The National Rifle Association's top official yesterday defended the language his organization has used in describing federal agents, saying references to "jack-booted government thugs" were accurate. "Those words are not far -- in fact, they are a pretty close description of what's happening in the real world," NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
The NRA's criticism of federal agents in a fund-raising letter has been cited as an example of the kind of rhetoric that creates a climate for violent acts such as the Oklahoma City terrorist attack. LaPierre insisted that's not the case.
"That's like saying the weather report in Florida on the hurricane caused the damage, rather than the hurricane," he said.
But Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), appearing on ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley," said the NRA "needs to get a little image repair job." Dole criticized an NRA computer bulletin board on which bomb-making instructions have appeared, saying there are already "enough people out there who know how to make bombs."
Attorney General Janet Reno, also on "Meet the Press," demanded that critics of law enforcement officials be specific in their charges. "I think the most damaging thing that we can do in the country is to talk in generalities or in picturesque terms," she said.
On the same program, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) said he guessed that two people would resign from the NRA for every one who joins as the result of the anti-government rhetoric.
But LaPierre denied there was any dissension in the 3.5-million-member group over the stridency of its positions. The Washington Post reported Saturday that there is a division in the NRA between the old guard interested primarily in conservation and firearms education and hard-liners who are concentrating on defeating gun control legislation.
LaPierre said there is no dispute in the leadership on the need to investigate alleged abuses by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and to protect gun ownership.
The six-page NRA letter signed by LaPierre and sent out last month singles out lawmakers who are pressing for gun control legislation and says: "It doesn't matter to them that the semi-auto ban gives jack-booted government thugs more power to take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property, and even injure or kill us."
It goes on: "Not too long ago, it was unthinkable for federal agents wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms to attack law-abiding citizens."
The NRA is demanding congressional hearings into what LaPierre said was "a major trend toward abuses" by federal agents of constitutional guarantees against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said the Senate Judiciary Committee he heads has no plans to open hearings on the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian religious cult near Waco, Tex., an event that galvanized antagonism in some groups against federal law enforcement officers. But Hatch told NBC he will closely monitor hearings scheduled in the House.
"I think everybody has some tendency to be upset about what happened there, and it may be that we're going to have to do more about investigating it," he said.
Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) said on CBS's "Face the Nation" there should be hearings on Waco but said hearings also should be held on the increasing acts of violence against federal officials.
LaPierre said the NRA agrees with Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) that Republican efforts to overturn the ban on assault weapons should be set aside for the time being in light of the Oklahoma City tragedy. Dole said he had no intention to take up the assault weapon issue soon. CAPTION: WAYNE LaPIERRE