Armed with at least $10 million in political money and 200,000 new members, leaders of the National Rifle Association today vowed to defeat Vice President Gore on Nov. 7, warning that the Democrat's election would lead first to gun registration and then to gun confiscation.
NRA President Charlton Heston, raising a muzzle-loading musket over his head, told more than 20,000 cheering NRA members: "As we set out this year to defeat the divisive forces that would take our freedom away, I want to [repeat] for everyone within the sound of my voice to hear and to heed, and especially for you Mr. Gore: From my cold dead hands."
"Our gun rights are truly in peril," Heston said. "When the sun comes up on November 8, who wins the election will determine our freedoms into the next century."
From the annual convention's opening bell, NRA leaders pummeled Gore and President Clinton. In tough, aggressive language, both Democratic leaders were repeatedly portrayed as calculating liars determined to deceive the American public, especially women, into believing that restricting gun rights will result in declining crime and safer schools.
"Al Gore has gravely miscalculated his political strategy. He's been convinced by his handlers and pollsters and spinmeisters that he should scare America's moms and run against the Second Amendment. With the media's help, he paints a fictional nightmare of a nonexistent world where a reckless population of stupid gun owners cause 13 innocent kids to die a day from guns," Wayne R. LaPierre Jr., the NRA's executive vice president, told members.
"Well," LaPierre continued, "it's all a big, stinking, dangerous, Al Gore lie."
The nation's largest organization of gun owners and users demonstrated this weekend that it intends to turn the 2000 presidential election into a national referendum on gun rights. James J. Baker, the NRA's chief lobbyist, said the organization will spend $10 million to $15 million during the current election cycle, at least 25 percent more than ever before. "By November 8, I don't expect there will be a nickel left" in either the NRA PAC or its unrestricted "soft-money" fund, Baker said.
The "in-your-face" attack on Gore and Clinton was reflected on the cover of the premiere issue of a new NRA magazine, America's 1st Freedom, showing a man with Clinton's hair and ears and Gore's face. "He's Clinton To The Gore, The Face Of Gun Hatred In America," the headline declares.
Both Heston and LaPierre dismissed the Million Mom March in Washington last weekend as a glorified political rally orchestrated by the Gore campaign and the Clinton White House. Heston described television personality Rosie O'Donnell, a leader of the march, as "Tokyo Rosie," and LaPierre called the event "The Misled Moms March."
The Gore campaign has calculated that gun control is a winning issue for Democrats. Gore campaign officials intend to use NRA support for Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) and Bush's support of a Texas law permitting concealed handguns as wedge issues to persuade voters, especially suburban women and mothers generally, to vote against Bush.
Told of the NRA attacks, Gore spokesman Chris Lehane countered: "George Bush and the NRA are working hip holster to hip holster to promote an irrational, anti-family platform, including making it easier to bring guns into churches, pushing concealed-carry laws and supporting protections for national gun manufacturers at the expense of our children's safety."
In the keynote speech tonight, House Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts Jr. (Okla.) charged that Gore "is the type of politician where nothing is sacred, that will say and do anything to preserve their own political future, even if that means using fear and deceptive means. You remember when the vice president's party used to say, 'There's nothing to fear but fear itself.' Now the vice president has nothing to offer but fear itself."
NRA officials share the Gore campaign's view that the suburbs will be the battleground over guns. "It's difficult in a lot of those areas for individuals to understand what law-abiding gun ownership is about as opposed to criminal misuse of firearms, and those are the sort of distinctions we are going to try to be making in those districts," Baker told reporters.
In the past decade, the politics of gun control have shifted dramatically.
Until the 1990s, elected officials, especially those representing rural constituencies, risked their political lives if they advocated restrictions on gun ownership and usage. NRA members and other gun rights supporters voted in huge numbers on the issue, while nominal supporters of gun control rarely cast their ballots on gun control alone.
If anything, the 1994 election confirmed the power of the NRA when the defeat of many Democratic members of the House was attributed to voter anger over their support of the assault weapon ban and the Brady law requiring criminal background checks of gun buyers.
A year later, however, with the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, public disclosure on private armed militias and, later, mounting concern over mass killings of schoolchildren, the political mood abruptly shifted. The 1996 presidential election was the first when, in the view of many Democratic and GOP analysts, support of gun control proved to be a winning stand, and GOP presidential nominee Robert J. Dole quickly abandoned discussion of his support of gun rights on the campaign stump, while Clinton sought to sharply distinguish between legitimate hunting guns and assault weapons and "Saturday night specials." The favorability rating of the NRA fell to a low point in 1995-96.
Current survey data suggest a trend back in favor of the NRA, or at least toward rough parity between gun supporters and gun critics.
In a Gallup Poll last month, 51 percent said their view of the NRA was "very" or "mostly" favorable, compared with 39 percent with an unfavorable opinion. Other polls indicate, however, that a plurality of the public believes the NRA wields too much power in the legislative debate.
With the dominance of either gun rights proponents or opponents unresolved, NRA leaders are using the threat of opposition victory to build energy, cash reserves and membership. A million people have joined the NRA since 1996, and membership is now 3.6 million. "Just imagine the lifelong peril of a Gore Supreme Court, with his fresh new appointees of Justice Dianne Feinstein, Justice Charlie Schumer, Justice Frank Lautenberg [all currently senators advocating gun control] and imagine this one: Chief Justice Hillary Clinton," LaPierre said. "These elections will set the heading of freedom's course for your lifetime."