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They're the NRA: a campaign of fear

ROY ROGERS step aside. The National Rifle Association (NRA) has a new advertising campaign that stars robbers, rapists, and street thugs. This effort is a far cry from the folksy familiarity of the ``I'm the NRA'' ads that feature Roy and other celebrities. Presented in ``crime-verit'e,'' the ads are dominated by grainy, out-of-focus photos with bold, tabloid-style headlines. One, featuring a blurry, stocking-masked man-of-all-races screams out, ``Should you shoot a rapist before he cuts your throat?'' A second headline wonders, ``What does a convenience store clerk think just before he is attacked?''

Another asks, ``If you're attacked on your porch, do you want your neighbors to be opposed to gun ownership or members of the NRA?'' In this ad, a white-haired grandmother lies crumpled on her porch, groceries scattered, while a muscle-bound man runs off.

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A recent addition to the series poses the mind-bending question, ``You were beaten to death last night. Who cares?'' In the center of the ad lies a pair of broken plastic-framed eyeglasses. Beneath each photo are select NRA ``facts'' and rhetoric, and the tag line, ``Defend Your Right to Defend Yourself.''

The new ads stand in stark contrast to the ``feel good'' image of the still-used other ads. With pitchmen like Rogers, Charlton Heston, and Chuck Yeager (as well as women and children), these ads try to portray the NRA as a smiling collection of hunting and shooting enthusiasts. Few mention self-defense, while none are specifically crime-oriented. The image is clear: The NRA is just a buncha guys and gals from next door.

But now Mr. Hyde has been allowed to join Dr. Jekyll in the NRA's advertising. This is being done for two reasons. By portraying itself as a tough, uncompromising leader in America's handgun debate the NRA hopes to eradicate its newly acquired ``wimp'' image among certain segments of the gun lobby. And by instilling a fear of crime in the readers of its ads, it hopes to increase handgun sales.

The NRA is still recovering from the embarrassment of the machine gun ban that pro-control advocates tacked onto its 1986 McClure-Volkmer handgun decontrol bill. This bestowed upon the NRA the unwanted honor of being the first organization to sponsor a bill that successfully banned a category of firearms in America. Taken with its ``compromise'' on banning certain types of armor-piercing bullets and a well-publicized power struggle among its leadership that same year, some members of the gun lobby now view the NRA as a weakened, incompetent giant too willing to cut a deal while unable to keep its own house in order.

To add pecuniary injury to the NRA's insults, handgun sales have plummeted, from 2.6 million produced in 1982 to approximately 1.5 million in 1985. Most handguns today are purchased for self-defense, and the NRA is expert at promoting the idea that America today is a crime-filled jungle. In the NRA's world view, the ``common man'' continually gets the short end of the barrel. Meanwhile liberal, soft-on-crime politicians and judges remain oblivious, safely hidden away in their ivory towers.

According to the NRA, the only truly effective means of self-defense lies in a handgun. In fact, the exact opposite is true. Any handgun is 118 times more likely to be used in a murder, suicide, or fatal accident than to kill a criminal according to Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics compiled by the National Coalition to Ban Handguns.

The NRA's membership is said to be dropping. Since membership in the organization appeals to a limited pool of Americans, the ads are a base attempt to move beyond its natural constituency of hunters and sportsmen.

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How effective this latest campaign will be remains to be seen. Other NRA fear campaigns have seen mixed results. Since 1985, the organization has attempted to increase handgun sales among women by using rape as the selling point. The centerpiece of the campaign is a pamphlet entitled ``A Question of Self-Defense.'' The cover features a graphic quote from a rape victim. Blood spots are splattered across its front. But in spite of this and other attempts, women - outside of black Americans - remain the most strongly antihandgun segment of the populace.

The blatant emotionalism of this campaign may win some converts, but only at a very high price. These efforts can only further alienate the police, already estranged by the McClure-Volkmer battle and the organization's stated goal of repealing the machine gun ban. In addition, senators and congressmen who succumbed to the high-pressure tactics of the NRA during the McClure-Volkmer debate are now finding it easier to ignore its threats. The organization is becoming recognized as beholden only to its manufacturing allies and the unpopular, extremist views of its leadership.

In its efforts to avoid being labeled the American gun lobby's George Bush, the NRA may well become its Joseph McCarthy - the bearer of a message that may reap short-term benefits, but can only end in repudiation.

Josh Sugarmann is a former communications director of the National Coalition to Ban Handguns.

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