Controversial attacks on federal law enforcement agencies and reports of cozy politics with Republicans appear to be costing the National Rifle Association its membership even as the organization gains favor in the GOP-controlled Congress.
Internal documents reveal the NRA has lost more than 300,000 members this year, almost one-tenth of its total, even as Democrats claim that the organization holds undue influence over House Republicans.
It was disclosed Tuesday that House Speaker Newt Gingrich promised the group - in writing - that no anti-gun measures would move through Congress while he controls the GOP majority.
In a Jan. 27 letter obtained by the Washington Post, Gingrich, R-Ga., promised Tanya Metaksa, the group’s top lobbyist, that “as long as I am speaker of this House, no gun control legislation is going to move in committee or on the floor of the House.”
In a televised address Tuesday to the Fraternal Order of Police, President Clinton challenged the GOP-controlled Congress on rolling back gun control legislation.
“If you do succumb to the political pressures from extremist groups to repeal any of these (gun control) measures, I will veto them in a heartbeat,” he said.
Release of Gingrich’s letter came as a special House subcommittee wound up 10 days of controversial hearings into the federal assault two years ago on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, in which several law enforcement officials and 80 cult members were killed.
GOP lawmakers contend they held the hearings in response to public concerns over rogue law enforcement operations. From the beginning, the role of the NRA - real and imagined - has been central to the Capitol Hill melodrama, and the Gingrich letter appears certain to inflame the debate.
Republicans on the panel have been dogged by Democratic charges that the hearings were orchestrated by the NRA and by suggestions that GOP lawmakers are exploring the federal assault at Waco to pay back the gun lobby for political and financial support.
Last month, before the start of the Waco hearings, the NRA admitted that paid consultants were assisting GOP congressional aides in the investigation.
At least one paid NRA volunteer told a prospective witness from Texas that she was part of the congressional investigating team.
These issues and others that drew sometimes unwanted attention to the organization appear to play a role in membership losses. The defections come at a pivotal time for the group whose finances have become precarious, accentuating the need for every membership dollar.
Earlier this year an NRA fundraising letter that called federal law enforcement agents “jackbooted government thugs” prompted former President Bush to cancel his membership.
Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s executive vice president, said the group remains in good shape and that its membership crept back up over the 3.2 million mark in July. He blamed the drop-off on an increase in dues late last year that boosted the minimum annual membership fee from $20 to $35.
The internal documents obtained by The Associated Press show that since the membership-recruitment drive began in earnest in 1992, there have been just six months when the group’s membership has experienced a temporary drop - none of them consecutive.
But the membership numbers for 1995 tell a different story. The NRA began the year with 3,454,430 members. It gained 55,576 in January for a total of 3,510,006.
The slide began in February. It lost 37,891 members that month, 84,402 more in March and another 76,575 in April.
After the publicity about the “jackbooted government thugs” letter and Bush’s resignation, the NRA lost 78,764 members in May and 45,495 more in June. That left the group with 3,186,879 members on June 30. The five-month loss totaled 323,127, an average drop of just under 2 percent per month.
If that loss rate resumes following last month’s stabilization, the membership would drop below 2.8 million by the end of the year.
“What you’re seeing with membership is related to the increase in dues and the planned cutback in membership promotion until we could see what kind of impact the dues increase would have,” LaPierre said. “We don’t need to increase membership right now. What we’ve wanted to do is stabilize and keep our membership.”
LaPierre conceded that sustaining membership is vital in the NRA’s current financial condition.
At the end of 1994, LaPierre said, the group had almost $52 million in cash and investments. But $39 million was pledged as collateral for the NRA’s new headquarters, meaning that it had roughly $13 million in cash it actually could use before other obligations were calculated.
NRA Treasurer Wilson Phillips said some members dropped out because they don’t feel any urgency to send money given that the Republican-led Congress agrees with the NRA on most gun issues.