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New Pro-Gun Group Hopes to Draw From the NRA

Ray Schoenke, head of the American Hunters and Shooters Association, is eyeing National Rifle Association members.
Ray Schoenke, head of the American Hunters and Shooters Association, is eyeing National Rifle Association members. (Family Photo)
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By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The National Rifle Association always seems to have a target painted on its back. As one of Washington's most powerful and controversial interest groups, it is constantly dodging potshots from one group or another.

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Enter another group.

The American Hunters and Shooters Association is the latest organization to try to dethrone the NRA as chief spokesman for people who care about guns. The association positions itself as an NRA alternative, a group that likes guns and those who shoot them but believes the NRA is too absolutist, especially when it comes to opposing almost any curb on the right to bear arms.

"The NRA is extreme," says Ray Schoenke, the former Washington Redskins lineman and failed Democratic candidate for governor of Maryland who is president of the American Hunters and Shooters Association.

As proof of his gun-toting credentials, Schoenke says he likes nothing better than heading to Maryland's Eastern Shore and shooting a duck, then cleaning it, cooking it and eating it. "I own guns," he boasts. "I have guns everywhere."

Schoenke hopes this macho, carnivorous image will make pro-gun voters more open to accepting "common sense" limits on gun buying. Such changes can't be so bad, he wants gunners to say, if fellow enthusiasts also support them.

Schoenke's association backs candidates for federal office who oppose an outright gun ban but who favor some restrictions, such as requiring background checks on people who purchase weapons at gun shows. In late 2006, in its nascent foray into gun politics, the association helped elect Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) to the Senate by backing her against the NRA's favorite in the race, incumbent Jim Talent (R).

The association plans to endorse many more candidates this year, concentrating on those who not only embrace modest forms of gun control but who also want to conserve the environment -- for hunters, of course. (The effort also is timely as the Supreme Court considers the fate of the District's gun ban.)

The NRA scoffs at Schoenke's attempt. Andrew Arulanandam, an NRA spokesman, notes that the same approach was tried unsuccessfully eight years ago by a group called Americans for Gun Safety, which was bankrolled by Andrew J. McKelvey, the founder of the employment Web site Monster.com. After spending about $12 million to convince people that the issue was safety and not anti-gun legislation, the organization quietly disappeared.

The NRA also asserts that Schoenke's association is a thinly veiled front for gun-control advocates, and offers as proof Schoenke's $5,000 donation to Handgun Control Inc., predecessor to the main anti-gun lobby, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Schoenke rejects the assertion; he says he was only trying to help a cause important to his wife.

Unfortunately for Schoenke, the Brady Campaign basically agrees with the NRA. "I see our issues as complementary to theirs," Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign, says about Schoenke's association. "They're a positive group."

Helmke even contends that the two organizations are not far apart in approach. Helmke says he, too, shot guns as a boy and is as Middle American as he can be -- a former Republican mayor of Fort Wayne, Ind. "The Brady Campaign is not just East Coast liberal Democrats," he says.


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