WE HEAR much talk these days in the Senate about "special interests" and their sinister power over innocent lawmakers voting on the nomination of Robert Bork.
People for the American Way, a liberal organization that aggravated President Reagan by putting actor Gregory Peck in an anti-Bork commercial, was singled out for special rage by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who believes that "vicious" newspaper ads addled the wits and twisted the judgment of Bork's enemies.
The power of these lobbies is much exaggerated. Compared with the National Rifle Association, they are as the water-pistol to the Stinger missile.
The NRA, with a $70-million PAC and the nerve of a Wall Street raider, has won victory after victory over the majority of Americans (70 per cent at last count) that believes, perhaps if only after horrified contemplation of the freeway gunplay in California, that America is as fully armed at home as it is abroad.
Last year, for instance, the McClure-Volkmer bill, which makes it easier to buy pistols, passed Congress. Handgun Control, Inc. the most visible anti-gun lobby in operation, had to be content with the fact that Congress dared to ban the sale of new machineguns.
The NRA did lose its fight over plastic-coated bullets, known as "cop-killers," because the International Association of Police Chiefs said that life on the force is sufficiently dangerous as it is. It was a near thing, however, because the administration, which is sympathetic to weaponry at any level, went back and forth on the matter. Prominent Republican leaders, beginning with the president, accept invitations to speak to the NRA convention.
In Florida, the NRA had its most recent and perhaps most lethal triumph, a law that could turn the Sunshine State into an armed camp. This bold measure gave Floridians the right to stroll into a gunshop and purchase the weapon of their choice almost as easily as they could buy a camera or a birthday card. The only difference: They had to be fingerprinted. Actually, Florida legislators were such willing targets for the NRA that they came close to letting Floridians wear their hearts on their sleeves -- that is, carry their guns in plain view.
The Washington Post's Myra McPherson reports from Miami that state authorities anticipate that by this time next year, the number of licensed gun-owners in the state will grow to between 130,000 and 150,000. Some residents and tourists may be a little nervous, but the NRA is ecstatic, and that, it seems, is important.
The NRA is treated respectfully by the right-wingers who are now so fiercly attacking the ACLU and other groups that have dared to raise questions about Bork. NRA is quick on the draw against opponents. It spent $100,000 to defeat Rep. Bob Edgar, a Democratic Senate candidate from Pennsylvania, who in spite of a large deerhunter constituency, bravely favored anti-gun laws. Phil Gramm of Texas got $400,000 in independent contributions from the NRA in his quest for the Senate.
The NRA is making its boldest bid on Capitol Hill. They are trying to beat back a bill sponsored by Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) and Rep. Robert Mrazek (D-N.Y.) that would ban the sale of plastic guns. A host of dissenters is arrayed against the NRA, including the Secret Service and the Bureau of Alchohol, Tobacco and Firearms (both under the Treasury Department) and, again, the police chiefs.
The dangers of plastic guns are almost too obvious to recite. Airline passengers, who are scared stiff these days anyway, would have the added horror of wondering if an irascible seatmate was packing a piece that had not registered on the metal detector. Pretty soon, all airline passengers might in self-defense slip a plastic pistol into the hand-luggage, and any respectable businessman or housewife could become a potential terrorist.
Secret Service agents can envision the White House tourist line armed and dangerous. The police chiefs testified that the body-count of gunshot victims would rise from the current number of 20,000 a year.
But the NRA, which believes that a challenge of any weapon means a challenge to all, is holding its ground, and it can get in where others cool their heels. They got sympathy from Vice President Bush's staff.
Undeterred by official Justice Department sponsorship of the plastic-gun opponents, NRA representatives met with Attorney General Edwin Meese III. They had taken his measure on McClure-Volkmer, and they were not disappointed in him this time. Meese yanked the bill out of flow of bills going to the White House for final approval.
It's a warning shot, not the bullet through the heart that the NRA would like. But coming from the nation's chief law-enforcement officer, it gave advocates of reason and restraint a bad fright.
Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.