Is it possible that at long last guns are going to be where they should have been all along--in a presidential campaign? Heaven knows it is time.

Now that guns have been fired at our high schools and our day care centers, even politicians have begun to realize that you can run but you can't hide on this issue. The Democrats, at least, can see that there are enemies worse than the NRA--that is, voters. Even gun owners are incensed at the sight of little children holding hands, fleeing a shooter, with policemen at the head and the foot of the line. They ask themselves the question that the rest of the world is asking: Why do we do this to ourselves?

Republicans believe in the sanctity of the owners' right to unlimited firepower. Their presidential contenders, with the exception of Elizabeth Dole, subscribe to the notion that although there are an estimated 200 million to 250 million guns in circulation, that with guns it's a case of the more the merrier. Dole has bravely come out for restricting gun sales.

At the recent fund-raiser in Iowa that is called a straw poll--23,685 citizens forked over $25 tickets to cast votes that don't count--the Republican contenders spoke much about education, nothing about school safety, a matter of concern for millions of parents whose children go back to school next month. Iowa's big winner, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, hews to the NRA line. In 1995, he signed a bill permitting the carrying of concealed weapons. Last year, he favored a bill forbidding cities and municipalities from suing gun manufacturers for damages incurred by use of their products.

The way of the GOP copes with gun catastrophes is to ignore them. After Columbine, they launched into a storm of rhetoric about our sick society, our decadent videos, neglectful parents, vile movies. They blamed Hollywood and Bill Clinton. The House Republican whip said these things happen because we teach evolution in our schools. After another school shooting in Georgia, there was fulminating about trying murderous children as adults, and since Los Angeles, much breast-beating about hate societies. To hear them, you could imagine that guns had nothing to do with it.

But the American people have made the connection. According to Newsweek, 78 percent expect gun control to be an issue in the presidential campaign. And Vice President Gore, after pushing such chilly abstractions as global warming and reinventing government, has begun drawing an emotional response to calls for banning Saturday night specials and requiring gun purchasers to have picture ID licenses. Cautious as ever, though, Gore has stopped short of registration, which the NRA called "Nazi repression."

Gore's Democratic rival, former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley, is ahead of him on the issue, and stronger. He has come out for the registration that makes gun owners so apoplectic.

But what about New Hampshire, a hunting state and site of the first primary?

Veterans of political wars can remember what happened to John Anderson, a presidential candidate who had the temerity to appear in Concord, N.H., in February 1980 and call for registration. A solid wall of boos and obscenities went up and it seemed he might be lynched or run out of the hall. But Gore's New Hampshire manager, Billy Shaheen, looks with equanimity on Gore's new issue. "The state has changed. More new people have come in. Gun control is a matter of vision and leadership. We don't want little children in danger."

Even the ban on Saturday night specials would not hurt him in a Democratic primary, Shaheen thinks. There has been a "palpable change" in attitudes.

In the immediate wake of Columbine, Bush defended the concealed-weapons bill, the premise of which seems to be that everybody may be armed and law-abiding citizens should have the means to shoot back if attacked. To Post reporter Dan Balz, Bush said, "You bet," when questioned about the bill. "We live in a dangerous society. People feel like they need to defend themselves."

Most Americans agree with him about our dangerous society. But a majority don't agree with him that putting more guns in circulation will make it less so.

At Columbine, parents formed a human chain to protect returning students from the press. The high school seems to have been transformed into a police station, identification badges, all-hours police guards, metal detectors, "safe rooms" where they can go and report on weird classmates like the pair who shot 12 classmates, a teacher and themselves on April 20. The American people seem poised to tell the politicians that they want something better.