Americans should get ready for a major political contest over gun control. The Littleton, Colo., school killings have altered the landscape, giving better political ground to the usually outmaneuvered advocates of stronger controls.
But though the opponents of such legislation - notably the National Rifle Association (NRA) - have retreated a bit in the wake of Littleton, they will no doubt regroup.
The battle lines were drawn by President Clinton when he proposed a new set of gun laws. Most of these make eminent good sense. Extending mandatory background checks to gun-show sales would help close a big gap in the regulation of firearms merchandising. Requiring manufacturers to install gun locks is useful. Raising the age for legal ownership of a handgun or assault rifle makes sense as an interim step toward even tougher restrictions on such weapons.
Restricting handgun purchases to one per person per month will bring down the wrath of the gun lobby, but it, too, seems a sensible step toward curbing the commerce in weapons, although it would surely spark constitutional challenges.
Holding adults (parents) legally responsible for allowing children access to a gun that injures someone or is used in a crime should be carefully weighed. It sounds reasonable, and 16 states already have such laws. They're an incentive for safety. But enforcement is problematic, since individual and family circumstances vary widely.
Will the Republican-led Congress allow serious consideration of any of these proposals? The political clout of the NRA can't be discounted as a presidential-election year draws nigh.
Neither should the philosophical fervor of pro-gun forces be underestimated. For many, the right to bear arms is equivalent to the right to protect one's life, family, and property. Any attempt to curb or slow the commerce in guns is seen as an assault on that right.
In fact, effective regulation of the manufacture, sale, and purchase of weapons helps protect everyone's life. And it doesn't prevent gun ownership for recreation or protection.
The leadership of the House and Senate has so far shown little enthusiasm for the president's initiatives, preferring to focus their post-Littleton energies on hearings to probe the underlying causes of youth violence. That's fine. But it shouldn't preclude the pragmatic step of stronger gun control.