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Ranks of NRA Gun for Leaders : Dissent: The group’s top officers are blamed for declining membership and legislative losses to gun-control forces.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The president of the National Rifle Assn., refusing to buckle under to unprecedented pressure nationwide from gun control supporters, told about 1,000 cheering members at their annual convention here Saturday: “All guns are good guns!”

But as President Joe Foss and other NRA leaders sought to rally their troops with imagery of “battles” and “wars,” they heard open divisiveness and frustration from their members over a series of legislative losses suffered in the last year by the once-unbeatable gun rights lobby.

“We have to stop playing politics. We have to stop waffling,” demanded Jerry Lustig, a competitive shooter from Northridge who was one of several dozen NRA members to address their leadership.

The meeting, marked by lengthy diatribes against NRA policies and battles for microphone time, was among the most contentious in recent memory, several NRA leaders said. Lasting more than six hours, it revealed a deep-seated rift between NRA leadership and many in the general membership who are pushing for a more hard-line philosophy.

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Coming under particular fire was NRA Chief Executive Officer J. Warren Cassidy, a former Lynn, Mass., mayor who was attacked by a vocal faction for what it views as a policy of appeasement toward gun opponents.

Several members called for Cassidy’s ouster as the top salaried staff officer at the NRA, responsible for overseeing all its operations. And the general membership, by a close but undisclosed tally, passed a resolution that would strip Cassidy of some of his power and give more influence to the head of the NRA’s lobbying arm in Washington.

But the measure by one of Cassidy’s chief detractors, Neal Knox of Washington, is not binding on the group’s 72-member board of directors, which will meet Monday and Tuesday in Anaheim. And while some board members would not discuss Cassidy’s standing, several others said he has the continued support of NRA leadership as the group’s top staff officer.

Despite rumblings over a major shake-up at the NRA in the wake of recent setbacks, executive committee member Howard Pollock said: “I don’t think there’s any serious challenge (to Cassidy) on the board.”

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Cassidy came under attack over several key decisions, among them:

* His refusal to revoke President Bush’s honorary life membership in the NRA last year after Bush decided to ban importation of 43 types of foreign-made, semiautomatic assault rifles.

* His response to legislation before the California Legislature banning some types of assault weapons and imposing a 15-day waiting period on the sale of all firearms. Critics charge that Cassidy realized the severity of the threat to gun owners too late and did little to head it off. Each piece of legislation passed.

* His refusal to pull the current convention out of California in protest of those measures. Cassidy countered that by keeping the convention in Anaheim, gun enthusiasts are showing their willingness to fight. He also kicked off a California campaign to raise more than $1 million and target “anti-gun” state legislators in November.

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* A reported decline in membership of about 250,000 in the last four years, down to about 2.8 million, with about one-tenth of that from California. NRA officials blame the decline on a $10 increase in annual dues, but critics charge a loss of confidence in leadership is the real reason.

* Cassidy’s February nixing of talks by an NRA faction to attempt a hostile takeover of broadcasting giant CBS. Supporters of the idea billed it as a way of combating biased anti-gun coverage in the news media.

An NRA investment committee looked at the idea of having members buy up CBS stock. But Cassidy decided that such a move could cause more public relations problems for the already-embattled NRA. Also, the move probably would be a fiscal impossibility for a group such as the NRA, with assets valued at $118 million. Financial analysts have estimated it would take 10 times that amount to attempt a takeover.

Cassidy said he was somewhat irritated by the tactics of his critics on the convention floor.

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“I’m obviously in the spotlight, so I’m the guy that’s going to get thrashed. I accept that,” he said. “But what I don’t like is the demagoguery by the critics.”

The attacks came despite an early appeal for unity from NRA President Joe Foss, a World War II Medal of Honor winner who has been governor of South Dakota and the first commissioner of the old American Football League.

“We’ve had a stormy year, no doubt about that,” Foss said, pointing to legislative losses at the federal level and in several states over gun bans and other restrictions.

In order to win battles such as the current one in the Senate over a ban on semiautomatic weapons, Foss said NRA members have to quit public in-fighting and rid themselves of a few internal dissidents who appear as “termites in a good piece o’ wood.”

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Richard Riley of New Hampshire, who likely will take over as NRA president next week, added that NRA members must unite to fight gun control activists who “work to deny God-fearing, law-abiding Americans their right to self defense.”

At an evening banquet, NRA members also heard from Rep. Mike Espy, a black from Mississippi whose appearance reflected an attempt by the NRA to reach out to blacks.


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