Dodging the Bullet

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Arms and the man: N.R.A. president Charlton Heston at a Manchester, N.H., rally

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Still, the sniper spree, even if it has not created a new surge of gun-control legislation, may have temporarily slowed some of the gains that the gun lobby was making in Congress. House Republican leaders quietly delayed a vote on the N.R.A.'s top priority — legislation that would forbid local governments to sue gunmakers. But with well more than half the House signed on as co-sponsors, the bill is likely to return.

As the sniper investigation has progressed, at least one gun-control idea has gained favor: nearly three-quarters of Americans, according to last week's TIME/CNN poll, now support the idea of test-firing all guns sold in the U.S. so the distinctive markings they leave on bullets can be entered into a government database, which could be used to link individual guns to specific crimes. So far, four states are considering joining Maryland and New York in creating such a system. But the gun lobby has vowed to fight it, with N.R.A. executive vice president Wayne LaPierre saying it is "another scheme that is gun registration masquerading as ballistics fingerprinting." The Bush Administration is lukewarm to the idea. Press secretary Ari Fleischer questioned the effectiveness of the technology two weeks ago and asserted, "In the case of the sniper, the real issue is values... The question is not new laws; the question is the actions here represent the values in our society." It was only after realizing that his statement put the White House on the opposite side of law-enforcement groups that Fleischer was willing to say that the idea was worth exploring.

That means it will take time for the proposal to advance, and time is never on the side of gun control. While public interest can fade quickly, the determination of gun groups never flags. After the Columbine massacre, they successfully snuffed a congressional attempt to close the loophole that allows people who buy firearms at gun shows or from one another — such transactions represent 40% of all sales — to avoid the Brady background-check system. The N.R.A. also has the tenacity to wage its battles state by state. California did succeed recently in repealing the law that protected gun manufacturers from lawsuits by cities wanting compensation for the costs of coping with gun violence. Nearly 30 states, however, have passed such shield laws in the past five years.

The biggest test of might between the two sides of the gun debate will come in 2004, when the Clinton-era assault-weapons ban comes up for renewal. Gun-control advocates note that the weapon used in the sniper attacks was manufactured after the ban and say it shows that the law should be tightened. But the N.R.A. already has a comeback: Over our cold, dead bodies.

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