America bites the bullet

After a slew of school murders, the US gun lobby looked dead and buried. Then it played its joker: Charlton Heston.
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There is a message spelt out in blue ribbons on the fence around Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon, reading: "Let it end here." Those words commemorate the two students who died in a hail of automatic gun fire last month, as Kipland Kinkel, a 15-year-old pupil with a grudge against the world, opened up on his classmates. His parents were later found dead in their house. Kinkel was just one in a series of teenage gunmen who have shocked America in the past six months. Just this week, a student at a Virginia school shot and wounded two members of staff, while the Arkansas shooting by two children earlier this year at a school in Jonesboro resulted in five fatalities.

Fifteen school killings in a year have helped to put America's gun lobby, which for so long seemed invulnerable, on the defensive. The gun lobby also faces a new round of legal cases intended to hit the arms industry where it hurts - in the pocket. All this is happening as the National Rifle Association, the main organisation which campaigns against gun control, is at its weakest for 20 years. Increasingly seen as a fringe group that favours guns over people, hampered by internecine sniping, its political influence has started to erode, just as the tides of anti-gun sentiment are rising again.

The NRA's salvation comes in the form of Charlton Heston, the artist formerly known as Moses, who was elected president earlier this month. Mr Heston may be 73, but he makes a fine speech, handles the press well and, in the eyes of the public, is a man who once had a direct line to God. His self-proclaimed mission is to nudge the NRA back towards the mainstream, away from the crazies.

Heston, a natural charmer, has made a good start. On a Sunday television discussion programme, he backed a move to put locks on guns to prevent accidental discharges. "I'm in favour of trigger locks," he said, but qualified the statement by saying that they weren't much use. Still, it was enough to please some of the NRA's traditional opponents.

Heston himself owns about a dozen pieces, and should you ever be tempted to enter the Heston bedchamber uninvited, beware. He told the New York Post he keeps a shotgun under the bed and a handgun within easy reach, just in case. But he learnt to shoot far from Beverly Hills, in rural Michigan. "This was during the Depression and I was expected to bring back a certain share for the table," he said. "Rabbit stew is pretty good - especially if you've achieved it yourself."

It is this bucolic image which the NRA used to present to the American people, of gun-owners as a gang of happy-go-lucky hunters with plaid jackets and game in the back of the pick-up truck. Run largely by sporty retired colonels, the NRA provided social events, safety demonstrations and training. They did not even contest the 1968 Gun Control Act, which banned the sale by mail order of guns and ammunition.

It all changed at the NRA's 1977 Cincinnati convention, when a revolution was launched by hard-line defenders of the Second Amendment, which protects the right to bear arms. It was led by Neil Knox, a gun writer, at the head of a cadre of young ideologues. For them, the point was politics: the freedom of the individual against the overweening state. They ousted the "bird watchers" in a series of putschs.

The Reagan years were a free-fire zone for the organisation. It expanded rapidly, taking on new members, accumulating vast amounts of cash, funding candidates wherever it wanted and swinging election races its way. Gun control was never a popular theme in a country where access to arms is regarded as a God-given right. But fate ordained that just as drug-fuelled urban warfare was breaking out across America, this well-funded cadre was in a position to ensure that nothing and no one would come between an American and his gun. They were the wrong people, at the right time in the right place. In 1993, gun homicides hit an all-time high of 18,334.

But as they gained total control of the NRA in the early 1990s, hubris caught up with the revolutionaries, they fell out with each other, and the organisation ruptured. Their brand of ideologically pure conservatism did not fit the Clinton Nineties quite so well. The soaring levels of gun deaths sparked a backlash and the Brady Bill was passed, which regulated handgun sales. The US outlawed the production and import of some assault weapons, the so-called "ugly automatics" that had turned the streets into firing ranges. And it clamped down on arms dealers, more than halving their numbers.

In response, the NRA swung further into conservative territory. In a 1994 column, Knox contended that the 1968 Act was modelled on Nazi legislation, and pondered whether the assassinations of Martin Luther King, John and Robert Kennedy had been staged for the purpose of disarming citizens of the free world. As the NRA went further right, it made middle America nervous.

In many ways, the turning point was 1995, the year of the Oklahoma bomb. Andrew LaPierre, the organisation's executive director, sent out a letter to raise funds. He described federal agents as "armed terrorists dressed in ninja black ... who open fire with automatic weapons and kill law-abiding citizens".

Former President George Bush promptly resigned, saying that the letter "deeply offends my sense of honour and decency". It was also revealed that one NRA official had met with members of the Michigan Militia, one of the growing band of backwoods anti-state warriors. And Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma bomber, fixed an NRA sticker to a letter he wrote in 1992, arguing for "a God-given right to self-defence". It read: "I am the NRA." Membership fell to 2.8 million from its high point of 3.5 million. The organisation's finances collapsed. The marketing onslaught of the Eighties and Nineties cost huge amounts of money, and the shortfalls started to show up in the accounts. Neil Knox's response was to go further right still; the others disagreed, and Knox was purged. Now the NRA is desperately trying to reclaim what it considers the centre ground.

It will be an uphill task. The NRA has developed a paranoid world-view best expressed in the list of people and organisations which it says are "anti-gun": Jack Lemmon, Leonard Nimoy, Richard Widmark, Herman Wouk, A&M records, Sara Lee, Bell Atlantic, the AFL-CIO, America's main labour union, the National Association of Police Organisations, the Jewish Labour Committee and hundreds more. This is the enemy, set out across eight pages.

Charlton Heston himself is regarded by hard-liners as deeply suspect, since he demonstrated in favour of gun control with other Hollywood stars after Bobby Kennedy's assassination in 1968 (though he has since revised his position). He also said last year that "AK-47s are inappropriate for personal use".

But Heston is by no means a moderate. "Mainstream America is counting on you to draw your sword and fight for them," he thundered to the Free Congress Foundation. He lashed out at "the fringe propaganda of the homosexual coalition, the feminists who preach that it is a divine duty for women to hate men, blacks who raise a militant fist with one hand while they seek preference with the other ..."

The NRA badly needs to regain respectability because it is on the defensive on the key issue of gun control. Relatives of shooting victims have organised effective campaigns over the past decade. Sarah Brady of Handgun Control Inc is the wife of former White House press secretary James Brady. When John Hinckley gunned down Ronald Reagan in 1981, her husband James was shot and crippled. Their crusade got the Brady Bill passed. Carolyn McCarthy's husband was shot dead in a Long Island Rail Road train in 1993. Next week she will introduce legislation mandating new handgun safety features. It is hard for the industry to argue against people like these.

The latest wave of school killings have helped to build a broader base of support for a new assault on the bullet bandits. Anti-gun campaigners are going to try to sue the manufacturers for making defective products. A woman from Berkeley, California, will this week take Beretta to court after her son was killed by a schoolmate. Last year, 15 manufacturers appeared with President Clinton to say that they would voluntarily ship trigger locks with their guns.

As far as the hard-liners are concerned this is defeatist talk, pinko liberal trash. Mr LaPierre wrote to the gunmakers who appeared with the President: "You have helped Clinton to co-opt, to steal yet another issue. And he will use it to destroy you." But on that occasion the gunmakers didn't make their appearance under the auspices of the NRA; they used another group, the American Shooting Sports Council, which had been formed in 1989 as a result of unhappiness with the NRA's extremism. If the NRA does not sort itself out, it risks being outflanked by gunmakers and gun opponents alike.

Compromise on gun regulation seems inevitable, when the manufacturers themselves are moving in that direction. There are even signs that America's love affair with the gun is waning. A Harris poll found that the number of Americans with a gun at home has declined from half of the population in 1973 to a third, and that more than two-thirds of Americans want tighter gun control laws. Yet despite all the progress that has been made, despite the Brady Bill, which cut gun deaths by a quarter, 9,390 people were killed by hand guns in the US in 1996. But as the NRA would remind us, guns don't kill people: it is people who kill people - people who believe that they are right and everyone else is wrong.