The revolt against the NRA.

By

is a Boston-based magazine writer.

Lake Charles, Louisiana

Guns fill the carpeted hallway of the event center at the L'Auberge
du Lac Hotel & Casino here, at the Outdoor Writers Association of
America's (owaa) seventy-ninth annual conference. On a folding
table sit a half-dozen Browning rifles, engraved and gleaming on a
white tablecloth. Next to it, a table sponsored by Smith & Wesson
holds enough handguns to drop a mammoth, including James Bond's
Walther PPK, Dirty Harry's .44 Magnum, and the even larger .500
Magnum, which weighs four and a half pounds, sports an
eight-and-three-eighths- inch barrel, and reigns as the most
powerful handgun in the world.For all the firepower, however, the gun drawing the biggest crowd of
hunters, sport-shooters, and outdoors writers on this rainy spring
morning is a beat-up Winchester shotgun with electrical tape around
the muzzle. "It kicks like a bastard," admits Austin Dorr, the
gun's owner, who nevertheless used it to break the world record in
trap shooting in 1967--taking down 995 out of 1,000 clay pigeons.
"I didn't even realize it at the time," he coolly recounts to a
crowd of onlookers. "I knew I broke a lot of targets. But I just got
in my truck and went home."

With salt-and-pepper hair under a Yankees cap and the odor of
cigarettes on his breath, Dorr is a local celebrity at this
conference, which skews heavily toward the hook-and-bullet crowd.
The 79-year-old Korean war vet and lifelong Republican still drives
his pickup to New Hampshire every year on the first day of
deer-hunting season. "Nobody will ever take my gun," he says. "If
they do, I'll be stretched out, and they can grab it." Despite the
tough talk, however, Dorr is no friend to the National Rifle
Association (NRA), which has asked him to join many times. Get him
going, and he'll tell you that the gun-lobbying group has lost its
way with too extreme a focus on protecting the Second Amendment.
"It's not concentrating enough on things that matter to me," he
says, "like conservation."

In fact, Dorr is here at the conference as chair of a new
organization called the American Hunters and Shooters Association
(ahsa), which bills itself as a more "moderate alternative to the
NRA." The group has tapped into a small but growing minority of
hunters and sportsmen who feel disgruntled with the NRA's support
of conservative lawmakers who, they say, vote against their best
interests. Judging from the reception at the conference, there are
more Dorrs out there than one might expect. This growing rift among
hunters represents perhaps the best opening in years for liberals
and moderates to blunt the effects of the gun lobby on the national
level.

For decades, the NRA has used its power to rule by fiat in Southern
and Western states, which are filled with constituents who might
vote for Democrats except for fear that the national Democratic
Party wants to take away their guns. In the 1994 midterm elections,
it helped swing race after race to conservative Republicans. A
decade later, it succeeded in painting John Kerry as an anti-gun
zealot, contributing to his loss in crucial states like New Mexico,
Nevada, and Iowa. Over the years, however, the NRA may have
overplayed its hand in its increasingly hard-line stance against
gun control.

The NRA's tack to the right started with the so-called "Cincinnati
Revolt" of 1977, in which a vocal wing of NRA members broke with
the organization's stance on banning so-called Saturday Night
Specials--small, easily concealed handguns. Since then, the NRA has
systematically challenged any legislation that smacks of gun
registration, and it has pushed for unfettered access to all types
of guns and ammunition. One of the casualties was Jim Smith, an NRA
board member during the 1980s who headed the group's hunting and
wildlife committee and is now editor of Muskie Magazine, an
angler's publication in Arizona. Smith says his insistence on
endorsing candidates who supported strong wilderness
protection--though not necessarily gun access--caused friction on
the board and led to his ouster. "I was told this is a
single-purpose organization," he says between sessions at the owaa
conference.

Increasingly, however, hunters are viewing environmental issues as
part of their own cause. "What good are the guns if we have nowhere
left to hunt--if there's no more habitat?" asks Dave Stalling,
Western field coordinator of Trout Unlimited and former president
of the Montana Wildlife Foundation, pulling on a bottle of beer in
a hospitality suite at the conference after hours. A hunter of
big-game species like elk and mule deer, Stalling has worked to
protect wilderness lands in Montana, Colorado, and New Mexico.
Though he has tried to enlist the NRA in his effort, so far he has
received no word from the organization. Indeed, many of the pro-gun
politicians who receive the NRA's "A" rating, including California
Representative Richard Pombo and Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, have
been among the most aggressive in opening up public lands to
extractive industries. And members of Congress like Senator Larry
Craig, who has been actively pushing logging in Idaho forests, and
Representative Don Young, a proponent of drilling in the Arctic
National Wildlife Refuge, are on the NRA's board.

NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam defends the NRA's push for more
roads into public wilderness areas. "Most hunters don't have the
luxury to take two weeks off to trek across wilderness areas to
hunt," he says in a telephone interview. "We believe there needs to
be habitat preservation and make sure there are animals to hunt.
However, that needs to be balanced with the needs and interests of
hunters for access." But that sentiment seems to be at odds with
the majority of hunters. In the latest hunting survey in Field &
Stream magazine, 41 percent of respondents felt that "shrinking
wildlife habitat" was the number-one threat to hunting--compared
with just 25 percent who named "anti- gun legislation." Two-thirds
of respondents, in fact, supported an increase in taxes to acquire
public lands--unheard of, given the notorious anti-tax sentiment of
the libertarian West.

The poll also revealed a more moderate stance on gun control, with
two- thirds supporting background checks for gun sales and opposing
the use of assault weapons for hunting. Some hunters might even
welcome restrictions as a way to improve the image of gun owners.
"If the police say we should ban Tech- 9s and cop-killer bullets,
that's good enough for me," says James Williams, a software product
manager from Atlanta who owns five guns and hunts several times per
season. By not supporting these positions, says Williams, the NRA
hurts the image of gun owners. "There should be more outreach to
non-gun owners to show that, just because someone owns a gun, they
are not crazy," he says.

Views like these have emboldened opponents of the NRA, such as the
leaders of the ahsa. "The NRA is worrying about law enforcement
taking away your guns. At the same time, you look at what is
happening with conservation," said Executive Director Bob Ricker at
a press conference announcing the new group at owaa's April
gathering. "We think it's a bait and switch." A former NRA general
counsel and lobbyist for the firearms industry, Ricker says there's
room for a group who stands up for hunters' Second Amendment rights
while still supporting "common sense restrictions"--for example,
restoring the federal ban on military- style assault weapons.
Already, the group has raised

$600,000 toward its goal of $1.2 million to weigh in on elections.

The ahsa isn't the only one looking to capitalize on the discontent
among hunters and sportsmen. Some candidates for races in November
are already staking out moderate gun control positions, taking
heart from the recent governor's election in Virginia in 2005, in
which conservative Democrat Tim Kaine--who resisted calls to roll
back Virginia's landmark legislation to limit gun sales to one per
month--beat NRA-endorsed candidate Jerry Kilgore despite repeated
attacks by the gun lobby. A similar test case is the close Senate
race in Missouri between right-wing incumbent Jim Talent and
centrist Democrat Claire McCaskill, a former prosecutor who has
staked out a middle ground on gun rights. Most election-watchers
are betting the race will hinge on discontent over Talent's strong
opposition to stem-cell research, which shows how little the gun
issue may factor.

Democratic leaders, meanwhile, seem to be making room under the tent
for gun owners. Party Chairman Howard Dean has declared a policy of
leaving gun control up to states, with Democratic leaders New
Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and Senate Minority Leader Harry
Reid of Nevada publicly professing their stance against
restrictions on gun ownership.

But, these inviting gestures aside, winning over gun owners from the
NRA might not be that easy. The ahsa, after all, almost didn't make
it to the conference here. A week before the event, the group's
attendance was nearly scuttled when some owaa members threatened to
resign if the ahsa was allowed to join. At an emotional board
meeting a few days later, an eleventh-hour compromise was worked
out in which the group would be allowed to participate. Still, many
conference participants seemed skeptical of the new group. Jack
Ballard, a slow-talking Montanan who hunts big game like elk, deer,
and mountain goat, says he's worried about the policies that ahsa
professes, such as mandatory child-safety locks and background
checks in private transactions. "If this organization is seen as
one willing to compromise around the edges of the Second Amendment,
then I don't think they have a future," he says.

The ahsa has already been attacked as a front group for the
Democratic Party and demonized on pro-gun blogs as "the enemy in
camouflage." It's an easy charge to make: The group's president,
Ray Schoenke, was once a Democratic candidate for Maryland
governor, and the group's nonprofit foundation president, John
Rosenthal, is a Boston real estate developer who served a stint on
the board of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Rosenthal
insists he has been wrongly painted as someone who wants to ban
guns, pointing out that he owns two shotguns himself and quit the
board of the Brady Campaign in 2004 over its extreme gun-control
stance. "There's been a one-sided discussion: You are either for
banning guns or unlimited access," says Rosenthal. "You could
prevent the majority of gun deaths with relatively simple solutions
to keep guns out of the hands of kids and criminals."

If the ahsa can overcome its image problems, it will have a rich
field to draw from--according to research the organization
commissioned, 44 percent of gun owners think the NRA is "too
extreme in their political views." And, while the NRA has four
million members, estimates on the number of gun owners in the
United States range upward from 20 million. "Even if we just get 5
percent," says Schoenke, "that's one million."

It's too early to say whether those hunters and shooters who see
more gray in the Second Amendment will gain enough ground to make a
difference politically. As wedge issues go, however, guns lack the
religious intractability of gay marriage and abortion. If enough
hunters like Dorr are able to stake out a middle ground on
conservation and gun control, then they could dramatically reshape
election politics in the West. "The NRA is powerful, but they are
not all-powerful," says Pat Wray, a Wisconsin bird-hunter and
popular outdoor columnist. "I get hundreds of letters from people
who have quit the NRA or who, like me, are in the NRA but looking
for something different. All of those gun owners are ripe for the
picking."

By michael blanding

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