AN ARTFUL conspiracy theorist can easily cultivate believers. The Nation of Islam's Louis Farrakhan has convinced many of his followers that the proliferation of drugs is a racist plot to ravage the black community. Oliver Stone's box-office hit immeasurably boosted suspicions that government assassins took out John F. Kennedy. One day, history will add to the conspiratorial log the name of Neal Knox, one of America's most widely read gun magazine columnists and a veteran torchbearer of the National Rifle Association.

Knox neatly divides the world into those who support gun control and those, like him, who do not. Thus, gun control advocates become suspects in what Knox sees as a fantastic and diabolical plot to disarm Americans. Consider, for example, his column of last fall, where he suggests to his readers that the assassinations of Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. may have been staged in order to build public support for gun control. "In 1962," Knox wrote, "with Sen. Tom Dodd's mail-order gun ban beginning to move, President John F. Kennedy and a Dallas police officer were killed with mail-ordered guns.

"The day the Senate Judiciary Committee voted on the Dodd bill, two votes were changed -- and the bill came out -- because Martin Luther King {Jr.} was murdered. Two months later, the day the House was expected to kill the bill, Sen. Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. The bill became law," Knox went on. "Is it possible that some of those incidents could have been created for the purpose of disarming the people of the free world? With drugs and evil intent, it's possible." It might be tempting to merely dismiss Knox, if he weren't today the NRA's most influential leader. Now one of the NRA's top executive officers, Knox for decades has used his magazine columns to endorse -- or sometimes to bury -- candidates for seats on the NRA's (now 76-member) board of directors. This year his slate took 28 out of 28 open seats. And now, "The majority of the board are Mr. Knox's allies," said T.J. Johnston, one of the victors.

Even Knox's rivals openly concede his gains, while fretting about his influence. "That's always a bad situation, when you have somebody that has a group that more or less if he just raises his hand they wait till he does and they're gonna vote that way," said board member Joe Foss, a past NRA president and South Dakota governor. Like Foss, the NRA's current president, Thomas L. Washington, represents the NRA's traditional wing of hunters and competition shooters. "My approach is more pragmatic," Washington said in comparing himself to hard-line leaders like Knox. "It is one of a steady, plodding along."

Washington is himself an avid hunter who has long lobbied for right-to-hunt legislation in his home state of Michigan. But he is also proud of his environmental record. As executive director of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, Washington helped pass the Michigan bottle recycling law in 1976, one of the first in America.

Such "soft" issues, however, have little appeal for Knox. The former Oklahoma National Guardsman has been trying to seize power within the NRA for decades, ever since Congress passed the Gun Control Act of 1968. Approved in the wake of the Kennedy and King assassinations, the law tightened the interstate sale of firearms and banned fully automatic weapons. When it was passed, the NRA leadership endorsed the bill.

But Knox and other hard-liners disagreed and have been accumulating power ever since. A key victory came in 1975 when they established the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA), a new NRA division that effectively turned the organization into the gun lobby. Knox later became chief of the ILA, while his protege, Tanya K. Metaksa, became its deputy director. Knox was forced to resign from that position in 1982, however, by former allies who found both his militancy and tactics too abrasive.

Ever resilient, Knox returned and, largely through his own newsletters and columns that appear in the Shotgun News and other publications, by 1991 had managed to get 11 allies onto the NRA's board. Today, with strong influence over the board, Knox wants to go way beyond the NRA's stated goals of repealing the Brady law (which requires a brief waiting period for handgun purchases) and the assault weapons ban (on some semi-automatic weapons). As he promised followers at the NRA's annual convention in Phoenix last May, Knox hopes eventually to legalize fully automatic weapons.

Most of the NRA's critics have ignored the differences between leaders like Washington and Knox, but these differences are crucial at a time when an increasing number of gun rights activists are openly defending their right to armed struggle. And they are even more important when a number of armed groups are reaching out to the NRA.

One is the Michigan Militia, a group that Oklahoma bombing suspects Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols reportedly both tried to join. Even before they did, NRA President Washington had criticized the Michigan Militia for advocating extremist views. But, as reported by ABC's "Nightline," that didn't stop Knox's ally Metaksa from meeting with Michigan Militia leaders in February of this year. Another group working to align itself with the NRA is the National Alliance, led by "The Turner Diaries" author William L. Pierce. The fictional Turner Diaries, which among other things "show how to make" a fuel oil and fertilizer bomb, tell the story of rightist militias who overthrow a Jewish-dominated government. This May in Phoenix, even as the NRA leadership reaffirmed its 31-year policy not to associate with extremist organizations, the National Alliance was quietly distributing an essay by Pierce among the audience.

Striking a note similar to Knox's, Pierce begins: "There is hardly a more significant difference than that which exists between the people who want gun control and those who don't." Then Pierce picks an example that often comes up in gun control debates: "This divide becomes deeper and wider by the day. A Black with an uncontrollable hatred of Whites opens fire on a crowded subway train in New York, killing five Whites and injuring 17 more. Gun control advocates see this massacre as support for their position."

Pierce, however, uses the incident not only as an argument against gun control but to stoke racist sentiments. He targets "Blacks and other non-Whites" and concludes, "The day for a great cleansing of this land will come. Until that day, keep your powder dry."

Knox has never been known to advocate racism or associate with racist groups. But unlike the traditionalist Washington, Knox has not used his clout to denounce such organizations either. And what Knox and all these extremist groups today share is the belief that gun control is the result of a government-led conspiracy.

Knox continues to propagate this view, as he moves the NRA ever further from its traditional sporting and hunting roots. He staged another victory last May when he reportedly arranged to have three perceived moderates forced out of their jobs at NRA headquarters in Fairfax County. All had served under Wayne LaPierre Jr. who, as NRA executive vice president, manages the organization's daily affairs and is its most visible leader.

But LaPierre is appointed annually by the NRA board, now dominated by Knox allies. Those allies supported LaPierre when he signed the now infamous fund-raising letter that described federal agents as "jack-booted government thugs" and harshly criticized him when he later apologized for the letter.

"I don't think it was an apology. It was a clarification," said Knox in an interview in Phoenix.

Knox's influence over the board became manifest last year when the board appointed Metaksa, his old protege, to run ILA, the same lobbying institute that she and Knox once ran. Next year another Knox ally, Marion P. Hammer, is slated to become NRA president.

It is wrong to paint the NRA with too broad a brush. The problem is that most of its 3.5 million members seem to have little sense of how the organization is run. It's time that they and others who align themselves with the NRA pay attention. Freelance journalist Frank Smyth covers the NRA for The Village Voice.