Sentiment about guns ebbs and flows in America, but the surge last April was unusual: With 14 kids and a teacher shot to death in a Littleton, Colo., school, laws bringing sanity to the nation's gun habit seemed within grasp.

But no. Congress has gone home, bearing no gun legislation. The National Rifle Association, overpowered only briefly by the burst of public engagement, is back in the saddle. And members of Congress of all political stripes have refocused on the gain to be reaped from their respective positions.

While it lasted, the post-Littleton activity was impressive. Limits on handgun purchases, an increase in the minimum age for possessing guns, bans on juvenile possession of semiautomatic assault rifles and an extension of Brady law requirements to gun shows drew consideration. By June the Senate had passed some tough provisions.

But by then, the NRA had revved up. It threw $1.5 million -- and its inestimable membership -- behind the opposition, and the great surge of post-Littleton gun-control hopes was throttled.

On the July day when 100 Denver-area high school students gathered on Capitol Hill to plead for a response to the tragedy that killed their classmates, they'd already lost. Still, Rosa Chavez, 17, poignantly asked her member of Congress: "What's more important, the right for people to bear arms, or the right of people not to be killed?" She might have been comforted to find that the public knows the answer. According to The Post, 65 percent of Americans think gun control is more important than the right to bear arms -- up from 57 percent in 1993.

The NRA, however, has a different vision. In 1997 now-president Charlton Heston told a Washington audience that the right to own guns is "the one that protects all the others. . . . Among freedom of speech, of the press, of religion, of assembly, of redress of grievances, it is the first among equals."

The NRA's evocation of the nation's founders and frontier forefathers is enough to make gun ownership sound like a patriotic duty. But Garry Wills's new book, "A Necessary Evil," sees history differently. We have far more guns per person today than did those supposedly arms-loving Revolutionary-era Americans. As for the frontier days, cattle towns were plagued with violence -- and often responded by passing strict handgun bans that "cut homicide rates spectacularly."

No, writes Wills, America's gun culture was born after the Civil War -- when the NRA was formed by two Union veterans. That we can't do what the frontiersmen did is thanks both to the NRA and to legislators who favor gun control but favor political gain more. Some Democrats were happy to see moderate controls defeated -- more hay to be made on the campaign trail.

Still, even as gun control failed, indicators have popped up that winds have shifted at last on this question. Suits by cities charging handgun makers with negligence are having an effect in and outside the courts. Gun makers have parted ranks with the NRA, saying (for example) that locks on guns aren't such a bad idea. Colt Manufacturing -- inventor of the six-shooter -- decided this fall to get out of the retail handgun business; fear of legal liability was a likely motivation.

Colt still will sell handguns to law-enforcement officers -- who have themselves made a spectacular turnaround. Once NRA stalwarts, cops have been making gun control a priority. Some 50 police chiefs came to Washington in September to lobby for the background check that the Senate had included in its bill.

The government announced recently that the nation's rate of gun-related deaths dropped 21 percent between 1993 and 1997. Experts cited tougher gun-control legislation such as the Brady law and a federal ban on assault weapons -- followed by a strong economy, an aging population and better police work.

Even so, by 2001, gunfire injury is expected to pass motor vehicle injury as the leading cause of traumatic death in the United States, according to the Annals of Emergency Medicine.

Such thoughts don't deter gun stalwarts, fervent in their belief that the right to bear arms, as Heston said, "alone offers the absolute capacity to live without fear."

Life without fear is not what arms-bearing offered those Littleton kids -- or their friends, who came to Washington yearning for some moderation of our gunslinging. Happily, it seems they'll be seeing some. But not from Congress, where the NRA, befriended by complacency, rides again.