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NRA Finds A Welcome Audience at State Level

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Monday, September 4, 2006

Not much is happening in Congress this year that deals with the issue of firearms, and the National Rifle Association is fine with that.

For the longest time, the NRA stood in the crosshairs of some of Washington's nastiest legislative battles -- from assault weapons bans to handgun waiting periods. Sometimes the gun lobby won and sometimes it lost. But the fights were always agonizing.

Lately, the NRA has taken a lower profile in the nation's capital and has been turning its attention instead to places where it regularly wins without much hassle: state legislatures. Like a growing number of lobby groups that have tired of the expense and ugliness that congressional dustups often bring, the NRA has shifted its staffing and grass-roots pressure to passing laws at a more local place.

"The closer we get back home, the stronger we are," said Wayne R. LaPierre, executive vice president of the NRA. Passing laws in Washington, he said, "is harder."

"The NRA has figured out where they have a unique advantage," agreed Peter S. Hamm, communications director of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the NRA's chief nemesis. "Their power at the state level is formidable."

Which isn't to say the NRA is invincible there. In certain large, highly urbanized states, such as New York and Massachusetts, the gun lobby doesn't fare as well nor does it try as frequently.

Nonetheless, its string of accomplishments in state assemblies is long and impressive. It successfully lobbied for laws that give citizens the ability to carry firearms in 23 states in the past 12 years, including Kansas and Nebraska this year. It has also legislated the right of gun owners to stand firm and use deadly force in the case of a dangerous attack in 15 states, 14 of them this year. In addition, this year it got 10 states to agree not to confiscate weapons during times of declared emergencies.

This isn't to say that the NRA is doing nothing in Washington. Federal legislation is pending in Congress this month that would prevent gun confiscations during emergencies nationwide. This bill -- like its brethren in the states -- is an offshoot of the effort in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to reduce violence by collecting survivors' weaponry. In addition, the NRA is pressing bills that would restrict the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in various ways.

But the NRA has clearly been emphasizing state-level legislating for a while. Since 2000, it has increased by a third the number of its lobbyists who concentrate on state and local government affairs, to 36 from 27. It has also more than doubled the number of calls from phone banks it delivered to state legislators, to 270,000 in 2004, the latest year for which figures were available, from 110,000 in 2000. And it increased the number of letters it generated to state legislatures to 1.5 million in 2004 from 960,000 in 2000.

The NRA and the Brady Campaign offer different reasons for the NRA's change in tactics.

LaPierre said that the frustrating rules of the U.S. Senate make victory in Washington an uphill climb for the NRA almost no matter what it wants. It's simply too easy for gun-control advocates to block NRA bills, he said. He also believes that the close-knit "elites" of the nation's capital, in conjunction with a cabal of big-media conglomerates, continue to block laws the NRA likes, despite what he sees as the nation's pro-gun consensus.

LaPierre attributes the welcome the NRA receives in state legislatures to the local lawmakers' more regular contact with down-home voters. He also said that state legislators, who are often part-timers, aren't swayed by the insular, liberal views of Washington. "In Washington, the Georgetown salon society is strong and powerful and has a very strong pull on politicians," he said. "As you get closer to the states, you get away from that."

Hamm of the Brady Campaign believes that anti-NRA lobbyists are simply outgunned at the state level and rarely have a chance to succeed. The Brady Campaign's annual budget is about $10 million. The NRA puts its yearly outlay at $180 million. The gun lobby's membership, in addition, is just under 4 million.

"We're a much smaller organization in every respect," Hamm said, "and we're against a huge, powerful and organized opponent."

The Brady Campaign has tried to mitigate that disadvantage at least a little by opening outposts in a few states over the last two years. Hamm said his organization now has state directors in California, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Washington state.

Gun-control backers also seem to have a built-in advantage at city councils across the country. The closer to violent, criminal gunplay citizens get, the less sympathy they and their elected representatives seem to have for laws that allow or encourage the use of firearms, Hamm said.

"It's rural versus urban, and state legislatures disproportionately represent rural areas," Hamm explained. "There is no way that the NRA can get anything passed in the Cleveland City Council, but in the Ohio state legislature it's a completely different ballgame."

The NRA, in typically combative fashion, does not concede the point. LaPierre and other spokesmen asserted that the NRA eagerly fights gun-control measures or lobbies for its own initiatives wherever it can, from city councils to the United Nations. And in Washington as well. Last year, for instance, the NRA did manage to get enacted a measure that prohibited lawsuits against firearm manufacturers for third-party criminal misuse of guns.

But this year, the federal front is quiet for a change.

Canceling on Principle

The political action committee of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Keep Our Majority PAC, reported paying a $60,030 "PAC event site cancellation fee" to the Fairmont Orchid, Hawaii. Ron Bonjean, the speaker's spokesman, explained that after Hastert proposed ending privately paid travel for lawmakers in January, he took the idea to heart and canceled his destination fundraisers, including that big one on the big island.

"The speaker wanted to set an example," Bonjean said. And unlike many of his colleagues, Hastert has stuck to his guns. He still refuses to schedule fundraising events in lovely, faraway spots.

Jeffrey Birnbaum writes about the intersection of government and business every other Monday. His e-mail address iskstreetconfidential@washpost.com. He will be online to discuss lawmaking, lobbying and the National Rifle Association at 1 p.m. tomorrow at washingtonpost.com.

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