DALLAS -- Membership is down and balance sheets show problems. But members of the National Rifle Association, celebrating their 125th anniversary here, declare their power is undiminished as they aim to defeat "the most anti-gun president in U.S. history."
"ABC," NRA members say when asked who they'll support in November. "Anybody but Clinton."
"Sad to say, the race looks like a tossup," NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre told members. "So your gun rights are a tossup. The anti-gun crowd is angry and they're looking for revenge."
But NRA members are angry, too. Many came to their annual convention, an event that was expected to draw 25,000 to its seminars and weaponry exhibits, feeling defensive about their steadfast belief that any gun-control law is a bad gun-control law.
"We're on the wrong end of the political agenda today," said James Wray, an NRA life member from Deer Park, Texas. "The media is very anti-NRA. If you're continually demonized, yeah, you feel defensive."
"They are very patriotic, law-abiding citizens," said Tanya K. Metaksa, the NRA's chief lobbyist. "They really cannot understand why there is a highly organized movement in this country demonizing them because they believe in the Second Amendment."
But James Guest, president of Handgun Control Inc., said he believes that the NRA, in its uncompromising posture is "increasingly out of touch with the American voters."
He came to Dallas as the NRA convention opened Friday to release a poll that shows 65 percent of voters would be less likely to support House members who voted for the repeal of the ban on assault weapons. Eighteen percent of voters would be more likely to vote for a representative who backed the repeal.
And as the elections approach, Mr. Guest said, the NRA's resources are down. "They have less money to throw around and they have fewer members."
NRA leaders acknowledge that membership is about 3 million, a drop from about 3.5 million reached after a membership drive three years ago. Part of the loss, they say, came after dues were raised from $25 to $35 a year. Membership, they add, is steady.
$43.5 million debt
And according to the annual report released at the convention, NRA liabilities exceed assets by $43.5 million.
NRA executives dismiss reports about the organization's weakness as misinterpretations.
The decline in members was projected when dues were raised, said Fielding Lewis Greaves, an NRA board member from San Rafael, Calif. And the NRA "has been operating on a balanced budget for three years."
"The NRA is in a very good place," Ms. Metaksa said.
But some members believe the NRA's place has been better.
David Edmondson, a former board member and critic of the current NRA leadership, said the organization has drifted from being an organization interested in sports and education to a political body that is "too hard-core, too militant."
After the bombing in Oklahoma City and with violence a fact of American life, Mr. Edmondson said, the NRA's refusal to compromise is costing it public support.
"This is not the same NRA people knew and loved and respected," Mr. Edmondson said.
But members such as Mr. Greaves, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, said that compromise is not possible.
"They whittle away our rights one slice at a time," Mr. Greaves said. "I would strongly oppose taking a softer line. A compromise is when both sides give up something. But the anti-gun people have nothing to give up. We'd be giving up everything."
Whatever its problems, the NRA remains mighty. About 2,900 guests attended Saturday night's banquet to hear Charlton Heston tell them, "It is your duty to take back this country, repossess this government."
Members seem determined to do that. But as they attend seminars on weaponry and stroll past gun exhibits, members tend to phrase their political comments in the negative: anti-Clinton, not pro-Bob Dole, the all-but-certain Republican challenger.
"I'm not a big fan of Bob Dole, but he would be infinitely better than Mr. Clinton in terms of gun rights," said Mr. Wray.
"He's better than anything else on the horizon," Mr. Greaves said.
Dole is supported
Despite the faint praise, Ms. Metaksa said that the Senate majority leader will have the NRA's strong support.
"They have lived for three years under President Clinton," she said of the NRA membership. "You have in Bob Dole someone with a long history of working with the NRA. In President Clinton, you have someone who's been endorsed by Handgun Control Inc.
"Anybody but Clinton," she said, "translates into Bob Dole."
Chip Walker, an NRA spokesman, said that the organization will urge its members to support Mr. Dole through the NRA's monthly magazine and on the NRA home page on the Internet. The NRA also may buy ads and mail its members pro-Dole literature.
One of the guests at the convention is a Baltimorean, Theron Richardson, 39, who in January saw two men beating TC neighbor, called 911 and ran into the street with an unloaded gun in an effort to help -- only to be arrested along with two suspects when the police arrived. His case was later thrown out of court, though he was jailed for 26 hours after his arrest.
Ms. Metaksa introduced him at a meeting Saturday, describing Maryland as a state where, "There is no right to carry, where self-defense is all but outlawed."
The NRA paid for Mr. Richardson and his wife to travel to Dallas for the weekend. "They didn't have to do it," said Mr. Richardson, who is not an NRA member. "It's a thank-you thing."
Pub Date: 4/22/96