Suddenly, a formidable force for gun control

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

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.

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."

Additionally, analysts point out the significance of former Democratic candidate Bill Bradley and Gore raising the gun-control debate to a new level by demanding gun licensing. This is the chief goal of the Million Mom group, which is demanding that all handgun owners be licensed just as car drivers are, and be required to register their guns.

Bush opposes gun licensing and registration. In his own state, he has signed into law bills that allow Texans to carry concealed weapons and that would prevent municipalities from suing gun manufacturers - two areas where the NRA has had success in statehouses across the nation.

But he is not as rabidly pro-gun as the Democrats portray him: He has supported raising the age for handgun possession from 18 to 21, and banning the import of high-capacity ammunition magazines. Bush presents himself as tough on enforcement of existing laws, a position in line with the majority of Americans.

In fact, the gun lobby points to opinion polls that show Americans widely prefer stricter enforcement of laws already on the books over the passage of more gun-control legislation. This perhaps explains why Bush is polling slightly ahead of Gore on the issue of gun control.

Independent pollster John Zogby says his research backs up this view. But he also points out that when Americans are asked about specific measures, such as gun licensing, background checks on buyers at gun shows, and trigger locks, they overwhelmingly favor them.

This convinces Mr. Zogby that "the tide has turned" on gun control. "All that's needed now is a display of intensity" - which Sunday's march, he says, could very well provide.

Analysts say that if the gun-control forces are to win this battle, they have to remain active beyond Sunday. President Clinton, meeting with some of the moms this week, likened their fight to the civil rights movement.

"I've been watching these kinds of issues all my life, and it's like civil rights, or something, where there's this huge organized resistance, but if they just keep at it, they're going to win," he said.

Indeed, the "organized resistance" is formidable. The planned march is energizing the NRA, which has raised $10 million and signed up 200,000 new members in the past month. It's running infomercials on cable television and is setting its sights on the mainstream media.

The gathering strength of the gun-control movement doesn't concern the gun lobby, says Robert Delfay, president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents manufacturers. The Million Mom group, he says, "will just be another gun-control group."

But the gun-control lobby is not rolling over. Rather, it's aiming to raise $2 million to contribute to candidates from its political action committee - 10 times what it raised in 1998.

And if anyone thinks they are "just another" advocacy group, he or she is mistaken, says Andrew McGuire, who is a key organizer of the march.

Mr. McGuire, who was an early board member of MADD, says the moms are patterning their organization after the anti-drunk-driving campaign. After Sunday, they plan to visit with every elected official in the country to talk up their cause. They've already got 40 chapters around the country.

"I've been there with MADD, and we're going to replicate it like DNA," he says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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