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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.

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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."

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