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Wednesday, 23 October, 2002, 14:11 GMT 15:11 UK
US politics and gun control
Supporters of gun control say it is too easy to buy a gun
The string of fatal shootings which has terrorised the Washington area has once again focused attention on the gun control debate in the United States.

It is a well-worn argument and American public opinion is fiercely divided between those calling for stricter controls and those who insist on the right to bear arms.

The gun lobby is championed by the powerful National Rifle Association who point to the Bill of Rights in the US constitution which states:

"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."

Political split

But its exact interpretation is disputed by the gun control lobby.

Tactical team in Maryland
The sniper shootings have spread panic
Gun control is often one of the three hot electoral issues in the US - environment and abortion being the others.

Americans now appear equally split between urban liberals who want gun control and tough environmental controls, and country dwellers who oppose abortion on demand and support hunting with guns.

And it looks as if the issue will once again become a topic of fierce debate in the US mid-term polls in November - nowhere more so than in Maryland where residents have been uncomfortably close to the recent sniper shootings and the post of state governor is up for grabs.

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a Democrat who is running for the office, is the daughter of Robert Kennedy who was gunned down during his presidential campaign in 1968.

Maryland fight

She has campaigned for stricter gun controls in the past and has attacked her rival's record on the issue.

Republican candidate Robert Ehrlich Jnr argues gun violence should be addressed by punishing the illegal use of guns rather than adding more restrictions to gun use.

In the wake of the killings at Denver's Columbine High School in April 1999 many thought the scar left on the American psyche would lead to change.

Columbine High School
The Columbine shootings led to calls for tough legislation
A poll at the time showed that two-thirds of Americans supported greater gun control measures.

And with the 2000 presidential campaign in full swing, the shooting of a six-year-old Michigan schoolgirl by one of her classmates pushed the issue into the centre of the election campaign.

Campaigning for the Democrat nomination, then Vice President Al Gore used the killing to hit out at opponents of gun control.

"Enough is enough," he told a rally of supporters. "We are going to protect our country and get guns out of the hands of those who should not have them."

His comments followed Bill Clinton's call, during his final State of the Union Address, for the introduction of a photo licensing system for gun buyers to be issued after an applicant had passed background checks and taken a gun-safety course.

However, experience has shown that even the most liberal firearms legislation can become bogged down.

Party divide

Mr Clinton chided members of Congress for failing to work out the differences between the House and Senate versions of the juvenile justice bill, which contained new measures to keep guns out of the hands of children and criminals.

Gun law loopholes
No security standards at gun stores
No common safety standards
Unchecked gun show sales
Access to guns by minors
No reselling records
SOURCE: Handgun control
Politically, gun control is one of the few issues on which Republicans and Democrats can claim true differences.

Most Democrats favour tighter gun laws whilst the majority of Republicans are opposed to any new legislation, saying the problem lies in the lax enforcement of existing laws.

Nonetheless, in the aftermath of Columbine more than 15 state legislatures passed significant gun control bills or dropped NRA-supported bills.

And the degree of control varies from state to state.

California has limited gun sales to one firearm per customer per month and outlawed some assault weapons according to their characteristics rather than the make and model - a loophole which emerged during a previous attempt to legislate.

Illinois now requires owners to lock away firearms and fit child safety locks, the culmination of a 10-year campaign.

Federal deadlock

These changes mark a significant shift in public opinion. However, the picture at federal level remains largely unchanged.

Following the Denver killings President Bill Clinton, proposed tougher legislation including:

  • Raising the legal age of possession to 21
  • Parental liability for firearms crimes committed by children
  • Closing a loophole on sales without background checks at rural gun shows
But by the time the bill reached the floor of Congress the following summer, Mr Clinton denounced it as a watered down version of his own proposals, "plainly ghost-written" by the NRA, and "worse than current law".

Proposals to fit childlocks onto firearms or to fund the development of so-called smart guns that can only be fired by their owners also got stuck in congressional argument.

The gun lobby remains fiercely opposed to any kind of regulation.

John Snyder, Washington lobbyist for the Citizens' Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, believes that there is "no evidence" that any of the proposals would prevent mass killings.

Civil suits

Meanwhile, anti-gun campaigners opened a new front following the lead set by anti-tobacco groups.

More than 20 cities and counties lodged suits against gun manufacturers, holding them responsible for costs incurred in dealing with gun-related crime.

However, Georgia, has already passed NRA-backed legislation outlawing cities from suing gun firms and another dozen states look set to follow suit.

Across the nation positions over how to deal with the world's largest private arsenal remain as polarised as ever.

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Trail of terror
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08 Oct 02 | Americas
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