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New Pro-Gun Group Hopes to Draw From the NRA

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, March 18, 2008; A17

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.

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.

So there, Ray Schoenke! Better watch out for the crossfire in this, the latest gun war.

Big Issue for Small Businesses

The National Federation of Independent Business is famous for saying no. It pressed to repeal the death tax (better known as the estate tax) and once pushed to end the entire tax code. It also helped lead the charge against President Bill Clinton's health-care proposal 15 years ago.

Now under new management, it is taking a very different tack. The leading small-business lobby last week launched a multimillion-dollar campaign to convince Washington decision makers that, with health costs out of control, they should pass an overhaul of the health-care system.

"Small businesses have reached a breaking point," said Todd Stottlemyer, the new president of the NFIB. His Solutions Start Here effort will host forums, buy ads, conduct research and contact candidates from both political parties -- a relatively novel exercise for the once-Republican-leaning organization -- to show that small-business owners need help to afford health insurance.

But exactly what NFIB supports is hard to decipher. Beyond gaining the same tax incentives as big businesses and allowing associations (such as the NFIB) and others to sell pooled insurance to small businesses, the group's principles are pretty vague. "The trouble with health care is that we can all agree on the concepts, but as soon as you go a layer down, things start to splinter," said Charles N. "Chip" Kahn III, president of the Federation of American Hospitals.

Ethics Office Quandary

The House's decision last week to establish an ethics office instigated plenty of complaints by lawmakers that any outsider with a grudge will be able to stage a witch hunt against them.

But several reform groups say the opposite is true. The new independent body has no subpoena power and can't even put people under oath. "It's a very toothless entity," said Craig Holman of Public Citizen, a liberal advocacy group. Mary G. Wilson, national president of the League of Women Voters, added: "This proposal will prove to be inadequate and will have to be revisited, probably when the next wave of public scandals arrives."

Retirement of the Week

The dean of lobbyists for the financial services industry is retiring. Bruce E. Thompson Jr. has headed the Washington office of Merrill Lynch for 22 years and last week announced he was stepping down.

Thompson, 58, joined Merrill in 1986 after rising to assistant secretary of Treasury for legislative affairs. He previously worked for the late Sen. William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.) and was at the center of many tax-cutting battles, both on and off Capitol Hill.

But Thompson will not be going far. He will continue to work for Merrill as a consultant.

Hire of the Week

Dawson & Associates, which just named a retired general from the Army Corps of Engineers as its chief operating officer, is still on a high-level hiring spree.

Among its new additions is retired Maj. Gen. James W. van Loben Sels, who commanded three Corps of Engineers divisions -- North Atlantic, North Pacific and Europe. He also is a former director of the California Department of Transportation.

Please send e-mail tokstreet@washpost.com.

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