WASHINGTON - After three weeks of silence as a sniper stalked the Washington suburbs, the head of the gun lobby dismissed talk of a ballistic fingerprinting system Friday as a "technical fantasy" and predicted that Congress would enact no new legislation in response to the killings.
Wayne R. LaPierre, executive director of the National Rifle Association, said in an interview that he did not expect the sniper to alter the politics of gun control.
"With every tragedy that involves firearms, whether it's a post office shooting or a school shooting, you have an opportunistic attempt by gun control groups and some politicians to never miss a chance to trade on a tragedy and politicize the debate," LaPierre said. "But they're trying to ride the same old tired horse. There's nothing new in what they're proposing, and it's not resonating."
Even gun-control advocates do not expect any legislation to be enacted in response to the sniper, and few have much hope that they will prevail on the next milestone in the gun debate, which is to strengthen the ban on assault weapons when it comes up for renewal in September 2004.
Asked whether the sniper killings had reinvigorated the gun-control movement, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat who made his name in 1994 advancing the ban on assault weapons, said, "With a pro-gun president in the White House and one house of Congress in Republican hands and the other so narrowly divided, it's an uphill fight."
There are exceptions to this conventional wisdom. The House Republican leadership recently called off a vote on a bill that would have granted the gun industry sweeping immunity from lawsuits. The bill was a big priority for the rifle association, which has engineered such legislation in 30 states.
In Maryland, where six of the 11 sniper victims were killed, the issue of gun control has come into stark relief. It is part of the dialogue in the governor's race between Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the Democrat, whose father, Robert F. Kennedy, was shot to death, and Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the Republican, who has generally opposed gun control.
In Pennsylvania, Edward G. Rendell, the former Philadelphia mayor and now the Democratic candidate for governor, has not flinched in his opposition to the gun lobby and appears likely to win on Election Day.
The sniper has also revived interest among gun-control advocates in a national database of ballistic "fingerprints," the electronic images of the unique markings that every gun makes on the bullet it fires.
But the rifle group is adamantly opposed to such a database, saying it is unproven, would be burdensome and would lead to its worst nightmare - a national gun registry.
Gun-control forces admit privately that such a plan has scant chance of moving through Congress, and there is little sign that the debate in Maryland has taken hold elsewhere.
NRA officials are still planning a campaign swing this week with Charlton Heston, the group's president, on behalf of their candidates in competitive Senate and gubernatorial races.
LaPierre said that since the shootings began, none of the candidates endorsed by the rifle association had tried to distance themselves from the gun lobby. "You still have candidates, even Democrats, with shotguns, getting their pictures taken at the shooting range," he said.
Mississippi Republican Trent Lott, the Senate minority leader, shrugged off any suggestion that the sniper might alter the political debate.
"I know that in the West and the South, we like - we feel like we have the right to bear arms, and we have them, we have lots of them," Lott told reporters. "And we generally don't shoot our neighbors with them, either."
Mathew S. Nosanchuk, litigation director of the Violence Policy Center, a gun-control research group based in Washington, conceded, "There is not a lot of momentum."
By contrast, after the 1999 massacre by two students at Columbine High School in Colorado, the Clinton administration led a crusade joined by many in Congress for renewed gun-control measures. These included closing a gun-show loophole, requiring mandatory trigger locks on all new handguns, raising the age for buying guns to 21 from 18 and banning the import of high-capacity ammunition clips.
But even with the momentum spurred by Columbine, none of these measures were enacted.
Now with the sniper, any outcry for legislative action is more limited, and the prospects are just as dim. For one thing, the Bush administration opposes gun control. Members of Congress, at least half of whom oppose gun control, have left town. The House did pass legislation recently by voice vote to provide more money to enhance background checks, a measure that is expected to clear the Senate, too. But this was not as contentious an issue as the national ballistics database.
The White House initially came out against the database, with Ari Fleischer, the spokesman, saying that it did not work. He later said it should be studied.