Last year at a Laundromat, Ted Shepard picked up a copy of a National Rifle Association magazine someone had left behind.
He leafed through it. It was the October pre-election issue, and the NRA’s rhetoric was going full-bore.
“Simply put, American liberty is being raped,” read the cover story. “On Nov. 8, you can help rescue liberty from violation at the hands of these cowards.”
Other articles talked about “a deceitful gang of gun grabbers in Washington, D.C.,” the “Dirty Dozen” anti-gun politicians and “Clinton’s Big Lie.”
“I thought, ‘My God, this is pure, unadulterated propaganda,”’ said Shepard, a Korean War veteran who lives in Otis Orchards. “Nobody’s trying to take away our bolt-action .22s or pump-action shotguns. When they do, then I’ll be on the NRA’s side. Not until then.”
Shepard is part of a significant minority among Inland Northwest gun owners: people unhappy with what they feel is the NRA’s too-strident rhetoric and no-compromise stance on gun control.
A Time magazine-CNN poll last month suggests the number of disenchanted gun owners may be growing.
A recent Spokesman-Review call for gun owners’ opinions of the NRA generated more than 250 calls, about three-fourths supportive of the 124-year-old gun group. One woman asked the newspaper to mail her an NRA application.
Although not a scientific poll, the results suggest the NRA, bruised in the national press, hasn’t been hurt in the eyes of many local members - and some prospective members.
“I’m afraid that the government will take our guns away,” said 57-year-old Karol Saito, a Spokane Valley office manager. She and her husband, angry at recent gun control legislation, are rejoining the NRA.
“They take our guns away and I do believe the government is going to come in and get us one day,” she said. “I think the NRA is just trying to protect us from our government.”
But about a quarter of the gun owners who called strongly disagreed with the group’s recent rhetoric, such as a fund-raising letter calling federal agents “jack-booted government thugs.”
“I’m a gun nut, not a nut with a gun,” said Terry Steiner, director of theater at Spokane Falls Community college. “A radical right has taken over the leadership of the NRA. It’s not a gentlemen’s gun club anymore.”
Lately the group has suffered several high-profile blows to its image:
Angered by an NRA fundraising letter describing federal agents as “jack-booted government thugs,” former President George Bush tore up his life membership.
In late May, former House Speaker Tom Foley did the same.
Because of the letter, the group was barred from three Texas sporting goods shows.Now, the NRA is the target of a
sweeping investigation by the Internal Revenue Service. Former NRA board members have said that a militant faction now leading the group may be mismanaging the NRA’s $150 million budget.
Many local members, like Ben Alexander of Reardan, are unfazed.
“When you have a (federal) agency that’s out of control, somebody should say something about it,” he said.’We feel like if we give a little, the government will take a lot,” said Wayne Williams of Liberty Lake. “That’s been pretty evident in the past five or ten years.”
The NRA’s “government thugs” letter raised an estimated $900,000, the controversy notwithstanding.
Pomeroy, Wash., minister John Cortez said he’s not a member, but would be if he didn’t give his extra money to Christian mission groups.
“While they (the NRA) might not speak for every hunter or target shooter or collector, they’re a guardian for the right of those people to do those things,” he said.
Even supportive NRA members say they occasionally have second thoughts about the group’s rhetoric. The Statue of Liberty magazine cover offended lifetime NRA member John Cook. “I hated that,” he said. “I think using our national symbols to browbeat the government was pretty poor.”
Nonetheless, the Chattaroy carpenter strongly supports the group, contributing his time and money - $4,000 this year alone.
“Good or bad, you’ve got to stick with them,” he said. “I don’t feel there’s anybody out there who would protect our rights.”
Paul Weis, a retired geologist and NRA member for more than 50 years, said “I think they’re on the wrong track. They have neglected their strength, which is education,” said Weis.
“The only education these kids get is to watch somebody mow somebody else down on Saturday night television,” he said.
Among the gun owners unhappy with the NRA, many felt the group has lost touch with its sporting roots.
“I think they’re living in a fantasy world, which is fine, but their fantasies are affecting me,” said hunter and retired schoolteacher Doug Smith of Spokane. “If the general public looks at hunters as clods or boors, the public’s more likely to eliminate hunting.”
Leon Mayer, a retired Army major in Spokane, got an NRA life membership as a gift in the late 1960s. A month ago, he sent it back.
“The NRA is no longer the organization that it was when I joined,” said the former Army rifle team shooter. “Their magazine went from being oriented toward hunters and shooters to purely politics.”
Spokane TV station accountant Bill Jones just quit the group over its no-compromise stance on gun control. “They’re really turning people off,” he said.
“The majority of the people in this country are not gun owners, and everyone’s getting these opinions that all gun owners are a bunch of radical weirdos with an AK-47 under their truck seat.”
About two weeks ago, Time magazine and CNN released a poll on the NRA.
The results suggest that gun owners’ views on the group are changing. Six years ago, more than two-thirds of gun owners said they agree with the NRA’s positions. Now, that number has dropped to less than half.
In fact, the NRA ranked only slightly higher than the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms among the polled gun owners. Sixty percent said they felt favorable toward the NRA; 54 percent toward the ATF.
Seeing a potential constituency in such numbers, seven former NRA members 18 months ago formed the American Firearms Association.
The group touts itself as a more moderate pro-gun group. It has 517 members and a one-room office in Fairfax, Va., also home of the NRA.
“We need to rehabilitate the public image of gun owners,” said American Firearms Association president Ernest Lissabet.
The National Rifle Association’s rhetoric, he said, “is fear-mongering, is irresponsible, and is going to backfire on sportsmen.”
The NRA, founded in 1871, was largely a recreational group in the post-World War II years. Passage of the federal Gun Control Act of 1968, which banned mail-order sales of guns, spurred hard-liners within the NRA to political action.
In 1975, the group founded its Institute for Legislative Action. Two years later, hard-liners seized the group’s reins at the annual convention in Cincinnati.
“When the dust cleared, the old guard was out and the Second Amendment fanatics were in,” Lissabet said. The NRA’s chief lobbyist, Tanya Metaksa, thinks the American Firearms Association’s claim of 500 members is high. “I think they’re a front for Handgun Control Inc.,” she said.
In Northport, Wash., 69-year-old Philip Crain is thinking of joining the new group. An NRA member from World War II to the late 1970s, he’s upset at the NRA’s resistance to limits on assault weapons. The AFA supports some restrictions.
“This country’s got a lot more people in it than back in the ‘40s and ‘50s,” he said. “And with a lot more people, you’ve got a lot more nuts.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo Graphic: NRA members
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