Sen. John McCain had hit his stride yesterday morning, roaring through his stump speech in Riverside, Calif., when a seventh-grade girl stopped him cold. The shooting death of 6-year-old Kayla Rolland had scared her, she said. What would the Arizona senator do to keep it from happening again?
McCain groped for an answer, stammering about the "huge problem" of youth violence, the promise of new gun-safety technologies, the "incredible impact" of Internet smut, television and movies.
As his answer stumbled to a close, it became clear that the crackle of gunfire in Michigan on Tuesday and Pennsylvania yesterday had torn through the presidential race, pushing gun control back into focus in a campaign that has been largely devoid of issues.
Both Republican candidates were questioned on the Michigan shooting and their gun control stands yesterday, McCain in Riverside, Texas Gov. George W. Bush in Duluth, Ga.
After expressing hope that "smart gun" technology would prevent children from firing guns, Bush concluded: "The fundamental question is how this child gets hold of a gun and why. And people need to be held accountable for that."
Democrats Al Gore and Bill Bradley have been squaring off on their ambitious gun control proposals for weeks. Yesterday, Bradley released an advertisement challenging the National Rifle Association.
"My attitude toward this issue of gun control is that if anybody's going to be gun-shy, it's gonna be the NRA," the former New Jersey senator said.
And for once, there are clear distinctions among all four candidates.
"Gun control is going to be an issue," ventured Stephen Teret, director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Gun Policy and Research.
Bradley and Gore have pushed the envelope, embracing a national system of gun registration and licensing. Gore would require photo licensing for all new handgun purchases that would certify the buyer had completed a background check and a safety course. Bradley would go further, mandating the registration of all 65 million handguns in circulation.
Gore and Bradley would ban cheap handguns, known as Saturday Night Specials, limit handgun purchases to one a month, require a three-day wait and background check for gun show purchases, and require the sale of child-proof trigger locks.
In addition, Bradley would prohibit gun dealerships in residential neighborhoods and increase the fees that gun dealers must pay for licenses. Gore would raise the penalties on dealers who knowingly sell guns to customers ineligible to purchase them.
Bush and McCain have less sweeping positions, which try to address the concerns of moderate voters without alienating conservatives who favor gun owners' rights. Critics complain that the GOP candidates' stands sound stricter than they are.
Bush calls for the enforcement of existing gun laws, a pledge that sounds tough but echoes calls from the NRA.
The Texas governor backs instant background checks at gun shows but not a waiting period, a position that gun-control advocates say would be largely ineffective. Gun shows take place on weekends, meaning that purchasers flagged by an instant computerized record check would not be able to be vetted by government agencies closed Saturdays and Sundays.
He backs a ban on juvenile possession of semiautomatic assault weapons, though those weapons were largely outlawed in 1994. And he supports a ban on automatic weapons that has been in place since 1986.
In a break with the NRA, Bush would raise the minimum age of handgun possession from 18 to 21, a proposal floated by President Clinton last year. And he would ban the importation of all foreign-made, high-capacity ammunition clips.
But Bush strongly opposes handgun registration, and he would not require the sale of safety locks.
"I hope people use trigger locks," Bush told reporters after a campaign appearance at the Gwinnett County Civic Center north of Atlanta. "My issue with trigger locks is: Are we going to have the trigger-lock police knocking on people's doors, [saying] `Show me your trigger locks'?"
As governor, he signed legislation legalizing the carrying of concealed weapons and legislation prohibiting Texas cities from suing gun manufacturers.
McCain is similarly ambivalent about gun control. The Youth Violence Prevention Act that he proposed in 1999 would get tough on youth offenders, prohibiting juveniles who commit gun crimes from purchasing guns again, sentencing those youths under adult guidelines and punishing children who carry guns to school. And he says he favors the sale of trigger locks.
But McCain voted against a waiting period for gun show purchases, voted for a Senate amendment to make gun show background checks voluntary, voted against the 1994 crime bill that banned certain assault weapons, and opposed background checks and waiting periods for handgun purchases.
The positions staked out by the candidates in the primary season will present voters a clear choice in the general election.