WASHINGTON -- It may be too early to suggest that America has at last turned the corner on the gun madness that has increasingly terrorized its citizens and baffled the rest of the civilized world in its tolerance of the self-inflicted mayhem.
But the passage of the Brady bill, though criticized by many as not going nearly far enough in inhibiting wanton gun purchases, did demonstrate that overwhelming public opinion can overcome the most strenuous opposition of well-heeled special interests, in this case the National Rifle Association, the driving force in the gun lobby.
President Clinton, a politician from a rural state with a long tradition of gun ownership, seems to have recognized a new climate of opportunity to combat the domestic killing by speaking out forcefully for strong follow-up steps to the Brady bill, which merely imposes a five-day waiting period on gun purchases while background checks can be made.
Seizing on the latest case of gun insanity, the shooting spree on a Long Island Railroad commuter train that killed five people and wounded 18 others, the president told a group of reporters the other day of "a substantial and somewhat sudden manifestation, at least, of a change of attitude in Congress" toward gun control. He cited as the next step a ban on assault weapons, included in the crime bill now in a House-Senate conference.
But he went on, then and later, to talk also of a federal ban on gun possession by minors and said he had asked Attorney General Janet Reno to look into the possibility of registration of handguns -- long the fear of the NRA, which conjures up from that prospect Big Brother keeping tabs on law-abiding citizens and eventually disarming them. Reno said subsequently she favors some sort of federal licensing of gun buyers.
Despite several lower court decisions limiting the right to bear arms, the NRA clings to the argument that the Second Amendment guarantees unrestricted individual ownership, though the language specifically talks of it in relation to "a well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state" -- a throwback to colonial days.
For all its bluster, the NRA has never intentionally taken the constitutional issue to the Supreme Court, obviously for fear of losing.
In a later meeting with mayors and police chiefs from 35 cities, Clinton observed that "the American people are tired of hurting and tired of feeling insecure and tired of the violence," and that the country "is really prepared in a way that it has not been before . . . to do something about violent crime."
He said the crime bill, which would put 100,000 more police on the streets as well as ban assault weapons, is his first priority but noted that he has created a White House task force to look beyond that in the realm of gun control.
Clinton over the last week also mentioned other initiatives, including amnesty programs in several cities in which police have asked for volunteer surrender of guns with no questions asked.
In Oakland, Calif., a week ago, 68 guns of all kinds were turned in, in five hours, in return for free tickets to sports events, rock concerts and the opera.
Clinton at one point quoted Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York as saying, "We only have a four-year supply of ammunition, but we have an 80-year supply of weapons," so getting Americans to turn in enough of them to make a difference will take a very long time.
But Moynihan has another idea. He wants to slap a tax on particularly lethal ammunition so prohibitively high as to severely reduce its manufacture and sale.
The president has even linked the gun madness to health care reform, arguing that shootings have become a major burden on hospitals and ultimately on taxpayers.
All these ideas are bubbling up now and need national leadership to bring them together in a way that will be politically effective.
Clinton seems newly determined to assert that leadership, lifted by the sight of former White House press secretary Jim Brady, victimized in the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan in 1981, at his side for the signing of the bill named for him.
The time is certainly ripe, as horror stories of slaughter by gunfire become almost weekly reading fare across the country, and Americans rate crime and violence their greatest present