WASHINGTON — The sniper attacks in suburban Washington are swiftly reviving the great debate over gun control leading advocates to hope for movement on one of the most intractable issues in American life.
Sensational violent crimes in the past from the assassination attempt on President Reagan to the Columbine school shootings have led to calls for more controls on guns, often with short-lived momentum.
That could happen again.
But, for the moment, the numbing shooting attacks are focusing new attention on the issue, and specifically on the possible creation of a database of guns' ballistic "fingerprints."
Just a few weeks ago, gun control was the one issue that few candidates in Campaign 2002 wanted to talk about especially Democrats, who remembered that the issue sank Al Gore in three states and helped cost him the presidential election.
Now many are bringing it up again. While some of this reflects a shift in the political winds, many Americans, too, are asking if there are any measures that can help prevent future attacks.
Passage of new measures remains a long shot, and would probably depend on a growing and nationwide rise in public anxiety in the wake of sniper attacks that have become a consuming concern for Washington-area residents.
While large majorities of Americans have long favored tougher controls on firearms, some 40 percent of Americans have a gun in their homes, up from 34 percent at the time of the Columbine school shooting-spree in April 1999. Many strongly oppose new limits, and some have been prompted to buy and carry weapons in the wake of the sniper attacks.
Beyond the question of political will, experts debate the effectiveness of the possible measures from longer waiting periods to buy guns to the controversial idea of firearm registration.
President Bush, an ardent opponent of gun control, this week first raised doubts about ballistic fingerprinting, then called for study of measures that would rely on the unique markings left on bullets when a gun is fired. In some cases, such markings have helped to solve crimes.
With an election nearing, the prevailing view among many Democrats is not to risk being labeled antigun. But some candidates have become more vocal on the issue in recent days.
In the Maryland governor's race, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a Democrat who had fallen behind, quickly worked guns into her campaign after the sniper shootings began. Maryland already has one of the toughest gun control laws in the nation, requiring the ballistics of all newly sold handguns to be recorded on a state police database. She is considering a proposal to extend that requirement to some high-powered rifles.
Her GOP opponent, Rep. Bob Ehrlich, said the shift violates a pledge both candidates had made not to seek political gain from the shootings. "The issue is just too important to me and my family," she said in response.
The 1968 assassination of her father, Robert Kennedy, prompted a national letter-writing campaign to Congress for stronger gun control laws.
Some say the sniper spree could have a similar impact on the Congress.
On Tuesday, the House easily passed a bill that tightened controls on gun sales. It also gives states more resources to identify people with a criminal record or a history of mental illness before the purchase of a gun. It is expected to pass the Senate this session as well.
"The sniper shootings have heightened awareness," says Cecelia Prewett, an aide to Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, another bill cosponsor.
Republicans, meanwhile, dropped a House bill that would have blocked liability claims against gunmakers. It's a matter of "perception," said Cliff Stearns (R) of Florida, referring to the sniper attacks.
Perhaps the proposal gaining the most ground from the sniper shootings is expansion of a national system of ballistic fingerprinting. Since 1999, the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the FBI have maintained a database of ballistic evidenced found at crime scenes. The National Integrated Ballistics Information Network scans markings on bullets or shell casings and makes them available to police department computers around the country.
But the 1968 Gun Control Act outlaws keeping such records on the markings of all guns, due to the powerful opposition of groups such as the National Rifle Association (NRA). That could change. This week, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York called for tracking the ballistics of every new firearm sold in the US.
The NRA has refused to comment on this new proposal, but in the past has opposed such proposals as tantamount to mandatory registration. Opponents say the markings on bullets change over time as bullets are fired.
"Politicians all over the country are suddenly talking about ballistic fingerprinting. But all you have to do is take a file and scratch the inside of the barrel, and it causes a change in how the bullet goes through the barrel," says John Lott, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. The millions it would take to expand the system would better be spent hiring more police, he adds. Nor would such a proposal include the 250 million guns already on the streets, say opponents.