"My only reaction is that you have to be realistic," said Terry O'Grady, spokesman for the NRA in Washington.
State and national gun advocates said last week that their resources would probably be better spent elsewhere instead of trying to defeat a strong incumbent. Instead, they said, they may take aim at one of her leading Republican opponents, Rep. Michael Huffington (R-Santa Barbara).
Huffington was not a strong supporter of the ban, which he downplayed as a helpful but largely ineffective crime-fighting tool. But his vote in favor of it stuck out like a red cape to gun advocates because he was one of only two California Republicans to support it.
"Ironically, the repercussions are going to come down on Michael Huffington's head (instead of Feinstein)," said John Stoos, director of the Gun Owners of California. "He had the chance at a real defining issue there and he blew it."
Huffington dismissed the challenge, saying he is confident of winning the June 7 Republican primary and does not believe his vote on assault weapons will hurt him in the general election. He also said it demonstrates his independence.
"I represent all of the people in California. I don't represent the special interests," he said.
The politics of gun ownership has seen dramatic shifts in the last two years as the public's fear of crime has changed the debate from a fight over constitutional rights to one about controlling violence.
The passage in November of the federal Brady bill, which requires a waiting period for handgun purchases, followed by the narrow House vote May 5 to ban assault weapons, was a stunning setback for a lobby that has been one of the most powerful in the country.
In California, gun advocates also suffered a high-profile defeat last month when they were soundly rejected in an attempt to recall state Sen. David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) for his role in passing the state's assault weapons ban in 1989.
"There is a feeling out there that somehow it takes a lot of courage to stand up for an assault weapons ban, and I think that was true in the past," said Bob Walker, legislative director for Handgun Control Inc. in Washington. "But people are discovering it is not only good policy to stand up for an assault weapons ban, but it is also good politics."
Walker said he was not surprised that the NRA will probably stay out of Feinstein's reelection bid, because he predicted their involvement would backfire. "They would probably be doing her a favor . . . because it would only accent her leadership on this issue," he said.
Feinstein would seem to be a primary target for pro-gun groups because she is a member of Handgun Control and was the leading sponsor of the assault weapons ban when it passed in the Senate, 56 to 43, in September. But this week, gun advocates in California and Washington said their response will be determined more by pragmatism than spite.
"It's not as easy as it looks" to defeat Feinstein, O'Grady said. "And we are not going to waste money if there is no opportunity to have an impact. We are going to be here for a long time and there will be other opportunities."
Stoos said the gun owners' analysis of Feinstein's reelection campaign might change if Huffington lost the Republican primary to his chief rival, William E. Dannemeyer, a former Orange County congressman and an opponent of the assault weapons ban.
Many Republicans give Huffington the best chance to win the primary because, with his personal fortune from a family oil company in Texas, he is expected to outspend his opponents at least 10 to 1.
Stoos and O'Grady said their organizations will evaluate the primary battle in the next few days to decide whether they should dedicate financial resources and manpower to oppose Huffington.
"We have to look to see if anybody else has a chance of winning the primary," O'Grady said. "Mr. Dannemeyer has been calling us and looking for our support. . . . We will probably decide (this) week."
Huffington said that even though he and Feinstein agree that the assault weapons ban is a good idea, he believes voters will see a sharp distinction between Feinstein and him on crime control.
"The main way to slow down the slaughter is to lock up the people who are pulling the trigger," said Huffington, a co-sponsor of California's "three strikes" initiative. "That is the means by which I . . . hope to make a difference. Feinstein has put her capital on gun control."
Feinstein, who also supports the "three strikes" initiative, has told her backers at fund-raisers that she needs their help because her support for the assault weapons ban is likely to make her a prime target for the NRA. But she also said she is confident that most people agree with her position.
"I don't dismiss the National Rifle Assn.," she said recently. "But overwhelmingly, I believe the people of the state are supportive of the legislation."