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On the ride out I-66 west, where metro Washington scatters into the suburban frontier, I decide this is a fitting locale for the National Rifle Association (NRA). Four years ago, the NRA loaded up all the hired guns at its crumbling downtown D.C. building and escaped one of the few jurisdictions in the country that all but outlaws gun ownership. Out here in Fairfax County, you can buy, wear, and handle firearms with few constraints; you can even park a long, cool rifle right on your Chevy’s gun rack. For the greatest gun lobby of them all, there’s a symbolic world of difference.

The NRA’s edge-city home is the standard six-story office complex, the edifice offering no hint—no bullet holes, no people flying out the windows—of the duels going on within its blue glass exterior. The bubbly greeter at the front desk promises me a gun-filled afternoon inside—a visit to the NRA store, the National Firearms Museum, a visitor welcome center, and even an indoor shooting range—all free. She advises me to slip into the NRA Cafe before the guided tour for a quick bite—grilled Italian sausage, crispy fries, and pickle for just $3.75—and clips a plastic badge onto my shirt. I climb the stairs and step past signs announcing, “You Are Entering a 100% NRA Department.”

The sandwich is great, but the rest of the tour is a big letdown. The store’s sweatshirts, tote bags, and trinkets are unimpressive, and the welcome center is mostly a mound of brochures. The tour offers glimpses of unused conference rooms, long, doorless hallways, and lame teasers for the unfinished museum. One 8-foot display trying to glorify military rifles in American history includes Gen. Custer’s boast that “a regiment of stout men…armed with repeaters” would help him “sweep the Sioux and Cheyenne from the Plains.” Never mind that he and his stout men got their asses kicked by the Sioux at Little Big Horn.

I don’t even get a free shot on the pistol-and-rifle range—it’s open to NRA members only. My guide mentions that top NRA officers sometimes visit the range to pop a few rounds during their lunch breaks. I resist the urge to ask her whether the warring big guns at the NRA ever point their weapons at each other.

Though it’d be fun to see some of the boardroom treachery up close and personal, that’s not part of the tour. The 2.7-million member NRA, after years of fighting off opponents from every corner of the political spectrum, is laying itself low with friendly fire. A rebel faction of the board of directors attempted a takeover earlier this year, accusing the current leaders of squandering money and alienating thousands of members. The would-be coup flopped during the NRA’s annual convention in May, foiled in part by special guest star Charlton Heston. Entrenched board president Marion P. Hammer and chief executive Wayne R. LaPierre Jr. kept their jobs, and the NRA is still standing. For now.

The insurgents may have failed in their ultimate objective, but they came up with a passel of documents and testimonials exposing a deeply troubled NRA—one that walks and talks in opposite directions, spends money it hasn’t earned, and feeds politicians who shrug it off when the tough votes come. The situation is even becoming gossip in hunting shacks across the country.

“In my view, the NRA is at its weakest point in its history,” says Paul Daniels, a longtime member from Florida whom the organization suspended for two years after he published damaging information about NRA finances in a newsletter. “Its financial assets have been significantly reduced.”

Just a few years ago, the NRA was on its way to a bright, shiny future, one in which it saw Americans lawfully armed to the hilt and deeply in its debt. Over the last 15 years, it evolved from a stubborn club of hunters and marksmen to a glitzy media machine and Republican Party booster. It made noticeable gains in the 1980s, scoring legislative victories in Congress while also expanding its membership from under 1 million to nearly 3 million. The NRA made its name synonymous, in the meanwhile, with efforts to fight a wave of gun-control legislation that came in the wake of high-profile shootings, like the 1989 massacre at an elementary school in Stockton, Calif.

The final shift into the NRA’s current incarnation occurred in 1991, when LaPierre moved up from his job as the organization’s top lobbyist to the post of chief executive. Under the savvy LaPierre and a revolving crew of like-minded board leaders, the organization built itself into a national political powerhouse, modernizing its operations and bulking up its membership to an all-time high. Unfortunately for its members, NRA budget documents suggest that they succeeded in transforming the organization’s financial picture as well—from one that was stable to one that may soon have to beg to get by, hunter’s hat in hand.

“Do you have a dollar in your pocket?” asks Howard Fezell, a Frederick County, Md., lawyer recently ousted from the NRA’s board during this year’s showdown. “If you have a dollar in your pocket, you have a net worth $47 million greater than the NRA.”

The NRA funded its costly remodeling by raiding its vast reserves of prepaid membership dues. The organization overspent its 1992 budget by $38 million and its 1993 budget by $22 million, hoping the dividends would come soon. They didn’t, though the cumulative tab of the spree didn’t sink in until earlier this year, when an audit—prepared in 1996 by members of the board—hit the table with a painful thud. It was damning enough that LaPierre and the leadership immediately disavowed it, claiming its authors were part of the unsuccessful coup and therefore unreliable. No wonder. Washington City Paper obtained a copy of the audit, which found that between 1991 and 1995, the NRA had withdrawn more than $51 million from its long-term investment portfolio and engaged in deficit spending to the tune of another $35 million. (The NRA declined City Paper’s request for an interview with LaPierre or any of its officials.)

“The NRA…is operating technically as a bankrupt organization,” the audit states. Elsewhere it says, “In essence, the [board] has stripped the organization of its cash and investment reserves which were being held as a reserve for future membership liabilities.”

While the audit points the finger at the board for not policing itself, LaPierre gets considerable blame for having let the store fall apart. LaPierre’s skill as a financial overseer was much in doubt even when he took the top post. His inability to keep the NRA’s finances out of the tank confirmed that doubt.

“He’s a lobbyist,” says a former board member who requested anonymity. “He wanted to spend that money.”

Crippled by overspending and borrowing against its future, the organization badly needs to attract new members, or squeeze existing ones even further, just to fund day-to-day operations. Unfortunately, the money crisis comes at an already vulnerable juncture for the NRA. Its large cash investment in Republican candidates—which in large part aided the 1994 GOP takeover in Congress—has been neutralized by the growing popularity of gun-control measures among the general public. The NRA’s former allies, especially in law enforcement, have become adversaries. And its clubfooted moves on its home turf in the D.C. metro area seem to have cemented the perception that behind the blue glass out in Fairfax, the NRA has become the gang that can’t shoot straight.

“Unless it is on reasonable financial footing, [the NRA] cannot be effective in carrying out its goals,” says board member David Gross, who fears that the NRA may already have taken the final turn. “It’ll never completely disappear. The question is whether it’ll ever be effective again.”

If you’re the NRA, your letter carrier has probably gotten wind of it. Your mailbox may carry up to a half-dozen renewal notices each year begging you to pay the $35 annual membership. Even if you pay up, there are always the mailings encouraging an upgrade to the three-year, five-year, and lifetime memberships for $90, $140, and $750 respectively. Then there are the special fund-raising letters for NRA programs for youth, women, hunters, and the shooting sports. Other fund-raising letters come with dire messages about legislation threatening the hallowed Second Amendment—and the need for donations to fund the NRA’s lobbying efforts.

The NRA, in short, could use some cash. Most members are used to the endless solicitations, the opportunity cost for goodies like the monthly NRA magazine or a discount at the local gun shop. And many members still think it’s a good value.

“For what I want, I get a lot from the NRA,” says Bob Kunkel, a Loudoun County resident who plays watchdog on local gun issues and uses NRA data to lobby during county board meetings. He tries not to let the constant appeals for cash burn him out—he’s signed up for five years, anyway. Nearly half of all NRA members join him in advancing their dues, trusting that the goods will be there in the future. Up until 1991, the venerable NRA kept that trust—holding roughly enough cash and investments to match the amount of prepaid dues.

Shortly after LaPierre became chief executive in 1991, however, the NRA began to act like the federal government it’s so fond of bashing. The previous leadership had just been forced out after several years of falling membership and revenues, and the young, dynamic former head lobbyist became the consensus choice to step into the top job. But the group seemed to be handing a multimillion-dollar annual budget to a man many people saw as a very talented political hack.

“He’s the Ringo Starr of the NRA—the luckiest guy in the world,” says Josh Sugarmann, director of the Violence Policy Center in D.C, an NRA nemesis. “He was in the right place at the right time.”

Self-appointed chief NRA watchdog Dave Edmondson of Dallas, who was on the board at the time, considered LaPierre a compromise, mostly in terms of quality. The NRA gave Edmondson the boot in 1996 for his criticism of the new management and the spending policies the organization had adopted the year before, and he has been a chronic thorn in its side ever since.

“I had watched carefully [LaPierre’s] attempts at management while he was director of the [NRA Institute for Legislative Action],” says Edmondson. “The organization just ran itself. He was just there in name.” Hardly credentials, he notes, to run a 400-employee, $80-million-a-year membership association. While even Edmondson says LaPierre doesn’t deserve all the blame for the NRA’s financial nose dive, he and others think the former lobbyist is at least somewhat responsible.

“Mr. LaPierre is a great guy,” says recently ousted board member Fezell. “But I wouldn’t trust him to run a lemonade stand.”

Under LaPierre, the NRA became a much more expensive date for a variety of reasons. The big-ticket items involved an expensive membership drive and a pricey PR effort that vaulted LaPierre’s name and image onto the national scene. To pull it off, however, LaPierre heaped millions on big contractors—including Ackerman McQueen for public relations, Associated Television International for broadcast time, and P.M. Consulting Corp. for the membership expansion—without the benefit of written contracts. And LaPierre’s administration had a habit of deficit spending that makes the Reagan administration seem cautious. It went $7.3 million over a $21.9-million budget for member recruitment in 1994, and a year later it spent twice as much on public relations as planned, topping the $4 million it budgeted by an extra $4.1 million. An internal memo shows that LaPierre was still handling large deals with Ackerman McQueen and Associated Television with only a handshake as recently as last November.

The effects of that kind of oversight were profound. In 1990, the NRA balance sheet listed $92.8 million in reserves against $103.7 million in prepaid dues. In 1996, it listed $50.9 million in reserves against future obligations of $157.5 million, according to the audit. It also shows that the NRA’s current liabilities ($206 million) are a whole lot bigger than its assets ($160 million).

Critics of the liberated spending policies have long found themselves marginalized. Meeting transcripts show that as early as 1992, NRA board member Michael Banosky pleaded, “We have robbed the future of the NRA to take care of what we are doing right now. Brakes must be put on somewhere.” Then-board officer Tom Washington told Banosky that revenue-generating problems from the late 1980s—which by today’s standards seem paltry—could not be addressed “without some investment effort and without some gamble, quite frankly, some risk.”

A full accounting of that gamble didn’t emerge until the concerns voiced by lone watchdogs grew into a chorus of dissent. Although the board issued a directive for a large-scale internal audit in 1994, it didn’t get moving until 1996, when a team of board members led by Richard Carone and Ronin Colman took the task a little more seriously than anyone had anticipated. They found inefficiencies and poor planning in the NRA’s membership and computer systems divisions, terribly loose budgeting policies, and a reserve-sucking strategy that imperiled the future of the NRA.

The audit uncovered the fact that the NRA’s long-term portfolio is hovering near the $36-million floor it must maintain as part of the loan agreement with First Union Bank that financed the 1993 purchase the Fairfax headquarters. Under a covenant in the loan agreement, First Union could apply sanctions to the NRA if the portfolio dips. The February 1997 report on the investment portfolio stated bluntly that “the depletion of the portfolio to the current level is dangerously close to triggering the covenant.”

The deepest wound the audit found, however, was the drain of $51.1 million from the long-term investment portfolio, a remarkably bad play given the stock market’s magnificent bull run in the ’90s.

“We should be way ahead,” says current board member Gross. “We’ve been using the investment portfolio as a checking account.”

The money didn’t just fall down a hole. By the time the NRA stopped raiding its piggy bank in 1995, it had added 1 million members in two years, to peak at 3.5 million. But the gain was short-lived. It’s called the “orange hat syndrome”: People join NRA for a year to get the association’s hat, sample magazine, bumper sticker, and literature—and never sign up again.

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“What they didn’t understand is that people were dropping out,” says Edmondson, the Dallas dissident, who claims he had predicted the decline before the rolls fell under 3 million and kept dropping. The resulting loss of revenues from departing dues-payers hit home with third-quarter financials last year showing expenses eclipsing revenues by $7.5 million. With 1996 heading straight for the red, the board told LaPierre to come up with something to stop the bleeding.

LaPierre responded by sending more than 100 of the NRA’s 500-plus employees packing. He also floated a very generous promotion to existing members—an upgrade to life membership for only $500, $250 less than the $750 that approximates what each lifetime member actually costs the NRA. The promotion—combined with an offer for existing life members to upgrade their own status—raked in $14.3 million, LaPierre told the board this spring. He also crowed about how the NRA’s cash and investment reserves rose from $42.9 million in 1995 to $50.9 million in 1996.

But by using proceeds from the promotion to balance the 1996 budget, LaPierre was still using prepaid dues to fund current operations—not to mention shortchanging the folks who’d already shelled out $750 in preceding years for a lifetime membership.

“Sure, it brought in a lot of money,” says Daniels, the Florida maverick, who feels rank-and-file members have gotten the shaft from LaPierre’s administration. “But it ticked off those who had paid full price. And you can’t keep going back to that same well.”

Audit author Colman contends that the policies that led to the NRA’s financial tumble have been rooted out, and no one should expect “the lights [to] go out at NRA.”

LaPierre, meanwhile, has gone on the offensive to counter reports that the NRA’s finances stink, writing in his March “Standing Guard” column in the association’s magazines, “[The media] float stories…to make people believe that the Association is on the verge of financial collapse. It is wishful thinking.” Tellingly, he uses the opportunity to issue a little fund-raising plug: “The financial condition of NRA is wholly dependent upon the willingness of members to support all of our efforts…”

His plug underscores the fact that the NRA still has a gun pointing at its head. If renewal rates drop below the traditional 30 to 40 percent, the NRA could be in deep trouble, according to dissident Edmondson.

“It’s like a pyramid scheme,” Edmondson

says. “You’re OK as long as people are sending in

the money.”

The NRA had done a decent job of keeping its quarrels in-house until late last year, when NRA board first vice president Neal Knox decided to spill the beans about the money as a way of fueling a coup to take out LaPierre and board president Hammer.

Knox has been giving migraines to the leadership of the NRA as far back as the late ’70s, when he spearheaded efforts to beef up pro-gun lobbying and thwart a perceived move toward, in Edmondson’s words, “the tree-hugging element.” Knox’s crusades landed him in the driver’s seat for a while, including a stint as head of the NRA’s lobbying arm. By 1984, the NRA board decided to toss him out for trying to derail an NRA-backed bill making its way through Congress that diluted some federal gun-control laws—but not to the extent he wanted.

Knox returned to prominence even after getting ousted, immediately running for the board of directors. Edmondson says that Knox’s uncompromising ways became NRA policy when he solidified his power base on the 76-member board in the early ’90s. “They tolerate no difference of opinion from their own,” complains Edmondson. He also contends that Knox is more to blame for the NRA’s financial collapse than LaPierre, but Edmondson nonetheless welcomed Knox’s efforts to spread the news about the money troubles. From his Rockville roost, Knox broadcast the NRA’s financial shenanigans—albeit in general terms—and pinned the blame on LaPierre and Hammer.

LaPierre and Hammer managed to outflank him, however, by taking their side straight to the media outlets, including the New York Times and the conservative American Spectator magazine. The resulting articles painted Knox as a radical who was angling for LaPierre’s $190,000-a-year CEO position and who would lead the NRA away from the “mainstream.”

LaPierre’s emergence as a mainstream voice amuses longtime critics such as James Pasco, the executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police (FOP). It was LaPierre’s name, Pasco points out, that appeared on the fund-raising letter with the infamous “jack-booted government thugs” reference to Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agents—which the NRA sent out only days before the bombing in Oklahoma City. President George Bush criticized the NRA’s hotheaded language for stirring anti-government sentiment when he turned in his membership later that year.

“For the rest of us, the difference between [LaPierre] and Neal Knox is hard to tell,” says Joe Sudbay, who monitors state issues for another NRA nemesis, the D.C.-based Handgun Control Inc.

Those seemingly subtle differences in emphasis and style became writ large inside the NRA. “Everybody chose up sides,” says Edmondson, who contends that the NRA bureaucracy played a significant role in boosting LaPierre and Hammer because it feared Knox would clean house. “They knew the ax would drop. They

supported LaPierre for their own self-preservation,” he claims.

They chose a winner. Despite months of lunges and parries, Knox not only failed to topple LaPierre and Hammer but also found himself voted out of his vice president’s slot at the convention, thanks to pro-LaPierre forces sneaking the ultrapopular Heston onto the ballot. Edmondson says LaPierre and others convinced Heston that only his name recognition and popularity could defeat Knox—and it worked.

“I don’t really think [Heston] knows what he’s getting into,” says Violence Policy Center chief Sugarmann.

The NRA’s clubby origins—a group of New York City blue bloods who got together in 1871 to promote the shooting life—kept it in classy and important company through much of its early history. The NRA museum proudly reproduces a 90-year-old letter from Teddy Roosevelt announcing his desire to become a lifetime member, which is understandably much warmer in tone than the group’s last presidential correspondence: Bush’s terse resignation in 1995.

The NRA took its first step toward its modern image in 1977, at a contentious annual convention that became known in NRA circles as the “Cincinnati Revolt.” Knox and others challenged the organization’s old guard, forcing it to allow the election of officers by the rank and file and bulk up on lobbying, and thwarting an attempt to relocate the NRA headquarters to a new shooting and training megafacility in Colorado—a move that would have symbolically recast the organization in its shooting-heritage mold. The win by the upstarts pushed the NRA toward its current hotshot image, culminating in LaPierre’s ascension in 1991. Florida member Daniels says that in the wake of several highly publicized shootings, many felt it was time for the organization to ramp up its lobbying presence.

“Those kinds of events focused a lot of attention on the privileges of gun owners,” says Daniels, who believes LaPierre and the NRA board leadership were hugely successful at capitalizing on fears created by the anti-gun atmosphere of the time.

“Dear Fellow Gun Enthusiast,” LaPierre wrote in a typical marketing pitch for new members. “Today, American gun owners are under attack as never before. Despite our Constitutional right to keep and bear arms, the anti-gunners and anti-hunters are determined to use every means at their disposal to BAN your hunting and BAN your guns…”

“They wanted to go after that hard-core element,” says Edmondson.

LaPierre’s rhetoric went beyond standard gun-nut critiques and into more conspiratorial terrain.

“They don’t understand that politicians and bureaucrats are chipping away at the American way of life,” LaPierre wrote in a lesser-known passage of the “jack-booted government thugs” letter. “They’re destroying business, destroying our economy, destroying property rights, destroying our moral foundation, destroying our schools, destroying our culture…” Later he wrote, “This, the battle we’re fighting today…

is a battle to retake the most

precious, most sacred ground

on earth. This is a battle for

freedom.”

Not surprisingly, this branching out came at the expense of other NRA priorities, laments Daniels, who says hunter and sportsman services have been on a steady decline since. “The people who took control in 1991 focused most of the NRA funds toward legislative issues,” he says.

The shift toward the hard line also caused the NRA to lose former friends, says Sugarmann. He says the NRA’s hard-line stands in the late 1980s, such as opposing a ban on body armor-piercing ammunition—known as “cop killer” bullets—helped destroy former alliances with law enforcement organizations like the FOP. By typical NRA logic, banning one type of ammo would put the organization on a “slippery slope” where other types of bullets would soon fall as well. The average citizen doesn’t buy into the NRA’s domino theory and can’t see why anybody would go to the mat for a bullet specifically designed to kill cops.

“Now the NRA has become a much more isolated organization,” Sugarmann contends.

When the NRA’s hard-line thinking clashes with its need for members, the posturing usually wins over the practical imperative of making the tent bigger. The dire search for new members is hardly helped when the NRA loses existing ones, making the current effort to expel a former poster boy, Sheriff James Aluisi of Prince George’s County, all the more ironic. Aluisi, who once announced, “I’m the NRA,” in a 1986 ad published in People magazine, has found himself caught in the cross-fire a decade later for committing the unpardonable sin of speaking his mind.

Last year, Aluisi publicly endorsed an immensely popular Maryland law to limit handgun purchases to one a month, which might go some distance toward preventing gun traffickers from stocking up on legal firearms and disseminating them among people whose idea of sport shooting includes drive-bys. To Joe Shmo it seemed reasonable enough, and as a law enforcement officer, Aluisi was in a position to know. But to the NRA, Aluisi’s statement was treasonous. Maryland members of the NRA filed a complaint to revoke Aluisi’s membership. Aluisi was stunned.

“If I thought this was unconstitutional I wouldn’t support it,” says the sheriff, who’s built like a slightly rounded Smokey the Bear and is about as hard to dislike.

In person, Aluisi doesn’t seem like a gun nut, which may be part of his problem, but he is a poor choice for target practice, at any rate. He has been winning elections in Prince George’s County ever since he first ran in 1978. It’s not hard to see why: A visit to his office is drenched in handshakes, backslaps, and smiles. And talk to some of the gun owners who live in his jurisdiction and you’d think the NRA might think twice about expelling a guy who spends his Saturdays shooting clay targets at the Prince George’s County Trap and Skeet Center.

“Be sure to mention we’re not happy about what they’re doing to Jimmy,” quips Mark Biggins, the NRA-sanctioned center’s proprietor, when I stop by looking for Aluisi. He tells me I’ll find Aluisi “out where you see a big group of people.” True enough, I find Aluisi hamming it up with the gang in the parking lot.

The last time Aluisi was quiet in a crowd of people, he was paying the Virginia NRA headquarters a visit. An ethics panel convened in February and recommended expulsion to a final hearing committee, which met last month out in Fairfax and will announce its decision soon. The committee took scrupulous testimony from the complainants, but never asked Aluisi to speak. “At least it was a nice drive out there,” he says; he expects to hear any day now that he’s getting the boot.

Aluisi joined the NRA years ago, back when it primarily spoke to guys who liked the feel of a shotgun butt on their shoulder and, of course, the freedom to pull the trigger.

“I believe in the right of people to own firearms,” says Aluisi, somewhat defensively, as if the NRA’s challenge somehow questions his manhood. “I shoot skeet, trap. I shoot pistols. I hunt.” His disillusionment seems genuine as he laments “the mentality the NRA has taken…from being a group that’s proactive and doing positive things to doing name-calling.”

Aluisi’s well-publicized scolding at the hands of the NRA isn’t the only time the group has shot itself in the foot locally. When the Fairfax Board of Supervisors asked the state legislature for permission to adopt laws prohibiting weapons from county recreation centers and police stations, Supervisor Gerald Connolly claims he didn’t see the NRA’s opposition coming.

“This is not an assault on their would-be interpretation of the Second Amendment,” he says. “Nobody’s talking about Fortress Fairfax here.”

Just as the bills hit the desk of Gov. George Allen, however, the NRA mounted a last-minute push for a veto, sending a letter to its Fairfax members that misrepresented the issue just enough to make it alarming. “[The bills’ authors] said that you just couldn’t be trusted to carry a firearm in certain areas of the county…,” the letter read, never mentioning exactly where the restrictions would apply.

Having launched its counterattack, the NRA was pleased when Allen, an NRA stalwart, vetoed the measure in late March. It would have been a significant victory, if state attorney general Jim Gilmore weren’t running to succeed Allen. Gilmore responded with a legal opinion that the Fairfax board could write regulations not requiring state approval that would get pretty much the same results. The Fairfax board jumped at the chance in June, directing the county administrator to draft the changes, and the NRA was foiled again.

The recent defeat in Fairfax underscores how difficult it’s getting for the NRA to muscle its mostly unpopular agenda through Congress, especially in election years. Its high-profile effort last year to have Congress repeal the 1994 federal ban on assault weapons flopped miserably when Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole refused to bring the repeal measure up for a vote, clearly not wanting to jeopardize his bid for the White House. Likewise, strong NRA opposition to legislation that prohibits possession of firearms by persons convicted of a domestic-violence misdemeanor was not enough to stop Republican leaders from allowing passage of the measure last fall and sending it up to an eager President Clinton.

The NRA may not have legislative juice, but that hardly means it has shirked on its mission to fight every perceived attack on the Second Amendment, which means virtually any government restriction on the buying, selling, transporting, or shooting of guns that affects anyone but “criminals.” The NRA twists legislators’ arms, monitors state and local activity, and packs public hearings with its grass-roots troops with relative ease.

“They can still fill a room at a moment’s notice,” says Fairfax legislator Connolly.

But all the elbow grease would be meaningless if the NRA didn’t also show candidates the money. The NRA Political Victory Fund has doubled in size since the late 1980s. The group’s political action committee has raised more funds—and distributed more money to campaigns—than all but four PACs in the country during the past two election cycles. When an organization controls $6.6 million that can get you and your friends elected, candidates tend to listen.

“They’re the moneybags,” says Handgun Control’s Sudbay. “They’re the people that can help people in electoral races.”

There’s no question that the NRA helped the Republican Party take control of Congress in 1994. The NRA spent its money wisely, targeting competitive districts and in many cases helping candidates with last-minute mailing blitzes and phone banks. The NRA’s goal in the election was not defending gun rights but creating a Republican majority and collecting on the chits that resulted. Theoretically, the NRA gained much more leverage than it would have by trying to piece together victories for pro-gun candidates in each individual race. Indeed, the NRA even opposed pro-gun Democrats, like powerful former Judiciary Committee Chairman Jack Brooks of Texas.

The strategy underscores the fact that even the NRA knows that campaigning for gun rights is a loser. That fact of political life was confirmed last year when the NRA failed in its high-profile campaigns to defeat pro-gun control candidates Richard Durbin in Illinois’ Senate race and New York’s Carolyn McCarthy—the widow of a victim of the 1993 Long Island commuter train massacre—in a House race.

Even when Congress does the NRA’s bidding—like its recent adoption of an NRA-backed measure to make surplus military weapons easier to import—it does so with stealth. The controversial measure was quietly attached to the Treasury Department’s appropriations bill before a hasty vote last month. Unfortunately for the NRA, the Republicans clearly understand the political costs associated with a position overtly defending guns. But that doesn’t mean Republicans want the NRA to go away.

“The conservatives need the NRA,” says one former board member, who requested anonymity. “It’s a cash cow. We’ve pretty much become a part of the Republican Party.”

So the NRA finds itself in the unenviable position of being invited to plenty of balls but never getting asked to dance. The organization may one day have to decide who its true friends are: the hunters and sportsmen who were long its backbone, or the hard-core gun nuts, whose fickle support will evaporate if the NRA doesn’t blow all its money on mountain-size legislative battles that may not be winnable.

For now, the NRA’s name recognition, hard-nosed reputation, and deep PAC pockets will keep its influence from falling off the charts, even if they hardly guarantee effectiveness. But with its purse strings tied in a knot, its public image against the wall, and the barbarians already inside the gate, the NRA’s war on itself has only begun.CP