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POLITICS : Gun Activists Yearn for the Top Electoral Trophy : They take credit for Clinton’s ’94 setback and hope to defeat him this year. But commitment and clout aren’t the same.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A passerby steps into Trader Fred’s log cabin in rural Vermont and confronts a symbolic chasm.

To the right are antique clocks and toys: steel hook-and-ladder trucks, airplanes and Cubby, a 1940s windup tin bear. To the left, a rack displays the small shop’s other specialty: firearms, including rare 19th century Colt shotguns and a Sterling AR-180 semiautomatic combat rifle with a folding stock.

“The most off-the-wall question people ask,” said owner Fred Berecz, “is, ‘How can you sell toys and also sell guns that kill people?’ ”

Patiently, Berecz runs through some of his responses: Hunting is a source of food in New England and a part of the nation’s heritage, and firearms protect the law-abiding from criminals and good citizens from tyrannical governments.

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But Berecz doubts that many of the relatively few visitors who recoil at his choice of goods will ever understand guns or his way of life. And he worries that such people--city people, mainly; people shaped by landscapes much different from the woods and farms and quiet little villages here--are steering the nation off course.

So while he’s not one to get involved in politics, he is glad that more and more people who think like him do, he says.

Polls show that most Americans don’t put gun issues high on their political agendas and, when specifically asked about the subject, most favor existing restrictions.

But among gun-rights advocates, those who make it an issue do so with a sharpshooter’s intensity of focus. And their efforts have had a powerful impact on elections lately.

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President Clinton attributed the Republican takeover of Congress in the 1994 elections to the National Rifle Assn.'s campaign against lawmakers who supported that year’s legislation banning certain semiautomatic “assault-style” weapons.

Most analyses suggest that the ’94 vote was more complex than that, that gun owners were merely one pressure group among many that nudged the politically disaffected nation to the right.

But Tanya Metaksa, chief lobbyist for the 3.3-million-member NRA, says flatly: “We turned this country around.” Flush with the power such proclamations imply, gun activists now have another target: the White House.

It remains to be seen how much actual clout gun activists will wield in the 1996 election. What’s clear, though, is that folks who view guns as either evil or irrelevant to modern life are likely to encounter some disorienting moments in the course of the campaign.

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At a recent South Carolina forum for GOP presidential candidates, for instance, audience members hissed Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar for supporting the assault-weapons ban, and for his comment: “There is no right to spray lead in a cafeteria or on a playground.”

Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, on the other hand, fits in among gun enthusiasts like an old pistol in a custom holster. He spins hunting yarns and sparks big laughs recounting how his elderly “Momma,” who packs a .38 special, asked: “Phil, you reckon with all this meanness out there, I ought to get me a bigger gun?”

Gramm recently blanketed New England with a flyer touting his credentials as a gun-rights advocate. “He’ll tell you,” the ad says, “that like a lot of gun owners, he has more guns than he needs, but not as many as he wants.”

Such attitudes have made Gramm the No. 1 recipient of NRA largess in politics, with the group giving him $440,000 in support over the course of his career.

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To some, such funding is blood money. Others see it as the lifeblood of liberty--to put it in the colorful rhetoric that routinely spills from gun-issue combatants.

But off the campaign trail, gun talk tends to be more subdued. At least at first.

In the central New Hampshire town of Hookset, Riley’s Sports Shop is like a country store, where people clomp in out of the snow after work to browse through more than 2,000 firearms and wind up jawboning around gun counters rather than cracker barrels.

On a recent evening, Howard “Crow” Dickinson and Richard “Stretch” Kennedy chatted about their hobbies--hunting woodchucks and collecting firearms.

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Members of New Hampshire’s 400-member citizen-Legislature, both men keep handguns locked in their cars when that body is in session. But about 40 representatives use the statehouse lockbox to check their weapons each day.

Dickinson, Kennedy and others who gather at Riley’s talk guns with the inexhaustible enthusiasm of golfers rhapsodizing on clubs. But there’s a reason why the moose and elk heads on the wall are accompanied by a poster of the President clutching a shotgun and the caption: “If Bill Clinton thinks hunting ducks will give him a pro-gun image, he’s daffy.”

When the discussion turns to efforts to restrict firearm ownership, the cheerful demeanor deflates. It’s the issue of protection--from criminals and overzealous government--that stirs some gun owners to activism.

The question of whether the Constitution’s 2nd Amendment guarantees citizens the right to bear arms has come under increasing scholarly scrutiny. For some gun advocates, it is the most sacred of tenets--the foundation upon which other freedoms rest.

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“You want to know how seriously we take it?” asked a clerk who declines to give his name. “Ask Dick Swett. I worked my butt off to defeat him.”

Swett lost his 1994 reelection bid in New Hampshire’s 2nd District, at least in part because of his vote for the assault-weapons ban.

When a Republican named Carole Hockmeyer appeared in a commercial for Swett, the complexities of the gun debate were unleashed.

On Nov. 1, 1993, Hockmeyer was working as an administrator in Newbury, N.H. A tax protester entered the office and coolly killed the receptionist. Hockmeyer watched him step into another office and murder a secretary. Then he pointed his semiautomatic replica of a Thompson submachine gun at her.

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She survived five gunshot wounds from the man, who eventually turned his weapon on himself. And surviving that terror motivated Hockmeyer to become a gun-control advocate and speak out for Swett. But her testimony did not sway gun-rights advocates at Riley’s, which became the unofficial headquarters in the anti-Swett campaign.

Nor do such emotional arguments persuade most gun-rights advocates, who tend to take positions based on another type of cautionary tale.

For instance, as D. Cynthia Julien stood chatting at a “Gun Owners for Gramm” event recently in Manchester, N.H., she told a story from her past.

When she was 10 years old, she says, a man followed her home from school in rural Rhode Island and chased her into her house. As she piled furniture against the door, the man crashed against it, shouting “all the vile things he was going to do to me,” she said.

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“Fortunately,” said Julien, one of 70 elected members of the NRA board, “my father had taught my brothers and I how to safely handle firearms.”

So, she says, “I got Daddy’s shotgun and loaded it.” Her would-be assailant left, she says.

A registered nurse, Julien, 42, now teaches women’s classes in firearms safety and self-protection. Without changing her facial expression, she adds: “I’m also a licensed cannoneer.”

Then, smiling, she tries to explain the “tremendous appreciation for history” she gets by dressing up in Revolutionary War attire and reenacting great battles.

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Berecz understands that fascination. He too occasionally heads off into the woods with a replica of a muzzle-loading, black powder musket “to try to understand what my great-great-grandfather experienced.”

With a snowstorm muffling the already quiet fields that surround Fred’s Trading Post and obscuring what traces of modernity exist, it’s possible to envision Redcoats emerging from the woods.

Which may be why it’s not only easier for people like Berecz to hoist a firearm and imagine the taste of venison, but to connect dots linking history to the prospect of “domestic tyranny” today.

“The Constitution has worked fine for 200 years,” he said. “I don’t need someone to come and change it now.”

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And it’s important to him, he says, that the next president have a similar view.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Where They Stand on Gun Control

Here is how the major GOP presidential candidates stand on two key gun control issues: the Brady Act, which provides for a waiting period on the purchase of handguns, and the provisions of the 1994 anti-crime bill that banned certain types of assault-style weapons.

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Lamar Alexander: Issued a general statement--"I have never thought gun control equaled crime control.”

Patrick J. Buchanan: Opposes the Brady Act on constitutional grounds and would repeal the assault weapons ban.

Bob Dole: Opposed passage of the Brady Act; sought to replace it with mandatory instant checks of the criminal history of prospective handgun buyers. Supports repeal of assault weapons ban.

Steve Forbes: Supports instant check plan for handguns. Favors repeal of the assault weapons ban.

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Phil Gramm: Opposed the Brady Act and the assault weapons ban and would repeal both.

Richard G. Lugar: Voted for the Brady Act and the assault weapons ban and stands by his votes.


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