WASHINGTON - The day before the House began considering gun control last week, James Jay Baker sat in his office over a Capitol Hill saloon calculating vote counts for different versions of a bill requiring background checks on firearms sales at gun shows.
"We have to be ready for anything," said the chief lobbyist for the National Rifle Association. "But," he added a moment later, "nothing is better than anything."
Nothing is exactly what the House produced with yesterday's vote to reject new gun-show background checks, handing the NRA its most dramatic legislative victory in years.
From the outset of the House debate, it was clear the NRA would play a key role. When House Republicans unveiled their gun-show proposal June 7, President Clinton immediately denounced it as "ghostwritten by the NRA" and claimed it would gut the gun-show bill adopted by the Senate in May. In the end, it was the amendment crafted by Michigan Rep. John Dingell, the most senior Democrat in the House, and the NRA that killed the gun legislation in the House. On the surface, the proposal satisfied the demand that all firearm sales at gun shows be subject to criminal background checks. But it did this in a way that would weaken the existing system of background checks that now applies to a majority of gun-show sales.
Under current law, unlicensed dealers at gun shows are not required to perform background checks, but licensed dealers, who account for the majority of gun-show sales, must perform checks that can take up to three business days. In the guise of extending gun-show background checks to cover unlicensed sellers, critics charged, Dingell's proposal would instead drastically weaken the existing system by slashing the time allowed to 24 hours.
With the encouragement of Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno, Democrats turned on the final gun-show legislation, and it was defeated 280 to 147.
The outcome on the House floor yesterday was the culmination of an NRA lobbying campaign that spent $1.5 million in May and June, including $750,000 for mailings to members nationwide, $300,000 for phone-bank operations and an extensive media buy of ads on conservative radio talk shows.
Letters warning of dire consequences and urging quick action poured out of Baker's office to NRA members. The organization broadcast commercials in selected congressional districts against gun control. As the showdown approached, NRA lobbyists were available on Capitol Hill to press the association's point of view on wavering House members.
The NRA's ample supply of money made this possible, but it was buttressed by something of equal importance in such a legislative battle - a committed and intense membership. "An individual lobbyist is only as strong as his or her backup," said Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, an NRA board member who led the opposition to new gun laws in the Senate.
Even gun-control Democrats were impressed.
"The NRA does the best job of any group in lobbying members," said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass. "They don't have marches, they don't have demonstrations, they don't shoot their guns in the air. It's just good, straight democracy."
"We're up against the best lobby in town," added House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo. "The NRA has a very effective phone tree. My hat is off to them. I admire them. They sure know how to do it."