WASHINGTON — – Charges of dishonesty and scare tactics flew Sunday in a brawl between President Clinton and the National Rifle Association over tougher gun laws. In a mocking broadside, Clinton tore into the group for its "knee-jerk reaction to any gun safety measure."
Clinton's accusations brought an incendiary rebuttal from NRA executive vice-president Wayne LaPierre, who said the president exploits gun deaths for political purposes.
"I've come to believe that he needs a certain level of violence in this country," LaPierre said. "He's willing to accept a certain level of killing to further his political agenda and his vice president, too."
At issue was a new advertising campaign in which NRA president Charlton Heston all but accuses the president of lying in his characterizations of the group as an impediment to sensible laws and public safety.
But the sparring was more broadly over the president's effort to win some of the gun controls that have eluded him so far and to inject the subject into the presidential campaign pitting his vice president, Al Gore, against Republican Gov. George W. Bush of Texas.
Clinton, appearing on ABC's This Week, said the NRA was "ruthlessly brutal" in helping to defeat members of Congress who gave the nation laws such as the Brady Bill waiting period for gun purchases and the ban on assault-type weapons.
He dismissed as "wounded rhetoric" the group's contention that he unfairly overlooks the NRA's record of promoting gun safety and tougher enforcement of existing laws.
"These crocodile tears," Clinton said, "I don't think it will wash with the voters, even with Moses reading the script."
Heston, an actor, played Moses in the movie, The Ten Commandments.
LaPierre, also on This Week, attributed Clinton's renewed focus on guns to his interest in getting Gore elected. "The pollsters and consultants are telling them, scare suburban women," he said.
Among other steps, Clinton wants people who make purchases at gun shows to be subject to background checks that could take as long as 72 hours. Many congressional Republicans, like the NRA, want any such checks to be instant or at least no longer than 24 hours.
"I just think that their knee-jerk reaction to any gun safety measure is wrong," Clinton said of the NRA. "If you do one little thing that requires any accommodation ... they think it's the end of the world."
"You know, they basically win through intimidation," Clinton went on. "People are scared of them." But while the organization may have over 3 million members, "there's more people than that in America."
Following Clinton, who taped his interview Friday, LaPierre wasted no time going after the "level of dishonesty this man is capable of."
He said the Clinton administration has been singularly lax in enforcing gun laws already on the books. "You can't care about stopping crimes with guns and give the country a complete lack of enforcement," he said.
And he said Congress would have given Clinton most of what he wants last year — including gun show checks and mandatory child-safety locks on guns. But the president "killed it all" by insisting on a 72-hour wait at the shows.
The NRA has begun running the first of 13 different commercials on network affiliates and cable news networks. The series plays up the NRA's contributions to gun safety and labels a variety of Clinton's claims as lies.
In several, Heston concludes, "Mr. Clinton, when what you say is wrong, that's a mistake. When you know it's wrong, it's a lie."
The president, an occasional duck hunter, says he's owned a "handgun or two" and other guns over the years but never kept them in his family's homes, including the White House.
Asked why he is not advocating universal gun registration, he said "I can't even pass the bill closing the gun show loophole through this Congress."
But he added Gore and Bush "have dramatically different positions on the whole issue of guns and I think it ought to be a big issue in this presidential election."
Clinton later appealed to mayors and other delegates at a National League of Cities meeting in Washington to help him press members of Congress to move on gun control legislation.
He said it would only take a day to check the backgrounds of about 90 percent of purchasers at gun shows. More time is needed for the rest, he said, and it is in that group that officials are likely to find the criminals and mentally unstable people who should not be getting guns.