." As Election Day approaches, the National Rifle Association is clearing its throat, ready to roar.

By now most of the persuading has been done and attention is turning to mobilization -- getting intense constituencies to the polls. Few are more intense than the NRA. If New England is Red Sox Nation, the NRA is a coast-to-coast nation within the nation.

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AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons), with nearly 36 million members, is the nation's third-largest organization (behind the Catholic Church and the American Automobile Association). The NRA has "only" 4 million adult members. Thirty states and the District of Columbia have smaller voting-age populations. And whereas slightly more than 50 percent of age-eligible Americans have voted in recent elections (51 percent voted in 2000), about 95 percent of NRA members vote. Liberals who lament voter apathy should be careful what they wish for.

Each of the 4 million pays $35 in annual dues. Polls indicate that another 14 million Americans think that they are NRA members and an additional 28 million think they are affiliated in some way with the NRA because of their membership in one or more of the 35,000 shooting and hunting clubs.

In the swing state of Wisconsin, which George W. Bush lost by 5,708 votes in 2000, but where he seems to be slightly ahead this year, there are, according to a Census Bureau survey, 591,000 hunters -- more than one-tenth of the population of about 5.5 million. In hotly contested Pennsylvania, there are 1.3 million hunters, about a million of whom take to the woods on opening day of deer season, when some schools and factories close.

Bill Clinton believes that advocating gun control cost Democrats 20 of the 52 House seats they lost in the 1994 elections, which ended 40 years of Democratic control of the House. And appearing June 23 on "The Charlie Rose Show," he said this about the defeat of Al Gore in 2000:

"The NRA beat him in Arkansas. The NRA and Ralph Nader stand right behind the Supreme Court in their ability to claim that they put George Bush in the White House. . . . If I had known how big the NRA problem was, could I have gone down there and spent three days calling people on the phone and hollering people in and talking to them and turned it? Probably. . . . I think the NRA had enough votes in New Hampshire, in Arkansas, maybe in Tennessee and in Missouri, to beat us. And they nearly whipped us in two or three other places."

Labor unions have awakened to the NRA's power. For example, a flier published in Marseilles, Ill., by Local 393 of the Laborers' International Union of North America lists three Kerry virtues. The third is that he will "fix NAFTA" (the North American Free Trade Agreement). The second is that he "will continue to fight to protect overtime pay." But at the top of the list -- first things first -- is: "Supports protecting our right to own a gun."

Nationwide in 2000, gun ownership was a countervailing pull against union membership as a determinant of political sympathies: Union households with guns split 48 percent for Bush and 48 percent for Gore. In 2000, 80 percent of Tennessee union households had at least one firearm. In West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Michigan, the percentages were 61, 60 and 55. Gore lost the first two states and might have lost the other two if he had not prudently stopped talking about gun control.

Some liberals who are no more respectful of the First Amendment than they are of the Second viewed campaign finance reform as a way to inhibit the NRA from talking against gun control. Advocates of the McCain-Feingold bill for extending government regulation of political speech repeatedly mentioned the NRA as a group whose speech could be curtailed by complicating the process of financing political advocacy.

There are 170,000 precincts in the United States and the NRA says it has election volunteer coordinators in every one. Even on Manhattan's Upper West Side? In West Hollywood? Yes.

By Election Day the NRA will have sent out 15 million pieces of mail to susceptible men. And women. One in three women owns at least one gun. Hear them roar, in numbers too big to ignore.

georgewill@washpost.com


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