FROM RUPERT CORNWELL
As armour-plated Washington power ladies go, Tanya Metaksa at least has a sense of humour. The computer network she runs for whose who share her views is called the Bullet N'Board. Asked to spell her last name she will say, "AK as in AK-47, SA as in semi-automatic". But the jesting ends there. As chief lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, and a hardliner among hardliners against gun control, Ms Metaksa suddenly finds herself squarely in the line of fire.
These are tricky times indeed for the organisation which symbolises the peculiar American infatuation with guns, as it prepares for its 124th annual meeting in Arizona this weekend. The rabid gun culture underlying the Oklahoma City bombing casts a gruesome shadow. Ex-President George Bush has just resigned his lifetime membership, outraged by a fundraising letter from Wayne La Pierre, the NRA's executive vice president, which described the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms federal law enforcement agency, as "jackbooted thugs wearing black, ... who kill and maim law-abiding citizens.''
Across the country, police associations whose support was once absolute are exasperated at the NRA's opposition to even the smallest move to control the guns that cause the carnage on American city streets. Only yesterday, the Secret Service withdrew its traditional invitation for the NRA to participate in its annual shooting competition. Small wonder too that Bob Dole, Republican presidential front-runner and natural NRA supporter, recommends "a small image repair job". The outsider might reckon a wholesale makeover to be more in order.
Such anxieties of course will be hidden from the casual visitor to the festivities in Phoenix, Arizona, where 25,000 of the NRA's 3.5 million members will savour exhibitions, shooting classes, a wild west "Rawhide" party and Saturday's set-piece dinner whose keynote speaker will be Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, Mr Dole's chief rival for the nomination. But behind the scenes it will be another story. Already the rumours fly of power struggles, boardroom splits and putsches in the making.
Ms Metaksa of course will have none of it. "There is no NRA militancy that is not supported by the whole board. Tom Washington [the association's president] will be re-elected, so will his two deputies, so will Wayne. These elections will be very boring." But even if the outcome is as bland as a Party congress in old Soviet days, the doubts remain. Are the radicals like Ms Metaksa and her ally, the association director Neal Knox, who now drive the NRA, possibly harming it beyond repair?
Though a truckload of explosives, not a firearm, caused the devastation in Oklahoma, public support of gun control has risen sharply in its wake. Barely a month ago, the NRA was sure of swift congressional votes to repeal the 1993 Brady Bill, requiring a waiting period for handgun purchases, and to scrap last year's ban on 19 types of assault weapons. These hopes too now lie amid the rubble of the Alfred P Murrah federal building. The best Ms Metaksa can offer the faithful is action "some time later this year".
Founded in 1871 by army officers worried by the poor marksmanship of Union troops in the Civil War, the NRA loves to call itself "the oldest civil rights organisation in the country". But it has become a broad, even sinister, church, whose congregation includes not only innocent gun enthusiasts, sportsmen like George Bush and scared suburban housewives, but also constitutional purists, ideologues and a small fringe of deranged zealots - among them Timothy McVeigh, prime Oklahoma City suspect, gun freak and for four years a member of the NRA.
Ms Metaksa's own career is a measure of the NRA's rightward drift. In 1980, when its soul still lay with the sportsmen and good ol' boys, both she and Mr Knox were tossed out for their militant views. Today Mr La Pierre, author of the letter whose language he concedes was a mite "overblown," is seen as a moderate, outflanked by the firearms fundamentalists.
Their touchstone is the Second Amendment of the 1788 Constitution, whose guarantee of the right of every citizen to keep and bear arms allows them to present gun control as a step on the road towards a citizen's total enslavement by a wicked central government.
No matter that the Second Amendment was written when US independence was only a decade old, or that the "well regulated" militias it refers to are those which so effectively took on King George's redcoats, not the paranoid groupings that the Oklahoma City spotlight has illuminated like cockroaches in a kitchen. For Ms Metaksa, who admits to having met militia representatives once ("in the lobby bar of a Lansing, Michigan, hotel - our views were 180 degrees apart") it is an article of faith, "part and parcel of a unique document, our Bill of Rights. For us the fundamental is, do you believe in the Second Amendment?"
To non-Americans such doctrinalism, matched even here only in the abortion debate, is almost incomprehensible. But until the deadliest act of terrorism in US history, it had proved effective practical politics. The 1994 mid- term elections, in which NRA money helped to pick off several key congressmen who favoured gun control, demonstrated the organisation's clout as never before, as even Bill Clinton ruefully acknowledged in a public post-mortem on the Democratic disaster. And perhaps no one in the NRA played a bigger role than Ms Metaksa, whose job included choosing which incumbents to target.
And for all the NRA's present image problems, an organisation driven less by logic than primal obsession can never be written off. Mr Bush's resignation, says the association, merely prompted a surge in membership applications. And that fundraising letter? According to Mr La Pierre, it was the most successful ever, with replies likely to reach close to 1 million.
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