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Former Gun Lobbyist Says NRA Aims Mostly for Money

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, October 30, 2007

R ichard Feldman is a rarity -- a former gun lobbyist who is publicly taking a shot at the National Rifle Association.

In his new book, "Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobbyist," Feldman accuses the powerful NRA of being in business primarily to raise money for itself and its executives, and of using self-defeating scare tactics to keep its coffers full.

The NRA's "financial blood-sucking" and "deceitful appeals" for cash, he writes, have sustained the organization financially but have undermined its ability to work with natural allies such as law enforcement officials and moderate Republicans and Democrats.

Feldman came to this conclusion by watching from the inside. He worked for several years as a state-level lobbyist for the NRA and then, in the 1990s, went on to represent the firearms industry as executive director of the American Shooting Sports Council.

Along the way he was transformed from a young man eager to help the cause to a disheartened, embittered veteran. "Ricochet" is Feldman's memoir of his career and his vehicle for charging the NRA with becoming a bomb-throwing, self-serving impediment to what he considers the legitimate right of gun ownership.

Feldman was the man behind one of the few acts of compromise between gun lobbyists and gun-control supporters. In the mid-1990s, he was instrumental in persuading weapons manufacturers to voluntarily place locks on handguns, at the request of the Clinton administration. But it was that small example of conciliation that put a target on his back.

When he later failed to unite the industry to stop a deluge of lawsuits by cities against gunmakers, he was ousted from the American Shooting Sports Council -- at the insistence, he says, of the NRA and its then-top lobbyist, James Jay Baker. Feldman says he had gotten too close to what the NRA thought of as "the enemy," and that was unforgivable.

"Drawing nice clean lines with 'us' and 'them' to battle over makes for far more successful direct mail solicitations than actually solving problems," Feldman writes. "Protracted campaigns brought in new members and contributions."

And that, Feldman asserts, is what the NRA really wants.

Feldman's critique is not new. Ever since the NRA in 1995 called the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms a bunch of "jack-booted government thugs" and former president George H. W. Bush resigned from the organization in protest, the lobby has widely been seen as wild-eyed, even radical, mostly for the sake of keeping its membership large and energized.

At the same time, however, not even its boldest detractors have been able to credibly claim that the NRA is ineffective. Its ability to mobilize pro-gun voters was key to defeating Al Gore in the 2000 presidential race. Rarely does gun-control legislation even come up in Congress these days, so feared is the NRA.

Feldman undercuts his credentials as a critic by admitting his disdain for the group and resorting to petty personal attacks. Of Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's longtime chief executive, Feldman writes: "Wayne's chipmunk cheeks had expanded, so that he now reminded me of a well-groomed, well-fed beaver who had salted away plenty of leaves and branches for the winter."

The NRA so far has ignored the book. Spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said, "We don't comment on works of fiction."

But the group will have a hard time parrying Feldman's central attack -- that the NRA is actually thrilled to have its adversaries in power because that is what keeps the money spigot open. After the Democrats' sweep of congressional elections last year, Feldman writes, "The National Rifle Association had enemies again, clearly delineated opponents in the endless struggle . . . and as always, it was better to fight than win."

NARAL's Guide to Congress

NARAL Pro-Choice America, a leading voice for abortion rights, may need a little refresher course on how a bill becomes a law.

Its president, Nancy Keenan, recently sent out an urgent e-mail solicitation for donations, highlighting an upcoming hearing at the House Foreign Affairs Committee that would deal with abortion information distributed abroad. She listed five GOP lawmakers who she said were members of the committee and opposed her organization's position.

"Make your contribution right now," she wrote. NARAL would then send "a moral compass" to the offending lawmakers.

Trouble is that none of the lawmakers are on the committee. They are, however, on every list of Republicans considered vulnerable in next year's election. They included Rep. John T. Doolittle (Calif.) and Sens. Norm Coleman (Minn.) and John E. Sununu (N.H.).

A NARAL spokesman admitted that the e-mail was in error. Ted Miller said it should have read "members of Congress," not "members of the committee."

Maybe the donation page should be changed as well. The Web site to which the e-mail directs would-be donors contains the following disclaimer: "No funds will be earmarked or reserved for any political purpose." None, you say?

Hire of the Week

Nothing in Washington is easy. Take the simple act of naming what someone does for a living. Chris Kelley Cimko, for instance, is the new head of public affairs at Dittus Communications, in charge of a dozen people.

But what exactly is public affairs? "I want to give you the right definition," she said. "But I'm not sure there is a definition."

There are a few things that public affairs apparently is not. It is not media relations, which entails contacting the press. It's not government relations or government affairs, which are fancy terms for access lobbying. And it's not public relations either, though that seems pretty close.

Robert A. Tappan, the former president of D.C. operations for Burson-Marsteller who now directs Weber Merritt's public affairs practice, said public affairs is "communications and other advocacy tools that intersect with government relations."

Cimko puts it differently: "My sense is that it's communications-related activities that create an awareness and an environment that make it possible for elected officials and other decision makers to be aware of issues and choices."

Huh?

Maybe you, dear reader, can lend a hand. Please send your favorite definition of public affairs -- serious or otherwise -- to kstreet@washpost.com. I'll air a few of them next week.

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