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Wayne LaPierre is the big gun in the National Rifle Association's battle to keep firearms in the hands and homes of millions of American citizens.

LaPierre, the organization's executive vice president and outspoken leader, spoke to a group of about 300 gun enthusiasts Saturday night at a Cheektowaga dinner sponsored by the Shooters Committee on Political Education.

He said he is tired of hearing the organization portrayed as "the bad guy" in the national debate over gun laws.

The real culprits, he said, are President Clinton, federal prosecutors and the news media.

"We're the good guys. . . . We're trying to make America a better place," LaPierre said in an interview. "The most crucial issue facing us is the cultural war being waged against law-abiding gun owners by the news media and the academics. The vast majority of Americans are in favor of the right to bear arms, but you won't see it portrayed in the national media."

LaPierre, 46, a former aide in the Virginia State Legislature, never has backed away from controversy since taking the gun group's top position in 1991. He battled publicly with dozens of government leaders, including President Clinton and former President George Bush.

In May 1995, Bush angrily quit the organization after LaPierre sent a letter to its 3.5 million members, referring to federal agents as "jack-booted thugs" who wear Nazi helmets and "have the government's go-ahead to harass, intimidate (and) even murder law-abiding citizens." Many police officials denounced LaPierre for his letter, and critics said LaPierre had badly damaged the pro-gun movement.

LaPierre said Saturday he now regrets the incident, mostly because of the way it was reported.

"I was referring to a number of very disturbing incidents like Waco and Ruby Ridge, and others which were just as serious but not as well-known," he said. "I apologized for the letter, because some law enforcement officials got the impression I was referring to all police officers. . . . But I do think some of the things I said have been borne out by developments in the Ruby Ridge case."

On Oct. 10, a former FBI supervisor was sentenced to 18 months in prison for destroying a report criticizing the bureau's role in a 1992 shoot-out at the Idaho cabin of white supremacist Randall Weaver. A deputy U.S. marshal, Weaver's wife and 14-year-old son were killed. An FBI sharpshooter faces a charge of involuntary manslaughter.

LaPierre told members of the local group that gun-rights advocates will have to fight hard to retain their rights. He noted that in Great Britain, a new anti-gun law has forced thousands to turn in their firearms.

"I've heard of men weeping as they turned in guns that were in their families for 20, 40 years," LaPierre said. "We can't let that happen here."

LaPierre said American households how have 70 million, and he promised his organization will fight hard to allow even more Americans get guns.

"The problem isn't the law-abiding citizen carrying a gun. It's the criminal who carries a gun," he said.

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