MILWAUKEE – As the National Rifle Association launches its latest initiative – a push to get mayors and police chiefs to swear never to confiscate guns in times of emergencies – the group will have plenty of support.
Not necessarily from the nation’s mayors.
But from some 4 million NRA members, part of a well-organized and well-funded network that is built to apply pressure to politicians from the most effective angle – local voters.
“Of adjectives used to describe the NRA, persistence is one of them,” Chris W. Cox, the NRA’s chief lobbyist said at a Thursday news conference. “We’ll be persistent on this.”
The NRA launched the initiative Thursday, on the eve of its annual convention which formally opens today at the Midwest Airlines Center in downtown Milwaukee.
NRA officials say the pledge was prompted by the post-hurricane confiscation of guns in New Orleans last year. In addition to the pledge, they plan to begin seeking state laws to penalize with prison time any officials who seek to take gun from law-abiding citizens.
Critics, though, labeled the effort as an election-year gimmick, one that uses a hot-button topic to generate outrage – and contributions to the NRA.
In a statement, the head of the Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C., Josh Sugarmann, labeled it “red-meat to motivate the pro-gun hard-core.” He said that it recalls statements from the 1990s that labeled federal agents “jackbooted government thugs.”
In Milwaukee, Deputy Police Chief Brian O’Keefe said “the rhetoric to say we are going to disarm law-abiding citizens is a little over the top.”
At the NRA news conference, Wayne LaPierre, the group’s executive vice president, noted that the situation in New Orleans was the first time in history in this country that local government ordered that guns be collected.
Some might argue that means the national push is unneeded. But in the hard-line world of the NRA, it showed what seemed implausible could happen anytime, anywhere.
LaPierre said the initiative “may well be the most important” in the group’s 135-year history.
He noted that mayors and police chiefs already swear to uphold the U.S. Constitution.
“It’s an easy pledge to sign,” he said. “Signing the pledge should be effortless.”
Later Thursday, Mayor Tom Barrett said that if NRA leaders want him to sign the pledge, they should accept his invitation to meet and discuss illegal guns and their role in gun violence.
Earlier, LaPierre had labeled a letter Barrett sent seeking the sit-down meeting as “grandstanding.”
“We’ll talk at some point down the road,” LaPierre said. “The NRA takes a back seat to no one in fighting crime.”
NRA officials, meanwhile, say the pledge is clear. As printed in a full-page ad in USA Today, it reads: “I will never forcibly disarm the law-abiding citizens of” with a blank to insert the city name.
LaPierre said there was no deadline for officials to sign the pledge. “That would depend on how long they’re willing to hold out against the will of their own citizens,” he said.
In its push, the NRA will rely on an organization that in many places carries great political clout. That strength is built in part through its network of members and a highly refined means to reach them.
The NRA has “Election Volunteer Coordinators” throughout the country to seek out volunteers when needed. Its members get magazines, newsletters and e-mail alerts.
Those who visit the Web site, www.nra.org, can look up the key measures in local and state government for their area, along with information on contacting their representatives.
If they want to send a letter to the editor of a newspaper, they can do so right from the NRA Web site. Or they can get e-mail addresses for local reporters who cover key issues.
The group also has its own TV crews, who were dispatched to New Orleans to collect the stories of law-abiding residents who lost their guns to police. A video featuring about a half dozen residents, including of one older woman having a handgun taken away, was shown during Thursday’s news conference.
Jim Proulx, a Milwaukee resident, has been an NRA member since the late 1960s. He is also vice president of the Wisconsin Rifle and Pistol Association, an NRA-affiliated group.
He said he typically gets an e-mail from the NRA once a week, often highlighting areas where action is needed.
“They’re pretty effective and pretty well organized in that regard,” Proulx said. “You have a group (of members) that is very responsive to these issues. You’ve got people who are very sensitive to anything they perceive that may infringe upon their rights.”
In that regard, the new issue – with the specter of guns being taken away – may raise emotions even higher than concealed weapons, the push for legalization of which has been the top issue for the NRA and others in the state.
This year, it appeared there were enough votes to pass the measure over the veto of Gov. Jim Doyle. But two Democratic members of the Assembly-Terry Van Akkeren of Sheboygan and John Steinbrink of Pleasant Prairie-switched their votes and upheld the veto.
Neither returned calls seeking comment on their impressions of how the NRA organization works at the local level.
Doyle, a Democrat facing re-election in November, said: “They’re pretty strong across the country. I recognize it.”
He said he would not back down in defense of his vetoes.
“My message to them is we’re a great hunting state and protect our great hunting tradition,” he said. “But on the issue of whether we should be carrying loaded guns into shopping malls, I don’t think that’s good for the people of this state.”