USA TODAY  Washington

NRA sees Record Growth

By Gary Fields


WASHINGTON -- The National Rifle Association is more popular than ever, reaching an unprecedented membership of nearly 3.6 million people this month despite a resurgence in gun-control efforts fueled by the Columbine High School slayings last year.

NRA officials say that more than 200,000 people have joined the gun-rights group in the past six weeks as a national debate heated up over proposals to license gun owners and require them to register each of the estimated 230 million guns in circulation in the USA. During that time, the NRA also has received about $10 million in contributions; the 129-year-old group received $25 million in all of 1999.

The NRA's sudden growth comes even as it faces its most intense criticism in years. Gun-control advocates, tapping the nationwide anger over the slayings of more than a dozen students at Columbine and several other school shootings, have staged rallies such as the Million Mom March held here last weekend. Invariably, the rallies cast the NRA's opposition to even minor gun restrictions as a factor in the violence.

The NRA, a lobbying powerhouse that opens its annual convention Friday in Charlotte, has countered with a media campaign featuring its celebrity president, Charlton Heston. In one commercial, Heston accuses the Clinton administration of pushing for licensing and registration to make it easier for the federal government to seize guns. In another spot, Heston essentially calls Clinton a liar.

Such rhetoric has been typical this spring, as gun control has become prime fodder for the presidential campaign. Gun-control advocates have long been frustrated by the NRA's influence on Capitol Hill and in state legislatures.

For years, the NRA stymied calls for background checks on gun buyers and bans on assault weapons, leading critics to accuse the group of being out of touch with most of America.

Demonizing the NRA, however, can be risky. For three decades, polls have shown that roughly 50% of Americans back gun rights and have a favorable impression of the NRA.


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