DANNY WAS the child of old friends, a college student in a small New England town. One day several years ago he walked && into a gun shop, bought a weapon over the counter, and killed himself in the parking lot. He wasn't even old enough to a buy a beer legally. But a gun? That was OK.
That young man might well be alive today if the Brady bill had been in force at the time, requiring a five-day waiting period for the purchase of a handgun. Under intense pressure from the National Rifle Association, the Brady bill was amended in Congress to phase out the waiting period over five years, once states have the technical expertise to subject all gun buyers to an instant check. But as Danny's tragic story demonstrates, a waiting period serves an enormously useful purpose under any circumstances without doing serious damage to anybody's rights. It should be retained as part of federal law.
An instant check would certainly be helpful, weeding out convicted felons, fugitives, and other dangerous gun buyers. But the more we learn about mental illness, the more we understand that some people -- like Danny -- are subject to sudden suicidal impulses. And it's a lot easier to act on those impulses if a gun is readily available.
The same holds true for domestic disputes. The NRA likes to point out that Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman were stabbed to death, as if this proves that knives work just as well as guns. But the Simpson case actually proves the reverse: that it takes a person of great strength and agility -- either O.J. or someone else -- to murder two victims with a knife. Anybody can shoot a gun.
Since public support for gun control remains strong, the NRA has adopted a new and devious strategy: Undermine the Brady bill and other gun control measures through the back door. Sen. Bob Dole made this argument on TV this past Sunday: Once an instant background check is available, he said, all restrictions on law-abiding gun purchasers should be eliminated. That includes the five-day waiting period, the assault weapons ban, and Lord knows what else. Maybe Mr. Dole and his NRA friends think your neighbor should be allowed to own a Stinger missile. How about a howitzer?
Fortunately, the NRA is now on the defensive. Its steamy rhetoric -- calling federal agents "jackbooted government thugs" -- might stir up the true believers and attract contributions. But in light of Oklahoma City, it's the NRA types who look like thugs, not the Feds.
Fortunately, too, some sensible GOP leaders can read the public mood. Recent polls show 3-to-1 support for retaining the assault rifle ban, about the same margin that backs the Brady bill. Mr. Dole is already skittering away from his ill-conceived promise to bring up a repeal of the ban later this year, and even some of his most conservative allies are aware that pandering to the NRA could produce a political backlash. One of them, Sen. Don
Nickles of Oklahoma, noted that President Clinton is ready to veto any repeal of the weapons ban. "A lot of people are wishing for that fight," Mr. Nickles told us, "but I'm not sure it's going to happen."
The political thinking behind Mr. Clinton's eager support of the assault-rifle ban is this: About the only way that Democrats can retain the White House next year is to paint their Republican foes as extremists. And there is a short list of wedge issues the Democrats can use to pry moderate, suburban voters away from the GOP.
One is abortion, which is why Mr. Clinton is standing so firmly behind his nominee for surgeon general, Dr. Henry Foster. Another is guns, which is why Mr. Clinton denounced the Supreme Court ruling last week that overturned a law banning weapons from school grounds. That's also why he broadened his condemnation of violence last Monday to include street crime and domestic abuse, as well as terrorism.
Significantly, Mr. Clinton was speaking at an event honoring Emily's List, a major source of campaign cash for female candidates. Democrats calculate that many of those suburban moderates who might be offended by the GOP's rigidity on abortion and guns will be women. The focus on angry white males last fall obscured the GOP's enduring trouble with female voters. In the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll Mr. Clinton ran 14 points ahead among women, while Mr. Dole ran 11 points ahead among men.
The NRA, of course, will not go away. And the Constitution clearly grants the right to bear arms. But no rights are absolute. They must always be balanced against the competing rights of others. And when NRA leaders talk about repealing the assault weapons ban, or ending the cooling-off period under the Brady bill, they never mention people like our young friend Danny. What about his rights? He never did get to pursue much happiness.
Cokie Roberts is an ABC News commentator. Steven V. Roberts is a senior writer for U.S. News & World Report.