Marion Hammer hoisted a .22-caliber boltaction, single-shot rifle against her shoulder, wrapped her trembling finger around the cool metal trigger and aimed at the tomato cans lined up on the wood fence post.
It was her first time shooting a gun. She was 5 years old.
“I remember seeing a great big red tomato right on the front of that can. And on my first shot, I drilled that tomato dead center,” she said proudly.
“From that point on, I knew shooting was my sport.”
Fifty-one years after that afternoon on a rural South Carolina farm, Hammer has her sights on a much harder target: persuading Congress to repeal the ban on assault-style weapons, passed last year.
In the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, Congress appears reluctant to hear from the tough-talking, chain-smoking 56-year-old grandmother who is in line to become president of the powerful National Rifle Association next year.
Currently executive director of Unified Sportsmen of Florida, a gun lobbying group in Tallahassee, Hammer remains undaunted by the challenge ahead and the withering fire directed at the NRA by groups in favor of gun control.
These groups contend that the 124-year-old organization must subdue the fanaticism its provocative mailings, advertisements and meetings sometimes generate.
“There is a growing recognition that the language and overheated rhetoric from the NRA have helped fan the flames of these gun extremists, and the danger is that it validates the views of this extreme fringe and creates a climate where blowing up a building is considered an act of patriotism, ” said Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, a pro-gun-control group in Washington.
He cited as an example a recent NRA-sponsored national advertising blitz demonizing federal law enforcement agents.
Even longtime gun ally Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., has called on the NRA to tone down its rhetoric.
So, will Hammer, who gave her two newborn grandsons lifetime NRA memberships and commemorative collectors’ BB guns, be the NRA leader to pacify militant gun fanatics? Not likely.
“We are on the front line of the fight for freedom,” said Hammer, who has thick brown bangs, piercing steel-blue eyes, and rarely cracks a smile.
“These are distressing times when we are witnessing an erosion of freedom and a denial of liberty that sends ripples of chills throughout this nation.” While Hammer denounced the Oklahoma City bombing, she said most militia groups operate within the law and she is enraged that “gun banners and gun haters are trying to capitalize on this tragedy to infringe on Second Amendment rights.”
To those embroiled in the gun control battle in Florida, Hammer’s tough, uncompromising attitude is familiar.
“She’s not a back-slapping, gladhanding type, she’s very businesslike and she’s very good at what she does,” said Bo Johnson, a gun control opponent and former speaker of the state House of Representatives.
Hammer gives a hard sell: She speaks in a stern, unassailable tone, presents her position bluntly, lays out an exhaustive amount of documentation, and relies on phrases like “freedom,” “liberty,” “rights,” “Constitution” and “American.”
Whether she’s responding to questions at a congressional hearing, at a lecture, or from reporters, Hammer rarely pauses in her answers because she never wavers from her position.
Hammer - who has her own arsenal of shotguns, muzzleloading rifles and pistols - maintains that gun control will not curtail crime; only more prisons and tougher sentencing will.
“Gun control is an abomination and an insult to law-abiding citizens because when you take away guns from law-abiding people, you make them vulnerable to the devious acts of those who can continue to find ways to possess them,” said Hammer.
Her supporters praise that unyield ing, offensive style. But her detractors call it obstinate, single-minded and unconstructive.
“If you get into a debate with Marion, she’ll challenge your manhood and your patriotism, but she won’t actually debate the issue,” said Arthur Hayhoe, president of the Florida Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
Instead, Hayhoe said Hammer and the NRA prefer to rely on scare tactics and misleading information that incite their supporters and create an atmosphere of paranoia.
Hammer is not rattled by criticism. Instead, she reinforces her point of view by offering real-life experiences.
For example, Hammer recounts a late night at the office about a decade ago, when she was crossing Monroe Street to get to the city garage when six men in a beat-up sedan crept alongside her.
“They were yelling some of the most disgusting things you can imagine,” she said.
As she headed into the deserted underground lot, the car followed and the catcalls continued. That’s when she slipped her right hand into her purse and gripped a Colt Detective Special six-shot revolver.
“I pulled the gun out, brought it slowly up into the headlights of the car so they could see it, and I heard one of them scream, ‘The bitch got a gun,”’ she said.
A moment later, the car shot backward and screeched away.
“I could have been killed or raped, but I had a gun so I wasn’t. If the government takes away my gun, what’s going to happen to me next time?” she said.
It is that deep conviction and her stellar lobbying record that caught the attention of the NRA leadership and put her on the fast track to the presidency.
Some speculate that hard-line gun activists on the NRA’s board of directors may even try to thrust Hammer into the presidency this year at the NRA’s annual meeting in Phoenix on May 19, by mounting a challenge against the current, less impassioned president, Tom Washington.
Hammer’s NRA roots run deep. Both her father and grandfather were NRA members, and her mother is a lifelong member.
While raising her three daughters, first in South Carolina, then in Tallahassee since 1974, Hammer was a homemaker, a Brownie leader in the Girl Scouts and a cheerleading sponsor.
When her youngest daughter started elementary school, Hammer found free time to devote to issues important to her.
At about the same time, the 1968 Gun Control Act was signed into law and Hammer found a cause to champion.
“I suddenly realized that because of the actions of criminals, the rights of law-abiding people had been taken away. I had never done anything wrong or misused a firearm, but my rights were being stripped away,” she said.
As she prepares for the latest uphill battle - repealing the assault weapons ban - Hammer approaches the challenge with her customary grit.
“If it’s more difficult for us, we’ll just work harder. Our cause is just and we never give up.”
MEMO: Cut in Spokane edition