We register cars. We license drivers. Why not guns?
That's the question posed by Democratic presidential contenders and gun-control advocates in the latest war over what to do about firearms.
Short of an outright ban on firearms, these measures are considered the most severe steps the government could take to combat gun violence. Gun owners see them as just one step removed from gun confiscation.
Even the assassinations of a US president, a senator, and a civil rights leader were not enough to persuade Congress to include registration or licensing in its Gun Control Act of 1968.
But gun-control advocates now hope times have changed. After April's tragedy in Littleton, Colo., capping a spate of school shootings, public attitudes hardened on the volatile issue of gun control.
"Littleton wasn't a president being shot, or a beloved senator or civil rights activist. This was an invasion into our families and living rooms. Americans are saying 'do something,' " says John Zogby, an independent pollster whose latest survey shows guns and violence as the top concern among likely voters.
Washington's political dynamics remain stacked against reforms. But recent opinion polls show strong support for gun registration, which requires the recording of gun sales, as well as for licensing gun buyers.
According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released Tuesday, 90 percent of Democrats and 70 percent of Republicans support mandatory registration of any type of gun or firearm.
A May report by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago shows similar findings, with 70 percent favoring gun-owner licensing and training in use of their weapons.
In fact, 11 states and the District of Columbia have laws requiring gun registration. And 13 states, as well as D.C., have some kind of licensing provision.
"But one of our urgent needs is for a national law, because there is so much interstate trafficking," says Robert Walker, president of Handgun Control Inc.
In New York City, which is subject to a state gun-registration law, about 95 percent of the guns found on the streets come from other states, according to Mr. Walker.
Gun-control advocates like Walker see registration and licensing as twin measures that go to the very root of America's gun problem, which results in 34,000 to 39,000 deaths per year.
Registration would help investigators trace guns back to users, and assist not only in solving crimes but also in deterring them, advocates say.
Licensing introduces responsibility into ownership, especially if it's combined with instruction and testing in gun safety, they contend.
The National Rifle Association thinks differently. "Criminals don't register their guns," says Jim Manown, NRA spokesman.
Given the gun lobby's clout with members of Congress from rural districts, federal action will likely hinge on the coming presidential election.
Both Democratic presidential hopefuls Al Gore and Bill Bradley advocate gun licensing and safety training, as well as gun registration, though Mr. Bradley's position is more sweeping. He proposes that all guns - even those already owned - be registered.
Mr. Gore, who laid out his gun-control program this week, advocates recording only sales by licensed gun dealers.
Both men are obviously sensitive to the politics of the incendiary issue. By coming out with such relatively tough proposals, they are seizing on a subject that has popular support and clearly distinguishes them from Republican competitor George W. Bush. As Texas governor, Mr. Bush signed laws enhancing the ability of citizens to conceal weapons, and shielding gunmakers from certain lawsuits.
Nine in 10 Democrats and 7 in 10 Republicans support mandatory gun registration.
Still, the Democratic candidates are also keenly aware of the nation's historical resistance to gun control. At one point, Bradley supported a ban on handguns, but dropped it. Gore doesn't even call his limited sales-recording plan "registration," although that's what it amounts to.
Yet if a post-Littleton Congress can't pass a comparatively minor measure - background checks at gun shows - how can Bradley or Gore hope to get anywhere with registration and licensing?
They can't, says Marshall Wittmann, Congress watcher at the conservative Heritage Foundation here. "In past elections, gun-rights activists have always been more active ... voting on that issue alone, than have other voters," he says.
But pollster Zogby, while acknowledging gun owners' influence, says the next few years could be different. If registration and licensing become campaign themes and a Democrat is elected president, he will have a mandate for change, he says. "It could very well be ... that people expect something to happen."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society