NRA Convenes in St. Louis

The National Rifle Association's annual meeting begins Thursday in St. Louis. The 136-year-old group is one of the nation's most high-profile organizations. After the Democratic victory of 2006, could the group's political fortunes change significantly?

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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And I'm Alex Cohen.

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CHADWICK: First, the National Rifle Association starts its annual meeting today in St. Louis. You know, the NRA has been a powerful political organization for many years as well as representing gun owners.

But with President Bush's low approval ratings and the uncertain prospects for Republicans in the upcoming election, how's the NRA doing politically? Here's NPR's Wade Goodwyn.

WADE GOODWYN: To get an accurate reading of the relative dominance of the National Rifle Association, ask a theoretical question of Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence in Washington, D.C. And the theoretical question is this. Say the Democrats take the presidency in 2008 and win large majorities in both the House and the Senate. How would things be politically for gun-control advocates?

Mr. PAUL HELMKE (President, Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence): The analogy I use, it's like the football game where the other side had the ball. They finally turn it over on fourth down at the two-yard line. The good news is we have the ball, the bad news is we're on the two-yard line and we've got a long way to go till we can accomplished something.

GOODWYN: That doesn't sound very optimistic, does it? But Paul Helmke is just being realistic, and realistically the NRA's political fortunes are not handcuffed to the political well-being of the Republican Party.

MR. HELMKE: Most Americans when polled support having stronger common sense gun legislation, but politically, often times the gun lobby and those on the other side are able to rile their troops up a little more quickly and a little more effectively, and politicians get scared.

GOODWYN: One of the reasons the politicians get scared is because of what happened to Ann Richards in Texas in 1994. At the height of her popularity, the Texas governor vetoed legislation that would have allowed Texas voters the chance to vote on a concealed carry law. Margaret Justice was Richards' deputy press secretary.

Ms. MARGARET JUSTICE (Ann Richard's Press Secretary): I think we all knew that it was a huge - taking a huge chance. It was just, it probably though was the most courageous thing I think she did as governor. It felt right in her heart and it felt right in everybody surrounding her at that time.

GOODWYN: But a relatively unknown but up-and-coming Texas political consultant named Karl Rove used Ann Richards' principled stand against concealed weapons to drive a stake into her political heart.

In rural east and west Texas, Richards lost just badly enough that her votes from the big cities and the Rio Grande Valley could not compensate.

Ms. JUSTICE: That's why if the issue has such pop - you know, when we passed the Brady bill and assault-weapon ban in the Clinton presidency and it didn't deprive any legitimate hunters of their weapons, and yet it deprived Democrats of a whole bunch of seats in the Congress.

GOODWYN: Paul Begala was one of President Bill Clinton's most trusted political advisers. After the assault weapons ban was passed, Karl Rove got a change to reprise Bush's starring role as loyal defender of the Second Amendment.

In the 2000 race against Al Gore in Tennessee, Arkansas, West Virginia and Ohio, Gore's support of gun control helped drive rural voters into Bush's arms, carrying those critical states and sending Bush to the White House by the narrowest of margins.

Paul Begala says the Democrats have learned their lesson.

Mr. PAUL BEGALA (Political Adviser): Nancy Pelosi got her majority from the center, from Heath Shuler, a conservative Democrat from North Carolina, from Brad Ellsworth, a former sheriff, very conservative Democrat from Indiana; those are the people who gave her her gavel; it's why she's moving on the agenda that those guys can agree with, which is standing up the big oil, trying to wind down this got off for work, doing something to reduce the price of prescription drugs and take on big pharmaceutical firms.

GOODWYN: Iraq, health care, global warming - taking on the NRA is way down that list, like not going to get to it, that far down. And that's just fine with Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association.

Mr. WAYNE LaPIERRE (National Rifle Association): I think we're doing great. I mean I think that there's been an historic restoration of this American freedom. Thirty-eight states now have right to carry a firearm - that's well over two-thirds in the United States.

GOODWYN: The NRA is one of the deepest and most successful broad-based organizations in the nation. And while the Republican Party maybe its champion, the party is more dependent on the NRA than the NRA is on the Republican Party.

Mr. LaPIERRE: If you look at the campaigns around the country this year, the Democratic Party went out of its way to find candidates that supported the second amendment to put up for the Senate and also to put up for the House of Representatives.

GOODWYN: In the last 12 months, 968 Americans were killed in action in Iraq. Around 30,000 Americans, however, are killed every year by guns on the home front. In the political fight between gun control advocates and the NRA, that war is all but over.

Wade Goodwin, NPR News, Dallas.

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