The House debate on gun control has opened not with a bang, but a whimper--from Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who says he can't mobilize his troops behind a Republican bill that the president calls "ghostwritten by the NRA."

The hapless Hastert has an instinct for the right thing, but it is constantly stamped out by his fractious forces. He had sought votes for a series of mild measures that constituted a weakened version of the modest bill that dramatically passed the Senate with the vice president's tie-breaking vote on May 20.

Hastert's troubles go beyond the gun bill, although it represents them in a particularly acute form. The House Republicans' passion for unfettered gun commerce was not dented by the tragedy at Littleton, Colo.; they oppose any curbs whatsoever, including House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde's efforts to institute some supervision over gun show sales. Two of the guns used at Columbine High School were traced to gun show purchases, which are not now subject to background checks.

The morning of the Senate vote, another student gunner opened fire on his high school classmates in Conyers, Ga. Bob Barr, a congressman from a neighboring district who achieved notice as an impeacher, explained the verities of the situation from the gun lover's point of view: Georgians have not turned on guns and are not clamoring for more laws, he said. They understand that it is children, not guns, who are the problem.

Barr is one of those House Republicans whose entire agenda is to keep the words "Clinton" and "victory" out of the same sentence. Last week was particularly frantic for them because the conclusion of the air war over Kosovo generated stories in which "victory," "success" and other lamentably positive nouns occurred in close conjunction with the loathed "C" word.

At the outset of hostilities, House Republicans defied Hastert over the air war. They declined to endorse it as U.S. pilots were taking off. The resolution of the conflict sent them into crisis mode and set them to arguing an afternoon away. Not even Slobodan Milosevic was more assiduous in trashing Clinton's "aggression."

"This is certainly no victory," declared Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.). Another Indiana Republican, Rep. Steve Buyer, unhesitatingly pointed out the true winner. "Milosevic won on the ground," he said, just as Milosevic himself declared in Belgrade as the Serbs marched out of Kosovo and NATO forces prepared to march in.

Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) made the most trenchant observation of the afternoon: "Never in the history of the country has Congress voted to deprive Americans of a military victory in the field after it was achieved."

It is important to understand that this is the mind-set many Republicans take into another encounter with reality. Polls show that Littleton brought about a sea change in America's attitude toward guns. Republicans contend that it was just another school shooting. But Democrats--and maybe as many as 40 Republicans--say it produced rage and shame that demand action.

Littleton brought home statistics to which Americans have long been hardened. There are 220 million guns in circulation in this country. Every year, 34,000 people are lost to gunfire. But it is still considered a crazy dream to try to pass serious gun legislation in America. Even in the heady weeks after the Senate success, advocates felt it imprudent to try to pass a law restricting gun purchases to one a month. And certain Democrats are haunted more by the memory of their 1994 rout by Republicans in the House than by events at Columbine High.

At a Democratic caucus last Tuesday, members from the West and South recalled the fate of Jack Brooks of Texas, the House Judiciary Committee chairman who was swept out of office with the anti-Clinton tide. Their colleagues countered that other elements were at work, like fury at the failure of a Clinton health care reform bill, but a good number of Democrats fear that the 2000 election, when the party's hopes are highest for recapturing control of the House, might mean a replay of 1994 if gun control is an issue.

House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt rallied his troops at a subsequent caucus. He told them that the politics of the issue were quite simple: Once again, House Republicans are misreading the country, just as they did on impeachment.

The president has been a tiger. He fires at will on the NRA. He calls the GOP-NRA collaboration "a classic, horrible example of how Washington is out of touch with the rest of America."

The shootout is scheduled for this week. Given your average House Republican's propensity for shooting himself in the foot, the likelihood of bloodshed is great.