Cease Fire

As the NRA's chief lobbyist, Tanya Metaksa has been one of the most powerful women in Washington. Guns are her life. So what's she so afraid of? Essayist Barbara Grizzuti Harrison finds out.

Compact, sturdy, as tidy and as glamorous as a safety pin, Tanya K. Metaksa greets me with a smile that is dry but nevertheless invitational; without apology she appraises me. She is clothed in an air of quiet watchfulness (and in a Federal-blue silk blazer with an emblematic gold American eagle on its lapel). I feel as if I have been ushered into the office of a mother superior who will judge my character, test my mettle, assess my fairness.

We meet at Novitá, a New York City restaurant (which, as it happens, my son, a painter, has decorated in cheery yellow Venetian stucco luster). I have chosen this place so as to feel warm and safe: "Lady Uzi," my companion's been called.

Since 1994, Metaksa, the executive director of the National Rifle Association's quasi-independent Institute for Legislative Action (ILA), has been one of the most powerful lobbyists in America. Setting up an appointment with her was difficult; every time I spoke with NRA public affairs representative Bill Powers, I felt that I was being led -- belligerently or with silken charm -- into a labyrinth of conflicting motives.

The NRA is facing difficult times; the group lost 400,000 members in 1995. Finances, as a consequence, are -- as Metaksa, appealing to her members for emergency contributions, put it bluntly -- a disaster.

Metaksa tells me, however, that the NRA's financial distress is (a) unsubstantiated, (b) cyclical, and (c) a specter raised by the rumormongering of "our enemies," of whom there is no dearth. Metaksa's list includes George Bush, who resigned from the NRA when the group's direct mail described federal law enforcement agents as "jack-booted government thugs" and who she believes "let the golden opportunity to be re-elected slide away"; General Norman Schwarzkopf, who quit the NRA on the grounds that it had become "inflexible and almost radical"; and Bob Dole, for whom Metaksa has had vast contempt since he reneged on his promise to repeal the ban on assault weapons. ("It would help," she says, dripping sarcasm, "if [Mrs. Dole] didn't speak for him, nice if he could finish his own sentences. I don't understand Mr. Dole. You'd have to ask him these questions.")

In fact, "our enemies" includes anyone who wants to disarm America: "They see us as the only bulwark of defense against them, so they hate us...." Tanya says.

"I don't take it personally."

I spill wine on the table and am forced to confess my clumsiness with tape recorders. My shortcomings amuse her. If I am not entirely in control, I cannot be entirely on attack; perhaps I am frivolous.

Metaksa relaxes so far as to acknowledge my question: "Am I carrying?" she says. "Of course not. It's not legal in New York City." Irrationally perhaps, I am convinced at that moment that if an armed assailant were to enter our elegant Italian restaurant, he would be blown away.

Under her chilliness there is an inclination toward warmth, and a soft darkness akin to melancholy. And (I think) the attractive and seductive wish to know and be known. When I ask her what her favorite movies and books are, she exclaims -- as if it were a cause for wonder -- "You're going to try to give me a well-rounded appearance!"

Metaksa has risen meteorically to her current position of power, certainly not without cunning. Her zeal for information is like that of a calculating child. So I tell her a story to reward her belief that absolutely everyone is fascinated by guns:

I had an uncle who was a cop. Once, sitting with him in a dark movie theater at a kiddies' matinee, I rested my hand unwittingly on the holster of his gun. For years thereafter I had to resist, whenever I saw a cop, the compulsion to touch and feel his gun. When a subway cop stood with his back turned toward me, I grew faint and had to cover my right hand with my left to stop from reaching for his gun, an object of black desire. Years later I told another cop this unsettling fact about myself. We were sitting in his living room, discussing the aftermath of the von Bulow trial, in which he had played a small part. He excused himself, walked into his bedroom, and came out uniformed, and armed. He turned his back toward me. I did what was expected of me -- I slipped his gun out of its holster. I held it for a moment and then hurled it across the room. "Was it loaded?" I asked him. "What good is a fantasy if you leave one of the elements out?" he replied. He disarmed my compulsion in that moment of mutual trust.

Tanya likes this story. Its erotic elements do not escape her. (Little does.) She rewards me with her own story:

Her American-born mother was a dancer; her father was a stage director who escaped from Russia after the revolution. While Tanya (birth-named Tatiana) was a child, her father's Russian friends, who had also escaped from the tyranny of the Bolsheviks, often came to visit her house in Darien, Connecticut. "One chilly fall evening," Tanya tells me, "two friends -- Madame and Mislov Dubrojinsky -- missed the last train back to New York and decided to stay. Madame sat in a very big room with very tall floor-to-ceiling windows -- a small lady, all dressed in black. She was terrified. We closed all the blinds and drew the curtains, and she was still terrified." Her father instructed 8-year-old Tanya to go outside and get the ladder. "And I had to go out there and unlatch these huge, heavy shutters that we never used and close those things."

Tanya never forgot this; she came away with the lesson that governments exist in order to oppress their subjects: "Here was a lady who had been persecuted in her home country and had come to this country, and yet she was so frightened of they, them, it, whatever it was." They. Her enemies.

Gun control advocates impute to Metaksa the use of deliberate deceptions, of tricking people into believing that what the government wants is to show up at your door and take away the nice deer-hunting rifle grandpa left you in his will. I think she really is frightened.

After graduating from Smith College in 1958, Metaksa was for a time a medical photographer at New York Hospital. ("I saw so many cleft palates I began to believe that all kids were born that way.") She met her husband, George, an engineer (and, like Metaksa, the child of Russian immigrants), at a camera club. He buys her guns, which he regards as works of art; Tanya can't tell one shotgun from another: "He's much more into the aesthetics of guns than I am. I go and look at a bunch of shotguns in a rack and try to figure out which one is mine. He just goes crazy." ("Look at the wood!" he says to her. "Look at the wood!")

Married, living in Connecticut, she "got into the whole mommyhood business. I baked bread, I made clothes, I had a garden -- I did all that stuff." In the late '60s, she became involved in the gun rights movement. For three years she worked as legislative director for New York Sen. Al D'Amato, about whom she will say little: "Let's say I know him." (Her eyes narrow and she peers at her artichoke with sudden distaste.)

Metaksa sees her life, as though from a distance, as a story with many stages. "I've had it all," she tells me.

She's had a lot, including the suffering that opens parts of the heart one didn't know one had. She is smart enough to know that her pain -- including the death of her beloved father about two years ago -- has changed her in ways she doesn't yet understand.

That we get along well is an accident of temperament and of vanity (mine): "This is like the place in the movie," she says, "where Patton is about to meet Rommel in North Africa. And there's Rommel coming after him. He says, 'Ha, ha, I read your book'.... Well, I read your book." Am I flattered? Of course. She has seized upon an essential fact of a writer's life -- the need to be praised -- and a peculiar facet of mine: I like too much to be liked. So does she. Each of us recognizes that quality in the other. Because we get along well, she holds out the true-believer hope that I will be converted to her way of thinking.

"Guns," Tanya says, are "99 and 44/100 percent pure."

To refute her opponents' arguments, she sometimes resorts to only one word -- a word along the lines of baloney, or pshaw. She stares accepted statistics in the eye, calls them the work of "our enemies," and (with that no-nonsense, righteous air of the Catholic school nun whom she resembles in appearance and manner) offers anecdotal evidence to refute them:

"There's a story of a lady named Rayna Ross who was a lance corporal -- a black woman -- in the Marine Corps. She had a boyfriend who was also in the Marine Corps. I believe he fathered a child with her. And then she decided to ditch him. He proceeded to stalk her. The little piece of paper called the court order didn't stop him. She was so terrified that she went out and bought a gun. Two days later, when she was asleep at night in her apartment, crashing through her door came this Marine with a bayonet, and he was over her bed before she shot him. She and the baby were in the bed, and she killed him.

"Now, in my way of thinking, that lady had the perfect right to save her life and that of her child. The local authorities decided she'd acted in self-defense; they didn't press charges. The military pressed charges. And, let me tell you, the only organization that came to her defense -- not the National Organization for Women -- was the NRA. We supplied an attorney who argued her case in the military court system, and she was found not guilty."

Metaksa worked for the NRA from 1977 to 1979 as director of state and local affairs for the Institute for Legislative Action, and then served for a year as its deputy executive director. According to the Washington Post, she was ousted in 1980 by then-President Harlon Carter for being too aggressive.

After a decade out of the NRA leadership, Metaksa returned in 1991 as a member of the NRA board of directors. She was the object of an internal controversy in 1993, when her computer company, Bullet Communications, was, in a no-bid contract, awarded a $90,000 consultancy fee for establishing the Institute's electronic bulletin board, GunTalk. But she triumphed, overwhelming her critics. In 1994, she became head of the ILA. Her climb was swift and silent: In Osha Gray Davidson's authoritative 1993 book, Under Fire: The NRA & the Battle for Gun Control, the woman who would soon become director of one of the most powerful single-issue lobbies in America is given one slight mention.

Eighty-four people work for her, in eight divisions; four division directors are women. (Close to 80 percent of the NRA membership is male.)

The unpaid president of the NRA, Marion Hammer, is also a woman. Yet, although she has been given much more publicity than Tanya Metaksa, hers is clearly the subordinate task. Hammer has revived and presides over the NRA's youth-training and safety programs. She provided the inspiration for Eddie Eagle, the NRA's goofy sneaker-clad mascot. Eddie Eagle is not where the power is. Metaksa's Institute is where the power is.

We are talking again of her enemies.

"Tanya, you are ice," I tell her.

"Fire," she says.

"Do you think you are tough?" I ask.

"I am tough," she says. "Why are women who complain or make waves called bitches, while the men are called tough and uncompromising? Because I've gotten into this line of business, I'm a bogeyman to a lot of women on the left. I find that sort of strange." She says of Gloria Steinem: "I think we probably have more in common than we have apart."

"I am not a victim," Tanya tells me. "I have not been raped, assaulted, or anything else, and I have never had to defend myself. I'm lucky. But if you look at the stories of women who've defended themselves because they have been stalked or attacked -- I'm very interested in the stories of women -- you'll find these women were pushed to the wall and had nowhere to go. How can I get you to believe this?"

But what about assault weapons; why should I have to have an Uzi?

"You don't have to have one any more than you have to have a Rolls. You should have one if you want one."

Metaksa regards Clinton's assault weapons ban as an example of how "semantics is everything in politics.... There is a military definition of an assault weapon -- a fully automatic firearm used in time of war by the ordinary soldier. The problem is that the term has been taken by a very clever man named Josh Sugarmann of the Violence Policy Center and made into a buzzword for any gun you want to ban. So an assault gun is one thing in New Jersey and another in California. One gun may have one little decorative hickey on it, 1/4 inch long, and another may not; and that cosmetic difference is the difference between an assault gun and a gun that is not banned. Stupid. Our enemies must stay up all night dreaming up these things."

"Listen," she says, "there are about a quarter of a million Americans who legally own machine guns. They don't use their machine guns for criminal activities. They have shoots. Machine guns are fun to shoot. I mean, you really can waste that ammo."

What about "copkiller" bullets, bullets that can pierce armor? "Soft body armor," she says, "vests. Semantics again. Most bullets will penetrate a vest. If you take a hunting rifle, which is designed to shoot at a large animal -- a deer -- it will penetrate a vest. Most cops have been killed in the head. You don't wear body armor on your head."

And why does the NRA oppose "taggants," particles mixed in with gunpowder that can be used to trace explosives used by terrorists? "They haven't been adequately tested. If there is a credible study, I'll accept them. But only in commercial explosives. Many of our people make their own ammunition from bulk powders, you know."

Why do they? This brings us inevitably back to terrorism.

Tanya Metaksa bristles when I ask her about Timothy McVeigh. (On the envelope of a letter to his congressman ranting about the necessity for self-defense was a decal proclaiming I'M THE NRA.) "There's no ties between the NRA and anybody," she tells me. "It's an association.... People join.... People leave...."

She asks me if I have considered that the real terrorists are the government thugs who brought apocalyptic devastation to Waco and to Ruby Ridge, "infringing on other people's human rights."

"I am a civil libertarian," she says. "I do not understand the ACLU's reluctance to believe that the Second Amendment is just as important as the First Amendment. They wiffle-waffle. I believe the Bill of Rights is a seamless fabric. They should be on our side.

"You think you had it hard in the '60s when you were protesting the Vietnam War? Look at us in the '90s."

Later, she asks: "What kind of an article are you going to write? It will be fair, won't it? Are you going to be fair? I never hear back from the people who write about me, and, having read their articles, I can see why."

The next time I see Metaksa after our meeting in New York is in her nondescript office at the NRA's brilliant-blue glass building in Fairfax, Virginia. In the lobby, a plentitude of stuffed deer heads; in the hallways, sepia prints of past presidents of the NRA, the men Charlton Heston calls "our beloved dead old white men."

I have come from the office of NRA President Marion Hammer. Blue-eyed, her hair cut like that of the boy on a can of Dutchboy paint, her voice rusty and low, Hammer presides over an office that is personal, eccentric, and kitschy: plaster models of eagles with bright yellow beaks; pictures of her blond daughters, Rhonda, Colleen, and Sally (hair big and Texas-wild); a bronze sculpture by Eddie Dixon called "Buffalo Soldier"; an American flag; bowls of candy.

Tanya sits alone in her office, which, compared to Hammer's, is plain. All the energy in the office seems to reside in her computer.

She is frothing because President Clinton wishes to add perpetrators of domestic violence and spousal battering to the list of those disallowed the purchase of a handgun by the Brady bill. "Domestic violence," says Tanya -- whose own logic is a source of refreshment to her -- "is a misdemeanor in some states and a felony in others. If they want to go ahead and make domestic violence a felony, OK; but you can't have different standards for different states. It's stupid."

She takes me down to the shooting range, a kind of cement bunker, which, with an absence of irony, she proudly calls "ecologically friendly." I walk to the rear of the range with her, where running water, a kind of diabolical waterfall, rinses away the detritus of expended bullets. My back, as we walk away from the shooting gallery and the guns she has brought with her -- a rifle, a .22 semiautomatic, and a .38 revolver -- feels naked and unprotected. "Is your back prickling?" I ask. "No," she says.

She has made a calculated decision not to have me practice shooting at a paper figure of a man, sheets of which the range is liberally equipped with. I shoot, first with the .22 semiautomatic, then with the rifle, at conventional, circular targets.

I find myself unable even to hold her .38 revolver. It is loathsome to me. I go back to the .22. It jams. Either the magazine or the ammo is defective. "So tell me, Tanya, what happens when some motherfucker walks toward you with a gun in his hand and your goddamn gun jams?"

"You drop the gun and run like hell," Tanya says, unfazed. "Look at the nice small holes this gun makes," she says. "Very nice, symmetrical holes."

It is after the shoot. We are sitting in a cool, dark Tex-Mex restaurant.

"Why do people hate me?" Tanya asks.

"Hate you?"

"Hate me. Hate the NRA. Hate me."

After a long pause, so uncomfortable as to be excruciating, she starts to answer her own question: "We are the only bulwark...." Her eyes are squeezed tight against the murky light.

"I don't take it personally," she says.