Opponents of gun control are often stereotyped as beer-guzzling, gun-toting rednecks who drive old beat-up pickup trucks that sport the bumper sticker: "This Truck Protected by Smith and Wesson."
But Ted Lattanzio dresses smartly in a dark blue suit and white, button-down shirt. He speaks eloquently and with the passion of a Bible Belt preacher. Yet his intimate grasp of facts, figures and court precedence conjure up comparisons to a court-savvy attorney.In fact, Lattanzio is neither preacher nor prosecutor. He's the point man for the National Rifle Association - the nation's largest lobby representing private gun owners.
He's also a man under fire - under fire from a growing number of state and federal lawmakers, journalists and gun control advocates who, Lattanzio said, are distorting facts with the sole intent to deprive law-abiding citizens of the right to own firearms.
"If you're law abiding, and it is your choice to own a weapon, then we believe it is your right to do so," said Lattanzio, the NRA's director of State and Local Affairs. It's a basic principle of freedom that millions see as American as apple pie and motherhood.
With 3 million members nationwide, the National Rifle Association has long been considered a ruling giant of lobbyists on Capitol Hill. To cross the NRA was to seal your own political doom.
In fact, the NRA's ability to muster its forces in the face of anti-gun legislation is legendary. The perceived invincibility of the NRA for years has been taken for granted.
But the NRA's aura of invincibility has been tarnished somewhat in recent months because of opposition to "plastic gun" legislation in Congress and "toy gun" legislation in California. (The NRA opposed a ban on plastic guns because it would have banned many models currently on the market, and it opposed a ban on realistic toy guns because it would have banned BB guns, pellet guns and starter pistols.)
Lawmakers who have been saying "no" to the NRA have now found they can survive and even flourish by doing so.
Still, Lattanzio said, the NRA is a power to be reckoned with, especially on the state level.
And Utah lawmakers will be the first to agree, speaking with both admiration and irritation at the NRA's ability to organize and campaign.
During one recent debate, Utah lawmakers were only half-joking when they complained there was no way to oppose NRA-supported legislation and that the NRA had successfully twisted their arms. NRA members, who had packed the galleries, had been calling lawmakers incessantly.
Such high-pressure tactics are effective. With one exception, the NRA has successfully beaten back almost six dozen attempts in the last few years to pass additional gun control legislation in other states.
In Utah, however, no such legislation has even been attempted.
When it comes time for the NRA to muster public support, the response is impressive. "Every state where the public has voted on it has voted down further restrictions on gun ownership," Lattanzio said. "They want criminals with guns off the streets, but they don't want further restrictions on the lawful ownership of guns. Period."
And when the public speaks via such referendums, the results do not go unnoticed by state or federal lawmakers. Attempts to pass comprehensive gun control laws are relatively rare.
For the most part, Congress, recognizing a political hot potato, has left gun control for individual states to decide. Congress, in 1934 and again in 1968, gave the states "broad brush" guidelines to follow. A 1988 bill to modify the 1968 law could provide further guidance.
"But they have always left it to the states to decide specific gun control legislation," Lattanzio said. "And as a result, most all of the (NRA's) major efforts are at the state level, where the public has more direct input into the political process."
The NRA's current efforts can hardly be called defensive. The association is on the offensive in almost every state to get legislation passed "to protect the rights of Americans to own and carry arms," Latanzio said.
At the top of the NRA agenda is "preemption legislation." Currently, many cities and towns have their own gun control laws, but under model legislation supported by the NRA, more restrictive local gun control ordinances would be superseded by state laws.
"We want to stop what happened in Morton Grove (Ill., where the City Council banned the private ownership of handguns) from happening again," Lattanzio said. Thirty-four states currently have preemption legislation, including Utah.
Next on the NRA agenda is a state constitutional amendment in all 50 states to guarantee the individual right of citizens to keep and bear arms. The U.S. Constitution, Lattanzio said, only protects the rights of citizens against the federal government, not from state action against gun owners.
Eight states do not have a constitutional amendment guaranteeing individual rights to keep and bear arms. Utah does.
Third on the list of top priorities for the NRA is the reform and repeal of state laws governing how concealed weapons permits are issued. It is also an issue the NRA is drawing a lot of heat over.
In many states, concealed weapons permits are issued by appointed boards who base their decisions on an applicants' nationality, income, proof of continuous employment, profession or status in the community.
"We are looking for laws that are fair and uniform, not arbitrary and capricious," Lattanzio said. Most laws currently prohibit the majority of citizens from obtaining concealed weapon permits.
"The NRA does not object to mandatory safety training or background checks," he said. But the NRA does want to see laws that make it easier for law abiding citizens to carry concealed weapons if they so choose.
Twelve states, including Utah, have what the NRA considers fair concealed weapons laws, and 15 have moderate laws. Seven states do not allow private citizens to carry concealed firearms.
The NRA has been particularly active in recent years in Utah, where the association has more than 16,000 members:
**The NRA was actively involved in the 1984 bill to amend the Utah Constitution to specify the rights of individuals to keep and bear arms.
**In 1985, the NRA worked with state lawmakers to pass "preemption legislation."
**In 1986, an NRA-supported bill passed the Legislature to reform the state's concealed weapon laws to enable all law-abiding citizens to carry concealed weapons for lawful purposes.
**Also in 1986, the Legislature passed a bill protecting hunters and sportsmen from prosecution under statutes that prohibited the carrying of firearms in open view or within reach in a vehicle.
The NRA may be back before the Utah Legislature in 1989 seeking a bill protecting gun manufacturers from liability if a weapon they built was misused or illegally used.
The NRA is also actively pursuing tougher legislation in all 50 states to require mandatory prison sentences for criminals who use firearms.
"The public, when they see the facts, are saying gun control doesn't work. What they want is crime control," Lattanzio said.
When it comes to ideal legislation, "Florida is the model state," Lattanzio said, "but Utah isn't far behind."