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Meet the NRA's biggest recruiter

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By Debra Saunders
Published:
If you want to know why Sen. Dianne Feinstein's assault weapons ban couldn't muster 40 votes -- that's according to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who says he will cut the ban from the Democrats' gun bill -- attend a National Rifle Association event in Feinstein's backyard. Though critics like to paint the organization as an out-of-touch haven for angry old white guys, Sunday's NRA "Fun Shoot" at the San Leandro Rifle & Pistol Range was anything but.
I attended a safety and shooting lesson for 12. Half of the group was female -- and white, black and Asian. Four teens showed up with their parents.
Months ago, it was clear that Feinstein's assault weapons ban had little chance of making it through the Democratic-run Senate, let alone the GOP House. Nonetheless, gun control enthusiasts pushed the measure in the dubious belief that the awful Newtown, Conn., shootings would make an assault weapons ban more palatable. But it is doomed. Meanwhile, these efforts have driven some law-abiding Americans into the loving arms of the NRA.
There's a culture clash at play here between people who want to take control of their self-protection and those who want to leave it to the government. "We are our own first responders," NRA instructor Bill Hodges announced as he drilled participants on gun safety. Never put your finger on the trigger unless you're ready to fire. Then he brandished an old photo of Feinstein at a press event holding an AK-47 and ignoring that rule.
The irony here is that Feinstein knows guns. In the 1970s, she carried a revolver after the New World Liberation Front tried to blow up her home. She had a concealed-weapon permit, and she packed when she walked to the hospital to see her ailing late husband.
It was Feinstein who came across Harvey Milk's body after he was felled by gunshot. Her sponsorship of the 1994 assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004, is not born out of a softness about guns.
Still, Feinstein doesn't hear gunshots every night as Leon Blakeley of Oakland, Calif., tells me he does. Blakeley joined the NRA on Sunday. His advice on life: "Own a gun and a fishing pole; you'll survive."
Monty Bindra of Dublin, Calif., brought two teenage daughters because "women need to be able to defend themselves."
Allan Lindsay-O'Neal let me try his AR-15, which he bought before California's 1989 assault weapons law passed. To comply with the law, he later registered it. He showed me a similar rifle that's legal in California to punctuate his point about the superficiality of the California ban.
Lindsay-O'Neal told me he works at 101 California Street in San Francisco, the scene of a grisly 1993 shooting that left eight dead. That brutal crime was the catalyst for Feinstein's 1994 law. "Guns don't have rights," he told me. "People do."

Debra J. Saunders is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Her email address is dsaunders@sfchronicle.com

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