The expiration of the assault weapons ban was a depressing but potentially valuable lesson in the rancid politics of gun control.
Honest debate on gun policy is impossible because of the cynical absolutism of the current leadership of the National Rifle Association, the Republican Party's dependence on this interest group's muscle and the fear that the NRA inspires among some Democrats.
At a time when preventing terrorism is supposed to be a national priority, why can't our politicians agree to sustain a ban on a very narrow class of firearms? Does President Bush want to make it easier for Americans to use their tax cuts to buy Uzis and AK-47s? Is our national policy to do all we can to defeat the terrorists -- except for those measures that the NRA vetoes?
Sure, Bush says, he would sign a renewal of the ban, which theoretically puts him on the side of the majority. But a president who was happy to bring excruciating pressure on Congress to pass his tax measures lifted not a finger to get Republican leaders in Congress to put the assault weapons bill on his desk.
This is the politics of the nod and the wink. As Jim VandeHei and Paul Farhi reported in The Post, the NRA is planning to spend $400,000 a week until the election to condemn John Kerry's votes for gun control. Overall, the organization expects to spend $20 million on this election, mostly to help Republican candidates.
Bush is not about to offend these guys. As VandeHei and Farhi write: "It is unlikely the NRA would actively oppose Republican leaders, but it might not work as hard for the party if Bush were to sign the ban 50 days before the election." Can't have that.
The trouble is (and has long been) that while the minority that opposes gun control casts single-minded votes on the issue, the majority that supports rational weapons regulation seems far less motivated. This has led to a new mythology, brilliantly stoked by the NRA: Supporting any gun regulation is fatal to an ambitious politician. Al Gore's loss of Tennessee, Arkansas and West Virginia -- any one of which would have put him in the White House in 2000 -- is widely attributed to his support for gun control.
The mythology ignores the fact that many moderate suburban voters have moved the Democrats' way over the past decade because they have been turned off by the GOP's stand on a panoply of social issues, including guns, the environment and abortion. These voters were important to Gore's victories in swing states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan.
But it's not immediately obvious how important gun regulation was to those suburban swing voters in comparison with, say, abortion and the environment. Until it's clear that politicians will pay a price at the voting booths for opposing reasonable gun laws, the NRA will continue to win -- even if the price is putting those Uzis and AK-47s back on the streets.
That's why it was heartening to see Kerry challenge Bush on the president's failure to push for a renewal of the assault weapons ban. Here is a chance to move the gun debate away from the vague terrain of "pro-gun" vs. "anti-gun" to a concrete discussion of a measure that 57 percent of those with a gun in their household and 32 percent of NRA members support. (The figures are from the National Annenberg Election Survey.)
And, yes, supporters of gun control will have to demonstrate some political muscle in making the issue count in places where it matters. Whining about the NRA is useless. Organizing is not. If those who care about gun control do not use this election to make their voices heard, what else can they expect but a timid Congress and a president who says one thing but does another?
In the meantime, supporters of the weapons ban have to fight the ultimate sleight of hand from the other side: that the law is not broad enough to make a real difference. If the ban didn't matter, why would so many police chiefs and police officers support it? And this argument is the definition of gall: The very people who fight to weaken gun regulations are the ones who then complain that the resulting regulations are too narrow to have an impact.
But logic alone won't settle this debate. Advocates of gun control need to be tough and resourceful. These are the traits they complain about in their adversaries -- and must learn to emulate.