The National Rifle Association, aroused by what its members consider the threat of gun control in Virginia, is making an unprecedented foray into the state to organize gun owners for Republican gubernational nominee John Dalton.
The NRA efforts include organizational meetings, a 50,000-flyer mailing, alerts to gun clubs and the 15,000 licensed firearms dealers in the state and a $5,000 multi-media advertising campaign being launched today in the western half of the state.
"We don't come in just anywhere," said Edward J. Land Jr., a field representative for NRA. "But a lot of the big gun clubs came to us and said 'Hey, we've got a problem in Virginia.'"
The problem, the gun men feel, is the Democratic gubernatorial candidate. Henry Howell, who in 1964 would have provided limited registration for hand-guns, and in 1969 voted against including the "right to keep and bear arms" amendment in the revised Virginia Constitution.
Howell, sensitive to the volatility of the gun issue among the hunters of Virginia's western and southwestern mountain counties, has repeatedly said during the current campaign that he's against gun control, and has accused Dalton of distorting his record.
He says the 1964 bill was submitted at the request of police chiefs in the state's major cities and had many sponsors. It was primarily aimed, Howell says, at providing a 48-hour "cooling-off period" between the purchase and the delivery of a pistol.
The constitutional amendment vote, on which Howell was recorded as the only senator in opposition, was cast. Howell says, because he believed the bill should have been sent back to committee for amendment rather than being amended on the floor of the Senate.
But whether or not Howell is for gun control, the NRA thinks he is, and has so far held seven meetings around the state to organize its 33,000 Virginia members.
Land said a spokesman from Howell's campaign is usually invited to the meeting and allowed to present his candidate's views.
"But the people I've talked to are very emotional about the issue and they very strongly support John Dalton," Land said.
Land said he could not recall a single statewide race within memory in Virginia when the NRA felt it necessary to play a role. Even four years ago, when Howell ran against Democrat-turned-Republican Mills E. Godwin Jr., he said, the organization was not actively working in the state against Howell.
In most races, he said, as in the lieutenant governor and attorney general's race this year, there are "essentially no significant differences between the candidates" on the issues of concern to the NRA.
Land said that he and Mike Lashbrook from the NRA's Institute for Legislature Action have been working in Virginia since September.
"The way the meeting works," Land said, "is that Lashbrook comes on and he doesn't say a word about Dalton. He tells about the Institute for Legislative Action and how the sportsmen can organize and protect their rights. Then I come on and tell about what I can do for them as a field representative. Then someone from the (Sportsmen Go for Dalton) group, then someone from the Dalton campaign."
Land said the NRA "had a little problem with Dalton, to be very truthful about it" in connection with planning and airing advertising about Howell's record on the gund issue.
"We felt we were doing a good job and not being a detriment to him like some of the other so-called conservative groups . . . But he felt he couldn't let us go our own way and not let the others do the same," Land said. "So right toward the last here we've just been funneling everything in toward the (main Dalton campaign) committee."
He said the result was a "very strong" media campaign planned "primarily for radio" and some newspapers in the western part of the state.
"We honestly feel we have an issue that can erode (Howell') union support down there," Land said. "The only way you can separate a man from his union is with his sport, and that's we're all about."