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CNN Insight

The National Rifle Association: Guns And U.S. Politics

Aired May 23, 2000 - 0:30 a.m. ET



CHARLTON HESTON, NRA PRESIDENT: From my cold, dead hands.


JONATHAN MANN, INSIGHT (voice-over): Millions of Americans vow to keep their guns and their grip on U.S. politics. The National Rifle Association - America's shooting party.

(on camera): Hello, and welcome.

That was Charlton Heston, issuing a challenge to gun control advocates in the United States. Heston may be best known as the man who played Moses in the movie "The 10 Commandments," but that was a long time ago.

Heston is no longer leading his people through the wilderness. He's leading one of the most powerful political groups in the U.S. - the National Rifle Association, committed to keeping guns easily available to just about any adult that wants them, protecting as sacred the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which guarantees the right to bear arms.

The people of the United States have been seeing a sickening series of mass killings, several prominent ones involving young people. But the NRA and its campaign for unrestricted access to firearms may be stronger than ever. On our program today - the National Rifle Association.

We begin with CNN's Wolf Blitzer.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Ask any of the more than three and a half million members of the National Rifle Association about its influence, and you'll likely get the same answer.

WAYNE LAPIERRE, NRA EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT: Our strength is in people cities and towns all over this country, big and small.

BLITZER: Ask a critic about the group's strength, and you'll hear.

MIKE BARNES, HANDGUN CONTROL, INC.: They have a very vocal tiny minority of American citizens who overwhelm the majority because they are so vocal and they're so vehement. So politicians are afraid of them.

BLITZER: Founded in New York state nearly 130 years ago primarily as a sports shooting organization, the NRA has become an increasingly powerful political group over the past three decades.

Last December, Fortune magazine ranked it second in the nation in terms of lobbying and political clout, just behind the senior citizens lobby group the AARP, and ahead of the nation's largest labor union, the AFL-CIO. In short, when the NRA talks, politicians listen.

STUART ROTHENBERG, COLUMNIST/POLITICAL ANALYST: Whether or not they're in agreement with the NRA's views, they see the NRA as having the financial resources but also ground troops, supporters who are very involved in politics as well as in guns and a true factor in most campaigns.

BLITZER (on camera): An extensive CNN review of recent NRA political activities reveals the gun lobby is prepared to flex its considerable muscle more this year than ever before. NRA officials acknowledge the group could spend as much as $15 million on political races across the country. The aim - elect pro-gun candidates and defeat anti-gun candidates at the local, state and congressional levels.


LAPIERRE: We are going to be in every city, every county, and we are going to cause as much pain and as much hurt for those people that are trying to destroy the Second Amendment, more than they have ever felt before.


BLITZER: The Second Amendment - it's the backbone of the NRA's argument against additional gun laws.

LAPIERRE: I think it may be the most important election in the history of the Second Amendment. And we're telling people, if they value the freedom to own a firearm, this is the election you'd better get out and vote.

BLITZER: As has been the case in recent elections, most of the NRA's money is going to Republican candidates and the Republican Party. An analysis by CNN and the Campaign Study Group shows that so far this year, the NRA has contributed more than $650,000 to the various arms of the Republican National Committee. That's more than twice what it gave the GOP in the entire 1998 election cycle, and a whopping seven and a half times what it gave the party in the 1996 election campaign.

Though it has supported some Democratic candidates, the NRA hasn't contributed to the Democratic Party at all.

LAPIERRE: The Democratic National Committee is virtually 100 percent anti-firearms ownership, and the Republican National Committee stands on the side of the freedom.

BLITZER: The NRA downplays its increased Republican Party donations, but CNN has learned one major change is the increasingly close tie between NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre and the GOP.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. and Mrs. Wayne LaPierre.

BLITZER: The 50-year-old LaPierre was one of this year's co- chairmen at the RNC gala that raised a record $21.3 million. That gala was also billed as a tribute to Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, who has the wholehearted endorsement of LaPierre and the NRA.

LAPIERRE: I believe George Bush, the governor, values the freedom. He's also very tough on anyone that abuses the freedom. And that's much closer to where we're coming from.

BLITZER: During his first six years in office, Bush signed into law two controversial gun measures in Texas. One allowed for the possession of concealed weapons. The second banned local governments from filing lawsuits against gun manufacturers. Those two laws have gun control advocates concerned about Bush's relationship with the gun lobby.

Another reason - in a series of meetings earlier this year videotaped by the NRA but distributed by gun control advocates, one of the NRA's top officials boasted:


KAYNE ROBINSON, NRA FIRST VICE PRESIDENT: 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.


BLITZER: A somewhat defensive Bush was forced to respond.

GEORGE W. BUSH, REPUBLICAN PRES. CANDIDATE: Well, I don't want to disappoint the man, but I'll be setting up shop in the White House. It will be my office. I'll make the decisions.

BLITZER: The NRA later explained the comment meant the organization simply hoped to have access should Bush become president, as anti-gun organizations now have access with Bill Clinton.

LAPIERRE: All we're asking for is access, where we can have a seat at the table and we can express our point of view. I'm sure sometimes George Bush, if he's elected, will listen to us. I'm sure sometimes he won't.

BLITZER: But the message underscores the NRA's top priority this year - helping put George W. Bush in the White House, a place the NRA has been shut out of for nearly eight years.


LAPIERRE: If Congress and the White House fall into the wrong hands, if the next president appoints up to four new Supreme Court justices who hate your guns as much as he does, the Second Amendment could be gone forever.


BLITZER: In the eyes of the NRA, Al Gore is clearly the wrong hands. Ironically, it was Gore as a young Democrat from Tennessee who used to be in the NRA's good graces, often voting with the gun lobby.

LAPIERRE: He voted the way that state wanted him to vote. I mean, he used to call us up. We used to have meetings. We contributed to him. And I kind of look at him now, and I go, this is a conversion worthy of investigation by the church.

BLITZER: The vice president's campaign tells CNN the NRA did pay for an independent mailing on his behalf while he was running for the Senate in 1984, but never directly contributed to any of his campaigns.

This year, gun control advocates are enthusiastically embracing Gore, now that his new position has been thoroughly entrenched.

BARNES: When Al Gore went to the Congress, he was, you know, fairly conservative, Southern Democratic congressman from rural Tennessee. But as he learned more about national issues and he saw the tragedies happening because of gun violence all across the country, he's grown.

BLITZER: Wolf Blitzer, CNN, Washington.


MANN: We have to take a break. But when we come back, a look at who these people are who feel so strongly about their guns. Stay with us.


MANN (voice-over): Voices against gun violence as mothers march on Washington. Hundreds of thousands of women came to the U.S. capital last week, calling for what they called "sensible gun control." It was the largest demonstration of its kind in recent memory.

(on camera): Welcome back.

The Million Mom March had the full support of the Clinton administration, but it also galvanized gun control opponents like the NRA into mounting a counteroffensive. The NRA says the heated exchange over gun legislation has actually helped swell its membership. NRA officials say they've added 200,000 new members in the last six months alone.

And as CNN's Deborah Feyerick reports, the organization is looking to increase its contact with the public at one of the world's most visited tourist spots.


DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Joining Disney, the All-Star Cafe and Loew's movie theaters, the National Rifle Association is coming to Times Square.


LAPIERRE: Imagine a new, exciting, total shooting sports and sporting goods experience.


FEYERICK: The NRA is currently negotiating a lease, with plans to create its own theme store right in the crossroads of the world.

LAPIERRE: We're going to open up a mega-interactive, video- firearms experience where people can have fun.

FEYERICK (on camera): Up until a few years ago, Times Square was a symbol of crime and decay, known as a mugger's paradise. But in the last five years, developers and city planners have worked together to clean-up.

(voice-over): Several people involved in the revitalization tell CNN they had no idea the NRA was coming to town.

BRENDAN SEXTON, BUSINESS IMPROVEMENT DISTRICT: It's something we've really tried very hard to get away from, the weapon stores and the sort of the purveyors of the dark side.

FEYERICK: No word yet on what the Times Square boosters plan to do about it. New York Senator Charles Schumer, one of the NRA's fiercest critics, believes guns and Times Square are a dangerous combination.

CHARLES SCHUMER, DEMOCRATIC SENATE MEMBER: Times Square is a great place, but it's loaded with bars and nightclubs, and lots of young people come there all then time. It's positively the last place where you'd want anyone handling a gun.

FEYERICK: But the theme store and restaurant will only feature virtual electronic gun games, according to this video produced for the gun group's annual meeting this weekend. The NRA, which claims a record 3.6 million members, could bring in a sizable market to this tourist mecca. Until the New York deal is closed, the NRA is not releasing the exact location or size of the planned store. But a spokesman for the gun group says it will be the "biggest presence in Times Square,"


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: First in Manhattan, and then the world.


FEYERICK: Deborah Feyerick, CNN, New York.


MANN: Joining us now to talk more about the NRA is Matt Bai, national correspondent for Newsweek magazine. Thanks so much for being with us. We heard briefly in a report earlier that the NRA started out as a sporting association for rifle enthusiasts. When did it change and why?

MATT BAI, NEWSWEEK: It started out that way really before World War I, and it stayed that way pretty much up until about 30 years ago in 1968, when the first gun control act federally was passed through Congress. At - that coincides really with the rise of the handgun and people are hunting less, but suddenly they want self-defense guns, something they can keep at home or conceal on their person.

There is a strong backlash against that, and the NRA really evolved into a political force for holding back the people who would like more gun control. And that has become its really main purpose now.

MANN: Who are these people?

BAI: Well, you know, I think there are some misperceptions about that. Who are they? I mean, there's over three million members at any given time, depending on who you listen to. And they're people very much like us. They're your neighbors. They're folks who have kids in your schools. They're law-abiding citizens. They're people who believe in the safety of firearms.

A lot of them don't agree with the leadership of the NRA. But the organization itself has really catered in recent years to the most extreme, most hard-line elements of its membership, and it's done that purely for tactical reasons and political reasons.

MANN: I want to ask you more about that because in the media in this country and outside the United States, it's easy to imagine these people - these three million people - as the marginal fringe of this country, as "Rambo-esque" figures. Are they, or I guess some of them might be, are there some, though, who join the organization calmly and thoughtfully the way people join other political or activist organizations?

BAI: Well, sure. It'd be hard to imagine a three million-strong fringe group. There are a lot of folks who join this organization for one reason and one reason only. They believe and they will tell you that the NRA is the only group in America that is out there fighting to preserve their rights to own and use their firearms.

They don't necessarily agree with Wayne LaPierre and Charlton Heston and everything that's said. They're uncomfortable with some of the extreme nature of the comments that are made or the stances that are taken. But they don't have an alternative. They want to own guns. They want to buy the guns that they choose to buy, and the only one that's up there on Capitol Hill fighting for them is the NRA. And that is the source of the NRA's broad membership.

But again, it's that most vocal minority, that extreme element that tends to shape the message that you hear.

MANN: Let me ask you more about that because all over the world, there are people who understand why many people will cling to the right to express themselves freely, to worship God in their own way, to associate in the ways that they want, the basic human rights that so many countries recognize.

What is it about the right to bear arms? Are these people afraid for the most part? Is that why they want guns? They're afraid of crime or they're afraid of their neighbors? Why do they want to exercise that right in the same way everyone else wants to pray or speak freely?

BAI: Well, it really depends on the person or the region of the country. But there is surely a tradition of this in America. It goes back to the frontier. We are a gun-carrying country, probably more than any other industrialized country, and there is a strong legacy here. In a lot of regions of the country, this has been handed down generation to generation, first as a hunting rite, as a means even two generations ago, where people were going out in the Western United States and shooting their own food.

And a lot of folks who are older and are NRA members will tell you that that's how they came to join the NRA. Of course, there's a lot less hunting in the last quarter century in America. But there is a strong self-defense market. There are people who are afraid, and there are people who just want their children to learn the same thing that they learned and that their fathers learned. And there's a new market for women who want to be able to protect themselves on American streets.

This is what keeps the NRA causes, the Second Amendment causes very strongly alive.

MANN: They don't just buy guns or use them, and they don't just vote. But they also contribute money, and they are active. How politically powerful are the people in the NRA, or the NRA as a collectivity?

BAI: They're very politically powerful, and they're powerful for really two chief reasons. One, the NRA, with all of its membership and all of its contributions, targets swing district congressional races where those extra votes can really matter. And of course, NRA members will really come to the polls and vote. And that is the second source of strength - not just the money, but even moreover the manpower, the voters.

The fact that in an NRA district, if turnout hovers around 35 percent or 40 percent in a lot of cases, NRA turnout is more like 95 percent, 97 percent, 98 percent. These folks go to the polls. They vote and they vote on one single issue, and nothing else matters. They've proven it time and time again. It makes it a very powerful political force, especially in a country where turnout has been so low in recent elections.

MANN: Is it getting more powerful, do you think?

BAI: I think that's impossible to say if it's getting more powerful or less powerful. And anybody who tells you they know how that's going to play in November is really trying to spin you because the polls and the indications are very hard to read. I think this is a real test for the NRA. We're going to see if the other side, if the gun control forces have reached a critical mass where a lot of ordinary swing voters, centrist voters, women, mothers are going to come to the polls, and their number-one issue is going to be guns.

And if that happens, gun control will rule the day, and it may carry Al Gore over the top. But there's nothing in the history, certainly, of this issue to suggest that the NRA's power is going to wane come November.

MANN: Matt Bai, Newsweek magazine. Thanks so much for this.

BAI: Any time, thanks.

MANN: We take another break. But when we come back - the NRA isn't alone. Some of the most powerful political organizations in this country never run in an election or cast a vote, but their people do. Stay with us for that.


MANN (voice-over): The New York Times calls him the fund raiser- in-chief. It estimates that since he was elected president in 1992, Bill Clinton has raised between $500 million and $1 billion - $1 billion. Money spent to get himself and other Democrats elected.

(on camera): Welcome back.

The money that politicians raise can go to many places. In the U.S., few people accuse really prominent figures like the president of directly enriching themselves. They do accuse the president, though, and just about every other elected official of selling their services to powerful interests, the people who can generate the millions that they need for their campaigns.

The NRA is one of them, but there are others. And they offer more than just money. Joining us now to talk about that is CNN's senior political analyst Bill Schneider. Bill, thanks for being with us.


MANN: Fortune magazine, in that study that we heard alluded to earlier, picked what they felt were the top interest groups and lobbies in the country, and they started out with one in particular that would surprise many people. It was the American Association of Retired Persons.

It surprises me, and it would surprise many people, I think, to think of the elderly and retired in this country as being among the most powerful interest groups here. Why do you think the Fortune people would have chosen them?

SCHNEIDER: They're the largest single lobbying group, interest group in the United States. Every American over the age of 50 has the right and very often they are solicited to belong to the American Association of Retired Persons. What they have going for them is enormous numbers and the fact that everyone identifies with the elderly because everyone expects to get old. So they have a lot of sympathy.

MANN: Now, we've been talking about the NRA. They came out number two on this list. And intriguingly, someone in the report we just heard said that what's interesting about the NRA is not that it has so many people, but that they all vote. How many different interest groups can count on the participation of their members? And is that really the secret to try to run or influence a country like this?

SCHNEIDER: Well, in the case of the NRA, they have a different resource. The AARP, the retired persons, have numbers. The NRA has intensity. They vote the issue, and they communicate that to politicians. A politician knows that if he or she votes for gun control, they're going to lose a number of votes - a large number of votes in many districts - from National Rifle Association members.

There are other interest groups, like anti-abortion groups, that communicate effectively to politicians "if you cross us and vote the wrong way, we'll come after you." That's what intensity is all about. It's a threat.

MANN: The National Federation of Independent Business was number three. There, I wouldn't imagine some votes, I would imagine it would be the money. Is that right?

SCHNEIDER: Well, they do give money, but they also are well organized. Small business is well organized across the United States. And they tend to have a lot of sympathy from voters. I think, in their case, if it's publicized that you're against small business, which is a very populist image, that can do you a lot of damage.

MANN: Now, there's a whole list. We're just going to do one more because it will give us a good indication of the variety of organizations here. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee. That might be a surprise to some people, not a surprise to others. Is that a very serious hardball kind of lobby?

SCHNEIDER: Indeed, it is. And they communicate to politicians that if you vote against the interests of Israel, you will pay a price. These people have - they give money, but they also have a lot of influence. They tend to be persons of great influence in important positions in the press, in business, in the media, and they make their influence felt.

Essentially what they do is, like the NRA, they communicate to politicians "if you vote the wrong way, we're going to expose that vote and you're going to pay a price." Again, it's an organization that works through a threat and through the fact that there is no one effectively on the other side in the United States. There is no major pro-Arab lobby that tells politicians "if you vote for Israel's interests, we'll come after you."

MANN: People in this country and even political leaders accuse other political figures of being beholden to special interests like the ones that we've just mentioned. Do you think, by and large, it's true?

SCHNEIDER: Well, they do tend to - politicians pay a lot of attention to those who give them money. Believe me, if you give a politician tens of thousands of dollars or channel it to a political party, they're going to take your phone calls. But it's especially important if you make what you want known, and there is nobody on the other side of an issue.

Politicians are very nervous about making enemies so that if they want to know if they cast a vote, they're going to gain support and they're not going to lose support. So part of it is through threats, and part of it is through the sense that you're taking a position that doesn't involve any costs.

MANN: Presidential election under way, election of a lot of other important seats in Congress. Any one or two of these interest groups that are really the ones to watch that might decide the elections in November?

SCHNEIDER: Well, certainly the National Rifle Association has been very important in previous elections, particularly the congressional election in 1994, when millions of gun owners across the country came out to exact a price on Democrats for voting for the assault weapons ban and a delay on handgun purchases, which angered gun owners a great deal.

They're going to be very important. The American Association of Retired Persons are important. They have huge numbers. And if any politician threatens Social Security, which is now a big topic in the American presidential campaign - Al Gore, the Democrat, is trying to argue that George Bush threatens Social Security - and the AARP can get its members revved up on this issue and ready to vote against Bush, that's a real threat to the Republicans.

I'd say those two are two powerful interest groups that can be felt in this presidential election.

MANN: Bill Schneider, we're always grateful for your thoughts. Thanks for being with us.

SCHNEIDER: My pleasure.

MANN: That's INSIGHT for this day. Stay with us. There's more news just ahead.




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