Gun control - a topic that polarizes Americans more than any other except, perhaps, abortion - is likely for the first time to become a major hot-button issue in a US presidential race.
That expectation has been heightened by several factors, foremost the rising national concern about student gunmen who open fire in their schools.
With Congress hamstrung over how to respond, and with both the gun-control lobby and the National Rifle Association building up their forces to unprecedented levels, many analysts say the debate can't help but spill over into presidential politics.
"At the presidential level, I can't recall a campaign where gun control was discussed this much, this early in the campaign," says Robert Spitzer, a gun-control expert at the State University of New York in Cortland.
Indeed, Vice President Al Gore, the Democrats' likely nominee, is vigorously advocating handgun licensing - a position the majority of Americans support, according to polls. In doing so, Mr. Gore has moved the debate past the complex arguments about gun-show loopholes that have stymied lawmakers on Capitol Hill - and put Texas Gov. George W. Bush, his likely Republican rival, in a difficult position with his "hands off" stance on the issue.
The arms buildup
In anticipation of the "great gun-control debate," the two sides - always powerful lobbying forces from city halls to statehouses to Washington - are amassing members and money as never before.
Handgun Control Inc., the main antigun lobbying group, is in the midst of a major membership and fund-raising drive, having increased its membership by 20 percent (to 450,000) since the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado last year.
"Never has there been a more critical election for our issue," says Naomi Paiss, communications director at Handgun Control. "We've never had such a clear choice of two different visions of how this society operates with guns."
The group is preparing a television advertising campaign to air on and off through November, and it hopes to raise $2 million for political lobbying - compared with $200,000 in the 1998 election.
It is also helping promote a "million mom march" to demand stronger gun laws. The gathering of "moms, grandmoms, step-moms, moms-to-be, and anyone who has ever had a mom" is scheduled in Washington for May 14 - Mother's Day.
But these efforts pale in comparison with developments at the NRA. The association, which lobbies to protect the rights of gun owners, has pulled its membership up to 3.2 million (after dropping to 2.8 million a few years ago). It's raised nearly $30 million for political activities, an all-time high. And it's been a strong presence at statehouses around the nation, successfully urging 14 states to prohibit local governments from suing firearms manufacturers to recover damages stemming from gun violence. Twenty other states are considering similar measures.
This week, a kind of showdown at the White House gave a not-too-subtle foreshadowing of the political intensity that is yet to come. President Clinton called congressional leaders to the Oval Office and urged them to get busy and send him a gun-safety bill by April 20, the anniversary of the Columbine tragedy.
Democrats and Republicans agree on legislation that would require child-safety locks on new handguns and ban imports of large-capacity ammunition magazines. But they are deadlocked over a proposal to require background checks for buyers at gun shows, and the legislation has languished for months.
Even if lawmakers were to reach a compromise this year, much would remain at stake in the coming elections.
Gore is running television ads promoting photo-licensing for all new handgun sales - an idea Governor Bush opposes. Gore plans to hammer the governor on the issue, perhaps trying to make hay out of a Texas law Bush signed last summer allowing Texans to carry concealed weapons. Bush also agreed to prohibit Texas municipalities from suing gun manufacturers.
After last week's shooting in a first-grade classroom in Michigan, Bush said he would sign a law requiring trigger locks. But his spokeswoman, Karen Hughes, said later that while Bush would sign such a law, he probably wouldn't push it.
In 1994, several Democrats lost their seats after they voted for background checks at gun stores - a measure the White House says has prevented 400,000 criminals from buying guns.
But America has changed since 1994, say gun-control advocates. The NRA may still be able to excite voters in rural districts, they argue, but these days swing-vote suburbia holds the electoral clout.
Case study in California
That proved to be the case in California, where Democratic Gov. Gray Davis swept into office on a strong gun-control platform in 1998. Since then, he's signed five gun-control measures, including bans on "Saturday night specials," assault weapons, and guns without trigger locks. He's strengthened gun-show regulations and limited handgun purchases to one a month.
His support comes from the crucial suburban voter, says Luis Tolley of Handgun Control.
"The swing districts - the suburbs - have moved to the Democrats. Even Republicans in this state have to put gun-control-friendly candidates in swing districts," says Mr. Tolley. The lesson to be learned, he says, is that the dynamics have changed, "and that's going to change elections."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society