Published on Thursday, May 4, 2000 in the Washington Post
The NRA Brags That They'll Work Out Of President GW Bush's Oval Office
by John Mintz
The National Rifle Association's second-ranking officer boasted at a closed meeting of NRA members earlier this year that if Republican nominee George W. Bush wins in November, "we'll have . . . a president where we work out of their office."

First Vice President Kayne Robinson, who is in line to succeed NRA President Charlton Heston, added that the NRA enjoys "unbelievably friendly relations" with the Texas governor. Robinson, who is also chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, made the comments Feb. 17 before 300 members in Los Angeles. He also described 2000 as "a critical election" in which Bush's success would ensure "a Supreme Court that will back us to the hilt."

Bush's presidential campaign denied he is that close to the NRA, citing instances in which he has disagreed with the group. "Neither the NRA nor any special interest sets the governor's agenda," said Bush spokesman Scott McClellan. "Governor Bush sets his agenda based on his priorities and principles."

Gun control groups say Bush has rarely strayed from NRA orthodoxy and for years has aggressively promoted its political platform. The NRA said it is proud of its ties to Bush.

"Kayne has a good relationship with the governor from their proximity for long periods in Iowa, and we at the NRA have had very good relations with George Bush over his entire public life," said chief NRA lobbyist James Baker. "Bush is very supportive of the rights of law-abiding gun owners, and he's followed his words with deeds."

Handgun Control Inc., a group that promotes firearms legislation, is featuring a tape of Robinson's comments in a nationwide television ad campaign starting today.

Firearms are emerging as one of the hottest issues in the 2000 campaign. Vice President Gore is a staunch advocate of gun control measures and a bitter critic of the NRA. Bush has taken some steps recently to distance himself from the group, even as the NRA seems to be making some headway in accusing the Clinton administration of dragging its feet in prosecuting firearms offenses.

At the same time, the NRA is becoming more openly aligned with the GOP this election season than ever before. In 1999 and 2000, the NRA has given the Republican Party $537,500 in "soft money" donations, which can be given to political parties in unlimited amounts. In the 1996 cycle, the NRA gave $87,725 in soft money to the GOP, and in 1997-98 it gave the Republicans $350,000. It donated no soft money to the Democrats in all those years.

NRA officials say they will spend more this election season than ever before--$12 million to $15 million, and possibly more, on ads, political donations, direct mail and phone banks. The investment is leading to rapid growth in NRA membership, they said--up 1 million, to 3.5 million.

Robinson was one of several NRA leaders who offered frank assessments of their political strategy at the Los Angeles meeting, which was videotaped. Handgun Control gave a copy of the tape to The Washington Post.

The NRA officials had traveled to California in part to speak with disgruntled members who believe that the NRA's Virginia headquarters hasn't been sufficiently aggressive or politically adept.

Their anger boiled over last year, after the NRA suffered a loss in California when Gov. Gray Davis (D) signed four gun control bills into law. Now, some NRA members there are trying to get an initiative onto the November ballot to roll back those laws. But NRA leaders, fearing that such an initiative could divert energy from other electoral priorities and likely would lose anyway, aren't helping on the ballot measure--which has angered some members there.

During the February visit, the NRA officials assured members that they will eventually help overturn the new gun laws and that NRA officials are aware of the high political stakes this year.

"We're facing a critical election," Robinson said. "All three branches of the federal government are at stake, first time in a long time. . . . There will be four, maybe five justices of the Supreme Court appointed in the first term of the next president. . . . If Gore is the president, every one of those people will be rabidly anti-gun.

"If we win, we'll have a Supreme Court that will back us to the hilt," added Robinson, a former police official in Des Moines. "If we win, we'll have a president, with at least one of the people that's running, a president where we work out of their office. Unbelievably friendly relations."

Robinson didn't mention Bush's name, but NRA officials acknowledge he was referring to the Texas governor. The two men grew close over the past year, when Bush spent long stretches of time campaigning in Iowa, where Robinson, as GOP head, oversaw the party's crucial caucuses, NRA officials said.

Robinson also said that if the GOP loses its razor-thin control of the House, it will seriously injure the NRA. "Every one of those [now-friendly] committees could be run by people that not only dislike us, but hate us," he said.

But a few congressional Democrats are fond of the NRA, and the group's leaders said it walks a tightrope trying to please both these Democrats and the NRA's main GOP constituency. "NRA doesn't mean National Republican Association," California NRA lobbyist Ed Worley told the gathering. "I get in a lot of trouble for saying that."

Relations between Bush and the NRA have been warm for years. Running for governor in 1994, he promised to sign a bill that had been vetoed by the Democratic incumbent, Ann Richards, allowing Texans to carry concealed weapons. The NRA praised Bush then as a "strong pro-gun candidate," and after he won, its magazine hailed the event with the headline "Election '94: Gun Owners Win Big!"

Soon, top NRA lobbyists joined Bush as he signed the "concealed-carry" law, a top NRA priority nationwide. Last year the group applauded him for signing legislation banning Texas cities from suing gun manufacturers, and it praised his stands on such issues as gun shows and background checks of gun buyers. The NRA's Web site commends Bush lavishly and contains smiling pictures of him with links to his official biography.

In a recent mailing, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre urged members to send attached postcards to the two presidential candidates. The one to Bush said, "I want to thank you for your support of the Second Amendment and your tough stand against violent criminals." The Gore card said, "I strongly oppose your policy of allowing violent criminals to go free."

But Bush also supports several ideas that the NRA opposes--such as raising the age for handgun possession from 18 to 21 and banning the import of high-capacity ammunition magazines. Bush has at times sought to separate himself further from the NRA. After LaPierre told reporters in March that Clinton has "blood on his hands" for supposedly failing to prosecute criminals with guns, Bush said LaPierre "may have gone too far."

But Bush aides say he agrees with the NRA on the underlying point. "He appreciates the support of all Americans who want to reverse the Clinton-Gore administration's lax enforcement of gun laws," a Bush spokesman said.

At the Los Angeles meeting, LaPierre expressed confidence that the GOP-led Congress will do what the NRA wants--even though the group briefly stumbled last year. In the aftermath of last year's Columbine High School massacre, in which 12 students and a teacher were shot dead, the Senate humbled the NRA by voting to close a loophole under which firearms purchases at gun shows are exempt from background checks. Gore cast the crucial 51st vote, and gun control forces were exultant.

"They thought we were dead," LaPierre said--and then the NRA swung into action. "We gave them a Normandy invasion in the House," he said. "I'd walk into House offices . . . and congressmen would say, 'I got 19,000 calls at my office; I'm with you.' . . . We ended up with no gun control passing in the Congress last year."

At the meeting, NRA board member Manny Fernandez said he is confident the group will prevail, and not only because of its growth.

"We have the people, and in the end," he said to thunderous applause and laughter, "we have the guns."

© 2000 The Washington Post Company