In human terms, what happened in Colorado last week was tragic. In political terms, it was ironic. Colorado has been trending Republican. It was one of only three states that voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 and then switched to Bob Dole in 1996 (the others were Montana and Georgia). Now that Colorado has a Republican Governor and a Republican state legislature for the first time in 12 years, the National Rifle Association has decided to showcase its clout in Colorado. Starting with its convention in Denver this week.
Prodded by the NRA's 60,000 Colorado members, the legislature was ready to pass new gun laws. One law would have made it easier for citizens to carry concealed weapons. Another would have wiped out local gun regulations, including Denver's highly restrictive laws that banned the display of assault weapons at the NRA convention. Republican Gov. Bill Owens was expected to sign those new laws. ''The American Constitution does give people a right to keep and bear arms,'' Owens has said. The NRA expected to come to Denver in triumph. Especially after suffering a bitter defeat on April 6 in Missouri, where voters narrowly defeated an association-backed ballot proposition that would have lifted that state's ban on concealed weapons.
Then came Littleton, and everything changed. After such a bloody event, gun control always gets thrust onto the public agenda, and it's happening now. Last week's Gallup Poll asked Americans where they place the blame for tragedies such as the one in Colorado. More than any other single factor, people blame te easy availability of guns (60 percent). Next come parental shortcomings (51 percent) and popular entertainment--''TV, movies, and music'' (49 percent). Guns, family, culture: There's the agenda. With guns at the top.
The debate has begun to take on a predictable quality. Liberals blame the guns. Conservatives blame the culture. ''It's not a gun control problem. It's a culture control problem,'' argued Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., an NRA board member.
You know how President Clinton likes to steal issues from Republicans? So does his wife. Speaking at a teachers conference in New York, Hillary Rodham Clinton (who might or not run for that state's open Senate seat) blamed guns first: ''Why on earth would we permit any young person access to the firearms those two young men brought into that school?'' Then she blamed the culture, in remarks that echoed Bob Dole's 1996 anti-Hollywood campaign: ''We can no longer shut our eyes to the impact the media is having on all our children, and the potentially violent impact it is having on some of them.''
So what is to be done? The truth is, it's hard to do much without violating someone's rights. Pass gun control laws, and people will complain you're violating their gun rights. Pass laws to regulate the culture, and people will cry censorship. Pass laws to promote family values, and people will complain you're trying to tell parents how to raise their kids.
An overwhelming majority of Americans--nearly 80 percent--reject the view that Littleton was an isolated event. They believe it means that something is seriously wrong in the country. But the public is divided over whether government and society can do anything to prevent such tragedies. Something's deeply wrong, and Americans doubt they can do anything about it. Hence, the frustration. And the anger.
In Colorado, community leaders are taking out their anger on the gun culture and its foremost advocate, the NRA. Gun-rights advocates argued that the Littleton tragedy was caused more by bombs than by guns. Gun control supporters, like Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., answered right back: ''If high-powered weapons with big clips weren't available, at the very least they would have killed fewer people.''
Gov. Owens blamed ''the day in and day out demeaning of human life that we see in this country, where euthanasia is excused, where infanticide is excused, where violence is glorified.'' Gun control supporters, like Vice President Al Gore, responded: ''In times past, it was not uncommon for kids who fell into anger and got on the wrong path to break windows with bricks or get into fistfights. But now, with the availability of these semiautomatic weapons and pipe bombs, the consequences are truly horrific.''
The legislators who sponsored Colorado's new gun laws quickly got the message and pulled their bills. ''We could not rationally deal with this bill this year and come up with good policy,'' one sponsor said. The NRA got the message, too. After initially blaming the parents and the school, association President Charlton Heston wrote to his members that the organization would ''modify our schedule to show our profound sympathy and respect for the families and communities.'' The convention was scaled back to one day.
But it's only a tactical retreat. In the end, the gun lobby is likely to have the last word. That's because, as many politicians have learned, public anger over gun violence is usually not sustained for very long. By election time, the only people who vote the issue are gun owners. They remember every vote for gun control as an infringement on their rights. As one gun-rights advocate said last week--insensitively, but not incorrectly--anti-gun groups ''make their headway only when there are fresh victims'' of gun violence. Like now.