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Before gun control advocates can score any policy changes, including a prospective national ballistics database, they will first have to get past the National Rifle Association. More than 100 years old, the NRA has a grass-roots membership of more than four million and a leadership consisting of Hollywood celebrities and political heavyweights. At its annual meeting this year, NRA speakers boasted about how they helped elect George W. Bush. The organization is just as active today, spending money in the current Senate races and continuing its push for gun laws more to the organization’s liking. But while the Fairfax, Va.-based NRA has a lot of clout, that doesn’t mean it’s invincible. “They project an image of invulnerability,” says Robert Spitzer, a professor at the State University of New York at Cortland, who has written a book called The Politics of Gun Control. “The NRA is not as powerful as it projects, but it is very powerful.” The NRA’s lobbying arm — the Institute for Legislative Action — has a staff of roughly 76, about 20 of whom are lobbyists. The organization also employs roughly that number of outside lobbyists on the state and national level who have specific expertise or unique access to key lawmakers. In 2001, the NRA reported spending nearly $1.5 million on its lobbying activities, which included appropriations work, lobbying on several crime bills, and battling campaign finance reform. The NRA is also a fiscal force in elections, donating significant sums of money and spending on its own. The organization donated $3.1 million to candidates and political parties in the 2000 elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. It also spent $8.3 million for such things as get-out-the-vote activities and advertising campaigns. The NRA is doing well under the Bush administration. Congress has not recently touched gun control. Under Attorney General John Ashcroft, the Justice Department has changed its interpretation of the Second Amendment to be more in line with that of the organization. “I think the current administration is much more willing to talk about individual gun owner’s rights than the Clinton administration was,” says James Jay Baker, a former chief NRA lobbyist who still does consulting work. “Does the NRA and the Bush administration agree on everything? No, they don’t. But they agree on a heck of a lot more than was the case with the previous administration.” During this election cycle, the NRA has been focusing on the competitive Senate races, including in Colorado, North Carolina, and South Dakota. But Baker says the organization is careful about choosing the races it weighs in on. “New Jersey is not what I would call the most gun-friendly state,” says Baker of the NRA’s low profile in that race. “It would not make a lot of sense for the NRA to go in on behalf of the Republican when it might not much help, as much as hurt. It doesn’t make sense to throw your money away.” The NRA also points to numerous successes in the states in efforts such as liberalizing concealed weapon laws, or limiting gun manufacturers’ susceptibility to suit. But chinks in the NRA’s armor are also more clearly visible in the states. In 2000, some of the NRA-backed candidates, like Ashcroft, lost. Another NRA favorite, Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), lost in a primary this year. And some states are tightening gun laws. Maryland passed a ballistics fingerprinting law for handguns in 2000, and local lawmakers are now discussing expanding that law’s reach because of the sniper shootings. New York also has a similar law. In the California gubernatorial campaign, Democratic incumbent Gray Davis has been using his opponent’s NRA endorsement as a smear in recent ads. “The NRA has very little political force in California today,” says Luis Tolley, the director of the Brady Campaign’s California office. California has enacted a number of gun control laws in the past few years, the most recent being the state’s repeal of immunity for gun manufacturers facing liability suits. During the push for that legislation, Tolley says, “We were never afraid of the NRA.”

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