WASHINGTON -- At a time when chilling acts of violence are spreading fear from inner-city streets to once-tranquil suburbs, the National Rifle Association has a new target in its sights.
She is the single mother. She is the working woman. She is widowed grandmother Audrey Thacker, who used to be adamantly anti-NRA, decidedly anti-gun, but is growing so afraid of crime she doesn't know what to think.
The gun lobby has recently turned its marketing forces on women like Ms. Thacker, offering seminars titled "Refuse to be a Victim" in the Baltimore-Washington area and two other test markets intended to educate women about their self-defense options.
But gun control advocates, including a group of congresswomen who protested the new campaign in front of the seven-story NRA headquarters here on Friday, believe the pitch is nothing more than the gun lobbying giant's latest attempt to tap a new market, boost its rosters and spiff up its image at a time when gun control has become an increasingly popular notion, and the NRA a slightly less unstoppable force.
While its membership is at an all-time high of 3.2 million -- the result of a major, multimillion-dollar direct-mail campaign -- the NRA is now in the line of fire with a gun control advocate in the White House, with the first major piece of gun control legislation in 25 years likely to pass in Congress this year, and with politicians beginning to survive firefights with the lobbying powerhouse.
What's more, the rash of carjackings, random shootings, tourist murders in Florida and the seemingly endless accounts of urban violence -- along with a recent New England Journal of Medicine study concluding that gun owners triple their chances of being murdered at home -- may be pushing public sentiment more in favor of gun control.
No longer omnipotent
The climate of fear is putting the 122-year-old NRA, which opposes nearly all gun control measures, more on the defensive than ever.
"They have gone from omnipotent to merely powerful," says Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that studies violence prevention. "The biggest change with the NRA is that they've started to lose -- that's never happened before."
In the tight Virginia and New Jersey governors' races this fall, for instance, the Democratic candidates have chosen to run against the NRA. Both states are among those that recently delivered legislative blows to the NRA, with Virginia passing a law limiting the purchase of guns to one a month and New Jersey upholding its ban on semiautomatic assault weapons.
In Connecticut, home to a number of gun manufacturers, the legislature passed a bill banning assault weapons; in Colorado, a special session of the legislature was called -- after an infant was killed at a zoo -- to ban possession of handguns by juveniles.
And in Congress, the Brady bill, which calls for a five-day waiting period for the purchase of a gun, is expected to win passage, and even some former allies of the NRA are beginning to question its muscle.
But the group's deep pockets and ability to mobilize voters still wield considerable influence on Capitol Hill. One congressional aide said that while members now may be more willing to support the Brady bill, they are still reluctant to directly confront the NRA.
"They are still a force to be reckoned with," says Tom King, a political consultant who helped Democratic Rep. Mike Synar of Oklahoma survive an all-out attack by the NRA in last year's election and is now working for Mary Sue Terry, the Democratic nominee for governor of Virginia. "They're tough and play hard."
Critics charge that the NRA -- which lost the support of much of the law enforcement community in its opposition to the Brady bill and other gun restrictions -- is far too hard-line and out of step with the times.
A Harris poll in June showed that for the first time, a majority of Americans -- 52 percent -- favor an outright ban on handguns, and a recent Gallup poll showed that 80 percent of gun owners favor the Brady bill.
"The center of gravity has changed on gun control issues," says Geoffrey Garin, a pollster working for New Jersey Gov. James J. Florio. "The debate is no longer about whether the government ought to restrict the right to bear arms. It's now how the government ought to restrict the right to bear arms. The NRA is still fighting an old battle that's already been lost."
But the paradox of the gun issue is that even as the fear of an increase in violent crime has increased the ranks of gun control advocates, it has also increased the number of people who are considering gun ownership.
NRA lobbyist Joe Phillips points to the organization's membership, which has grown by 700,000 in the past two years. "If we are, in fact, preaching a message that's out of touch, show me another organization that's grown by nearly one-third over the same period of time," he said.
While Mr. Phillips says his group is stronger than ever, the NRA's pollster, Frank Luntz, concedes that the organization needs to put on a "full court press" to overcome its extremist image, appeal to a mass audience and deflect the attacks coming from all sides.
Part of that effort includes shifting the NRA's message from guns for sport to guns for self-defense. And the centerpiece of that campaign is the NRA's year-old CrimeStrike, a grass-roots membership-building program that calls for a tougher criminal justice system.
CrimeStrike, like the NRA's new "Refuse to Be a Victim" campaign, set its sights on the nation's growing population of female gun owners, with ads that feature a number of rape and sexual assault case histories.
"Women are the market," says Mr. Sugarmann, of the Violence Policy Center. "Women are getting it from all sides."
A new market
Industry experts such as Peggy Tartaro, editor of the 4-year-old Women & Guns magazine, say women are the fastest-growing segment of the gun-purchasing population. The NRA estimates that 17 million American women own guns, up from the Gallup poll's reported 12 million in the mid-'80s.
And gun manufacturers are designing guns specifically for women, such as Smith & Wesson's Lady Smith, which debuted in 1991.
In Maryland, gun training classes are booked up for a year because of the recent surge in interest from women, says Bob McMurray, vice president of the Maryland State Rifle and Pistol Association. "We can't train our trainers fast enough," he says. Mr. McMurray says he noticed women starting to flock to gun classes after last year's carjacking murder of Pamela Basu. of Savage, Md.
The NRA, which is advertising its "Refuse to Be a Victim" classes through four-page ads in such magazines as Cosmopolitan, People and Washingtonian, invites women to call a toll-free NRA number and join CrimeStrike. The group says its new outreach to this market reflects growing interest among women in protecting themselves.
The three-hour seminar, which begins with the instructor telling women that three out of four women over the age of 12 will be a crime victim at some point in their lives, is being test-marketed in the Baltimore area, as well as in Miami and Houston.
It includes a discussion of firearms as one of 42 safety strategies -- everything from dead-bolt locks on doors to pepper spray to car phones -- but does not necessarily encourage women to buy guns or provide any firearm demonstrations.
"This is a course that empowers women," said Tanya Metaksa, one of the 12 women on the NRA's 75-member board and head of its women's policies committee. "This program is designed to help women develop their own personal safety strategy."
But gun control advocates, such as the 26 female members of Congress who signed a protest letter to NRA President Robert K. Corbin, see this pitch to women as a reprehensible attempt to gain new members by preying on women's fears. They believe that putting guns into more hands will only exacerbate the crisis of crimes of violence.
"The NRA has run out of markets," said D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, at the news conference Friday outside NRA headquarters. "This is one of the worst scare tactics I've seen any organization use."
Mr. Phillips of the NRA says such critics are against everything the organization touches. He is not too concerned about the current controversy over women, nor the expected passage of the Brady bill, nor even the Clinton White House.
"We're right where we were before Bill Clinton was elected. We're right where we were before Ronald Reagan was elected," he says. "And we'll be right there after they're gone."