CLEVELAND - President Clinton said the National Rifle Association used smear tactics in accusing him of milking political gain from gun violence. He challenged a top official of the group to ''look into the eyes'' of bereaved parents and repeat the charge.
In a pair of Cleveland appearances Monday, Clinton accused the NRA of stalling his gun legislation with ''slash-and-burn'' strategies. And he upped the ante in a dispute that has taken a bitterly personal turn.
A day earlier, Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's executive vice president, said Clinton apparently ''needs a certain level of violence in this country'' to serve his political ends. ''He's willing to accept a certain level of killing to further his political agenda and his vice president, too,'' he added.
Clinton quoted that accusation to his audiences Monday and said: ''I would like to see him look into the eyes of little Kayla Rolland's mother and say that; or the parents at Columbine; or Springfield, Oregon; or Jonesboro, Arkansas; or the families of those people that were shot in Memphis.''
''I want you to see what we're up against whenever we try to change here,'' Clinton said.
But LaPierre held his ground, saying it is Clinton who owes the parents of children killed by guns an explanation of why federal gun laws are being so poorly enforced.
''I think he should look them in the eye and explain why he won't enforce the laws against crack dealers with guns and take them off the street,'' he said in an interview.
Clinton, however, came back with another round of retorts, telling a Chicago fund-raising event Monday night that LaPierre's comments were ''pretty hard for me to take.'' ''I guess he was frustrated,'' Clinton said of LaPierre, adding that he believes the NRA had made killing gun legislation its ''main mission in life.''
He also tried to make light of the running dispute. ''It's amazing to me that I get into these tussles with the NRA,'' Clinton said. As Arkansas governor, ''I once got a lifetime membership to the NRA. I think it's been revoked now.''
LaPierre said the 6-year-old boy accused of shooting Kayla Rolland came from a ''crack house full of guns and contraband.'' That, he said, is just the sort of situation the administration has not bothered to prosecute in the past.
''If it's not for a political agenda, they need to say something to the NRA or the American people that makes sense,'' he said.
Clinton spoke to a Democratic fund-raising event and a group gathered to hear his plans for Medicare drug coverage before going on to Chicago to raise almost $800,000 for the Democratic National Committee at two more events.
The verbal sparring was touched off by a new campaign in which NRA President Charlton Heston implies in television ads that Clinton lied when he characterized the NRA as stubbornly resistant to reasonable gun-control laws.
''When what you say is wrong, that's a mistake,'' Heston says in several of them. ''When you know it's wrong, that's a lie.''
Clinton said of the NRA: ''We ought not to engage in this kind of political smear tactics.''
Vice President Al Gore, campaigning in Miami, said LaPierre's remark betrayed ''a kind of sickness at the very heart of the NRA.''
''Anyone who has spent time, as I have - many times - with the families of the victims of gun violence, and felt the heartache, seen the way gun violence tears families apart, couldn't possibly make such a comment,'' Gore said. ''I call upon him to apologize for those comments to the people of this country.''
In response, LaPierre said ''Gore needs to apologize to the American public for not enforcing the existing federal firearms laws.''
Texas Gov. George Bush, campaigning in Mississippi along with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, shunned the fray and appealed for restraint. ''I think we can have a civil discussion on emotional issues without name-calling,'' Bush said.
Clinton, however, said the NRA statements amounted to a personal attack on him and only served to underscore differences between the parties on gun control, ''and America has to choose.''
''I'm trying to fire your energy for the coming combat,'' Clinton told his Democratic audience in Cleveland. ''Maybe he really believes this. But if he does, we've got even more trouble than if it's just a horrible political mistake.''
LaPierre insisted: ''Our gripe is with the policy, not the president.''
The gun legislation that Clinton is pursuing would require handgun purchasers to undergo background checks that could take as long as 72 hours. Many congressional Republicans and the NRA want any such checks to be instant, or at least no longer than 24 hours.
Clinton also wants background checks at gun shows, mandatory child-safety locks and an option for states to issue photo licenses to gun buyers.