THE signing of the Brady bill last week was a high gala at the White House East Room. The Marine Band, tears, mayors, police chiefs, James and Sarah Brady, gracious as ever at a long-delayed triumph, were all present.
A huge send-off for such a modest response to 70 million handguns, you would say. The things the bill won't do have been widely noted. The disarmament of America is a long way off. But it has begun, and that is worth celebrating.
Says Spurgeon Kenny, president of the Arms Control Association, who busies himself with trying to coax countries to give up their nukes, "The significance is that it shows you can do something that the NRA doesn't want."
Maybe the most significant thing was the emergence of a new gun-control leader. President Clinton, speaking with great fervor and urgency, took dead aim at the heart of the gun culture, which helps explain why it took seven years to delay gun purchases by five days.
The gun owners who clutch their weapons defensively whenever someone suggests a change in any gun laws are his people. "I come from a state where half the folks have hunting and fishing licenses," Mr. Clinton said. "I can still remember the first day when I was a little boy putting a can on top of a fence post and shooting a .22 at it. I can still remember the first time I pulled a trigger on a .410 shotgun.
"This is part of the culture of a big part of America. I live in a place where we still close schools and plants on the first day of deer season -- nobody is going to show up anyway. We just started deer season at home and a lot of other places. We have taken this important part of the life of millions of Americans and turned it into an instrument of maintaining madness. It is crazy.
"Would I let anybody change that life in America? Not on your life. Has that got anything to do with the Brady bill or assault weapons, or whether the police have to go out on the street confronting teen-agers who are better armed than they are? Of course not."
Mr. Clinton is not the first to try to break the iron chain that binds the hunter to the ghetto punk. If you touch the drive-by shooter or the maniac with the automatic rifle in the schoolyard, goes the NRA-sponsored thinking, you touch me. At last we have a president who can engage in the bubba-to-bubba dialogue that this awful subject needs.
Every speaker at the Brady signing mentioned the fact that 50,000 would-be gun buyers in four states were stopped at the counter because bad dope had turned up in a mandated check of their records. That doesn't mean that the shopper would not go elsewhere, maybe to a truck rolling through his neighborhood.
Obviously, the real solution is to ban handguns. The president, when asked in a Rolling Stone interview about eliminating them, said it's not an option now. What is, however, is a House vote on automatic weapons, which the Senate has voted to outlaw.
For some reason, the deadly street sweeper has many friends among the representatives, who may want to reingratiate themselves with the NRA.
Rep. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., plans to introduce a comprehensive gun-control bill, and the Bradys, who personify the issue, will lobby for it.
Mr. Schumer's proposal goes after sloppy gun-dealer licensing, eliminates hollow-nose bullets (designed for destruction of the human body) and forces gun dealers to have a place of business other than a home or a car.
People hate to give up weapons, from Saturday Night Specials to cruise missiles. Attempts to bribe people to turn in their small arms have come to little, yielding only rusty antiques.
Mogadishu suggests one way to go about it. U.N. authorities ran the whole town through the magnetometers and confiscated weapons. But you can't do that in Washington, D.C., which may be the most heavily armed city in the world. The American Civil Liberties Union would be down your throat for unreasonable search and seizure.
The paid surrender is working a little better in Russia, but badly in Ukraine, which seems to derive its identity and its only comfort from the possession of 1,800 warheads, 176 land-based missiles and 40 bombers. We have offered money to help with the dismantling, but the Ukrainians keep upping the price and writing new restrictions on their cooperation.
It is discouraging. But at last the American people seem to have made the connection between guns and crime.
Mary McGrory is a syndicated columnist.