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Shooting Blanks

The NRA's hunt for enemies.

It's early December and Chris Cox, the NRA's chief lobbyist, is describing the exotic hunting trophies--from assorted skulls to giant warthog hooves that serve as bookends--that decorate his Capitol Hill office. "The Kudu. The Livingston Eland. The Blue Wildebeest," says Cox in his mellifluous Jackson, Tennessee, accent, ticking off the creatures he has downed. He pauses, then beams, "And the Cape Buffalo. It's one of the Big Five--one of the five most dangerous animals you can hunt in Africa."

But there's one recent kill that Cox isn't bragging about. In the 2006 election, the NRA backed a historic 58 Democrats with gun-friendly views for federal office--and every single one of them prevailed. This electoral coup has effectively stymied any last hopes for gun-control legislation--already eclipsed these last few years by the graver arms-and-the-man issue that is Iraq. Cox and his organization, however, are not celebrating. In fact, the NRA sounds downright panicked by what its direct-mail appeals called the "biggest election disaster in nearly 15 years." On November 9, an organization press release waxed apocalyptic about the "extreme opponents" of the Second Amendment who were about to take top committee seats. And, speaking just before the election, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre described the prospect of a Pelosi House as "a real-life nightmare."

This horror-flick rhetoric may have something to do with the fact that the kind of legislation the NRA loves, such as expanding concealed-weapons laws, doesn't really have much chance of passing, either: Democrats are still Democrats, and the famously liberal John Conyers will soon take the helm of the House Judiciary Committee--through which almost all gun legislation must pass. But what it really reveals is that the NRA has woken up to the nightmare of its own irrelevance: Now that it has successfully bagged those pesky Brady Bill-loving Democrats and loosed the more gun-loving moderate breed upon the land, it's out a bogeyman-- and, potentially, millions of dollars in donations. Compounding this crisis is a dizzying reversal of culture-war stereotypes: The new president of the Brady Campaign, the country's largest gun-control advocacy group, is a former Republican mayor from Indiana. The new president of the NRA is a petite Jewish woman from outside of San Francisco. Frightening the bejesus out of gun owners has never been harder.

It wasn't always this way. In late 1993, President Clinton signed the Brady Handgun Control Act--which mandated up to a five-day waiting period for all handgun purchases--and, a year later, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which included the famous Assault Weapons Ban. These were the biggest pieces of gun-related legislation in a quarter-century, and they were red meat for the NRA's base. In the days before the 1994 election, the organization sent out twelve million direct-mail items and poured more than $3 million into picking off 24 "high priority" Democrats. Nineteen of them lost and, thanks in part to the NRA, Democratic control of Congress came to an end.

But, with anti-gun menace Clinton still in office, the NRA had the perfect villain to rile up the troops. In 1995, the organization sent out a notorious fund-raising letter that called federal law enforcement officials "jack-booted thugs" and declared, "[I]n the Clinton administration, if you have a badge, you have the government's go-ahead to harass, intimidate, even murder law-abiding citizens." After the letter's taste was questioned, LaPierre bragged that the organization would use it to raise "well over a million dollars." The money was all for one purpose: In the run-up to the 1996 presidential election, he promised to "clean President Clinton's clock."

The president's timepiece remained intact, but when Al Gore replaced him as the liberal threat in the 2000 campaign, Gore made the mistake of supporting mandatory child-safety locks and stricter background checks at gun shows. It was all the NRA needed. Days before November 7, NRA President Charlton Heston-- illustrating the organization's gift for understatement--described the election as "the most important since the Civil War." The NRA spent an all-time high of $20 million. Gore lost.

But, with George W. Bush and man-hunter Dick Cheney in office, not to mention a Republican Congress, the new decade offered the NRA considerably fewer opportunities to claim victimhood. It won easy victories on the Hill-- including the expiration of the Assault Weapons Ban; a law insulating gun manufacturers from firearm injury-related lawsuits; and a post-Hurricane Katrina bill that prevents government officials from seizing lawfully owned firearms in the wake of an emergency. Simultaneously, more Democrats began to drop gun control as a serious legislative issue. "If we learned anything from the 1990s," says incoming House Commerce Committee Chair (and former NRA board member) John Dingell, "it is that gun control is a political loser for Democrats."

As legislating became easier for the NRA, however, fund-raising became harder. When the organization set its sights on Gore, its PAC raised just shy of $18 million. But contributions for the protection of gun rights have fallen since then, and, when the NRA took on John Kerry four years later, its PAC had less than $13 million in its coffers. This combination of changes has left it in a difficult position. On the one hand, Cox can't stop taking credit for the Democrats' ideological shift: He marvels at how "the NRA changed the political landscape 180 degrees" and reminisces fondly about the "overwhelming asswhipping" he delivered on the post-Katrina bill. On the other hand, he seems to insist that, in fact, there has been no great ideological shift at all: Gun owners should be worried sick about the rise of folks like Nancy Pelosi, John Conyers, and Louise Slaughter--the three House Democrats about whom the NRA press releases seem most histrionic. "Any gun owner who thinks this is a safe time is mistaken," says Cox, his brow appropriately furrowed with concern.

But no one really expects gun control advocates to be much of a national threat--including, it turns out, the gun control advocates themselves. "Not a whole lot is going to move through Congress," admits Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign. Nor does the Democratic leadership really seem to care. "They just aren't talking about gun control," says one top Democratic leadership aide. "It's really on the back burner."

In its heart of hearts, the NRA seems to know this, which is why the organization has been busy taking its agenda to the state and local level. Since 2000, it has increased the number of state and local lobbyists by one- third. Their efforts have paid off: The NRA has successfully pushed for the right of gun owners to stand their ground and use deadly force in the case of an attack in 14 states this year. But these fights have neither the intensity nor the glamour of the '90s--when, among other things, LaPierre challenged President Clinton to a high-noon shootout over the Assault Weapons Ban.

Indeed, in its quest for a new dueling partner, the NRA has been forced to expand its search beyond U.S. borders. Over the summer, LaPierre spearheaded a campaign that claimed the United Nations was planning a July 4 conference to finalize a treaty that "would strip all citizens of all nations of their right to self-protection." The U.N. talks had little to do with gun ownership--they concerned just trafficking and trade--and no conference was actually planned for July 4. But, nevertheless, the campaign was a success: The U.N. was inundated with more than 100,000 letters from American gun owners. In May, LaPierre--who is selling a new book, The Global War on Guns: Inside the U.N. Plan to Destroy the Bill of Rights--bragged that his global gun-rights campaign was going to double NRA membership to eight million.

That seems premature, especially when Cox's "top legislative priority" on the federal level is ending Washington, D.C.'s handgun ban. It's unlikely that many NRA members will rally--or open their checkbooks--for this cause, which will affect at most a few thousand people. And why would they, when the NRA is taking on the world?