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House critics target old program for young marksmen


WASHINGTON -- When America's troops could barely shoot straight in the Spanish-American War, Congress decided the answer was the Civilian Marksmanship Program.

Ninety years later, the army has gone high-tech and cruise missiles have replaced the Winchester rifle. But Congress is still doling out millions to private gun clubs for a program that critics charge is a relic of a time when Teddy Roosevelt was president.

"It's time to declare success," said Rep. Robert G. Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat and program opponent. "We're more than ready to fight the Spanish-American War."

Even in a deficit-conscious Congress, the $2.5 million program aimed at improving the marksmanship of young people has yet to be shot down. With the help of one of Capitol Hill's most powerful special interest groups -- the National Rifle Association -- and its friends in Congress, it has survived years of attacks by waste watchdogs.

This week Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, a New York Democrat, plans to offer an amendment to a House defense spending bill that would kill the program. But she and her supporters face an uphill battle in a vote that could come as early as today.

Already congressional backers of the program are coming to its defense, writing letters to their colleagues and arguing that the marksmanship training is still vital to the nation's security.

"This program teaches safety and respect for rifles as well as marksmanship," said Rep. Gerald B. H. Solomon, a New York Republican. "This teaches young people how to be good citizens."

Mr. Solomon, who attacked President Clinton earlier this year for not doing enough to lower the deficit, charged that the program's Democratic opponents were really fighting guns, not government waste.

"How can they single out a little $2.5 million thing like this when they vote for every pork barrel program right down the line?" he demanded.

Last year the program, administered by the Department of Defense, handed out low-cost guns and more than 40 million rounds of subsidized ammunition -- much of it going to private gun clubs across the United States. The ammunition is reserved for youths ages 10 to 17 to practice their marksmanship. The government also helps pay for a yearly shooting competition at Camp Perry, Ohio.

Complaints about the program are not new. As early as 1924, objections were raised by members of Congress. Again in 1975, the program came under attack.

A 1990 General Accounting Office report concluded that the program's objectives "are not linked to Army mobilization and training plans."

"Essentially, the federal government is subsidizing a sportsman's hobby," Ms. Maloney said. "If this program is justified, why don't we have government-subsidized fishing trips. Or windsurfing. Why not season's tickets to the Redskins?"

Congressional aides expect the vote to be close.

In addition to Mr. Solomon, the program also is supported by Rep. John P. Murtha, a conservative Pennsylvania Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee.

Mr. Solomon serves as the ranking Republican member of the House Rules Committee.

Both men are long-time allies of the NRA.

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