The NRA's powder may be getting damp

  If the Wildlife Legislative Fund of America uses sportsmen to advance a pro-development agenda at the expense of habitat, the National Rifle Association uses them to advance a pro-gun position. But hunters are apparently wising up, at least to the NRA, and that may be leading to the group's decline.


Membership has dropped from 3.2 million to 2.8 million in the past few years, while the investment firm Dunn & Bradstreet recently gave the group the lowest possible credit rating. NRA officials dismiss those two problems as stastical and accounting flukes, but have had a hard time refuting rumors of instability among the group's leadership. According to reports in the national media, Neal Knox, the board's most vocal hardliner on the right to bear arms, has been trying to oust some NRA leaders, including executive vice president Wayne LaPierre.


If successful, Knox's "coup" would signal yet another swerve to the right for the gun group, says Ernest Lissabet, president and founder of the American Firearms Association, an alternative to the NRA. Founded in 1993, and calling itself the "NRA refugee club" on its World Wide Web site, the AFA has its headquarters in the same town - Fairfax, Va.


Lissabet says the NRA has gone through three shifts since its founding in 1871. Up through World War II, the group worked closely with the National Guard to train a citizens' militia. After the war, the group became more of a sportsmen's group.


The third shift came after the NRA's annual meeting in 1979, when Neal Knox and Harlon Carter, dubbed "old bullethead" by his enemies, took control of the organization's leadership. They steered the NRA away from hunters' concerns and toward weapons.


A large-scale membership drive began as the group began to rail against the gun-control lobby. Membership swelled in the next 15 years, from about 800,000 to more than 3 million, and expanded to include cops, prison guards, gun collectors and women. But many critics say the growth cost the NRA its core group - people who like weapons because they hunt with them.


"The NRA's membership has been politicized and radicalized," says Lissabet, adding that the changes sent many of the more moderate sportsmen packing.


What turned those hunters off? Some say it was the group's no-compromise stance on gun control - even supporting access to assault rifles and to bullets that can pierce body armor. Vice president LaPierre - though moderate on gun control - also called federal agents "jack-booted government thugs."


"The NRA has paid a price," says Lissabet. "It's lost its original membership. Sportsmen are now turning to groups like the Isaak Walton League and Ducks Unlimited."


NRA spokesman Bill Powers denies that hunter participation in the group has declined, and he says the group does just as much for sportsmen as it ever did.


Lissabet maintains the group isn't facing reality. He says gun control will become more and more necessary as the population increases and rural areas become scarcer: "Their whole approach right now is to fight everything tooth and nail. That's not going to work in the 21st century."


*Elizabeth Manning