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Suddenly, a formidable force for gun control

From the 50 states to a million moms, momentum builds. Will new laws follow?

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 10, 2000



WASHINGTON

For decades, the gun lobby has had most of the money. It's had most of the foot soldiers. More important, it's had most of the political clout.

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But all that may be changing.

A number of factors point to a slow - some say inevitable - move toward tighter restrictions on guns in American society. From this weekend's Million Mom March - a grass-roots crusade for gun legislation that has been compared with Mothers Against Drunk Driving - to gun control's prominent role in the presidential campaign, the gun-control lobby is gaining a momentum it has not seen since the Brady Bill was enacted in 1993.

While gun-control measures remain stalled at the federal level and in some state legislatures, a number of historians, political analysts, and pollsters say recent high-profile shootings have pushed the issue to the forefront of public consciousness and sparked a new level of activism that heralds future change.

Even if the gun lobby's dream candidate, George W. Bush, were to win in November, that would only be a "short-term" setback, says Robert Spitzer, author of "The Politics of Gun Control." The movement would simply intensify in the states until Washington finally caught on. "In the long term, the tide is against" the gun lobby, he says.

That shift is marked by several developments since the Colorado shootings just over a year ago:

*About one-third of the nation's Republican governors have backed stronger gun laws in their states, including those in some Western strongholds of the National Rifle Association.

Sometimes, the governors have chosen centrist positions backed by the NRA, like toughening sentences for crimes committed with guns. But they've also backed more radical steps, such as regulating guns as consumer products, prohibiting concealed weapons, and making adults responsible for minors' use of guns.

*Gun-control forces are expanding their army of advocates, in the form of hundreds of thousands of mothers. The NRA's strength has always been its membership, who get out the vote and can topple lawmakers who legislate against their cause.

"The missing ingredient [for gun-control advocates] has been a very strong grass roots," says Joe Sudbay of Handgun Control Inc., the chief gun-control lobby. The Million Mom March, he says, creates "a whole new crowd of activists." The mothers also represent a crucial constituency - swing voters from the suburbs.

*State, local, and federal governments are pushing their agenda in a new venue: the courtroom. Perhaps more than legislation, lawsuits aimed at gun manufacturers can "really change how guns are manufactured, their design, and also the selling and marketing," says Jon Vernick, associate director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. Gun manufacturers are fighting these lawsuits.

*Finally, never before has gun control reached such a crescendo in a presidential campaign. Last week, Vice President Al Gore and Governor Bush exchanged barbs as Mr. Gore accused Mr. Bush of being in the pocket of the NRA.

Indeed, Handgun Control Inc. has begun a nationwide television ad campaign in which the first vice president at the NRA boasts about its influence in a Bush White House. The uproar prompted Bush to distance himself from the NRA, stating, "I'll make the decisions about what goes on in the White House."