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Joanne Kenen
W A S H I N G T O N, June 18 — It was a good week for the National Rifle Association.
After losing hard-fought battles in the Senate last month, the NRA, America’s powerful gun lobby, recovered lost ground when the House Friday first weakened, then killed altogether, its own attempt at gun legislation.
     The vote underscored the formidable clout of the lobby, which many lawmakers consider the best in the business, and frustrated gun control advocates who failed to push through a modest agenda, even after the Columbine school massacre.
     “The NRA got its traction back,” commented Robert Spitzer, a gun politics expert at the State University of New York at Cortland.

Grass Roots Support
“Our members, I think, are the most dedicated grass roots lobby in the country,” said NRA lobbyist James Baker. “When they perceive their rights to be threatened, they respond.”
     The NRA spent $1.5 million in the past month to make sure the House did not follow the Senate, he said, and has attracted 50,000 more new members than it attracts in a typical month.
     The gun policy fight is not over, though. Senate and House youth crime bills must still be melded, and Democrats will probably try to attach gun control measures to all sorts of unrelated legislation in the weeks to come. But Friday’s votes were definitely a turning point.
     With the NRA’s money and grass-roots ardor, gun votes are extremely hard for senators. They are even harder in the House, where members face reelection every two years in relatively homogenous districts where the NRA can swing a race.
     Both parties acknowledge that, after the Democratic-led Congress enacted the Brady Law and the assault weapons ban, the NRA had a hand in the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994.

“They are just notorious for making life miserable for people who oppose them,” said Spitzer.
     One Democrat who lost his seat in 1994 but regained it in 1998 is Jay Inslee of Washington state. He voted against the gun lobby again Friday.
     “It was bitter and it was painful but I have not regretted that vote for one second,” he said of 1994. He predicted he would not pay the same price this time because “the world has changed since 1994. America is tired of burying its children.”
     Representing a Michigan district full of marksmen and hunters, Democrat Bart Stupak also wrestled with this vote. A former cop, NRA member and a “life-long gun owner,” he finally voted against the NRA.
     “This is the right vote,” he said simply, knowing it could cost him his seat.

Not Just Republicans
Democrats who had been railing at the NRA-backed Republicans lost political ground when one of their own, John Dingell of Michigan, the longest-serving Democrat in the House, teamed up with hard-line conservative Republicans.
     That Dingell voted with the NRA is no surprise—he’s been doing so since coming to Congress in 1955. But his proudly defiant seizure of the issue diluted the Democratic message and infuriated some of his colleagues.
     He brought 44 other Democrats with him—a smaller pro-gun contingent than on some past votes. In contrast, just 33 Republicans, mostly moderates from suburban districts on the two coasts, also voted for a Democratic alternative that resembled the Senate legislation. That is fewer Republicans than voted for the Brady bill six years ago.
     “The Republican conference has become more conservative, and more extreme,” said Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat who has been prominent in the gun control fight.

Going Against the Polls
Poll after poll has shown that the public does favor tighter gun laws—around 80 percent for most measures short of a handgun ban. But their voices are not heard as loudly as the ardent and organized chorus of the NRA.
     For a time last month, the voices were heard. When the Senate initially voted for a voluntary system of checks at gun shows, authored by a senator who serves on the NRA board, Senate offices got a morning-after earful from furious constituents. The Senate flipped and flopped for a week, and finally approved several new gun measures.
     The debate then moved to the House. Democrats pushed to hold the vote immediately, building on the Senate momentum, but Republican leaders put it off for several weeks.
     The NRA geared up, and the public geared down. Grass-roots anti-gun groups say they have attracted new supporters since Littleton, which they hope will help them in the long run. But they are no match for the NRA.
     Two months have passed since Littleton and “the outrage has receded,” said Spitzer.
     “The degree of public outrage, public concern over Littleton was greater than with any similar school incident but the pattern is always the same,” he said. “Attention turns away. Schools are letting out, summer is beginning and the public is turning its attention to other things.”