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Gun Crazy

While gun control has moved into the national debate, the question remains as to whether it will be taken up in the political debates. Commentary by CBSNews.com's Joel Roberts.

Another day of tragic gun violence in America. Another day of hand-wringing, accusations and excuses.

In a Flint, Michigan suburb, a six-year-old boy gets hold of a .32-caliber semiautomatic and shoots a girl to death in her first-grade classroom.

In Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, outside Pittsburgh, two men are killed and three more critically wounded at two fast-food restaurants. A black man is arrested in the apparently racially motivated shootings. All the victims were white.

And in the Bronx, an unarmed drug suspect is shot and killed by police just blocks from the site of the controversial police killing of unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo, and just days after the verdict acquitting the officers.

Once again the gun-control debate is front and center. Once again you can expect to hear Democratic politicians call for restrictions on gun sales. Safety locks. Background checks. Waiting periods.

And once again, you can count on Republicans saying it's not guns that kill - it's people. We already have enough gun laws on the books. It's the culture that's rotten. Violent movies and video games are to blame. Maybe if the teacher in that Michigan classroom had been armed she could have prevented the young girl's death; or maybe if little Kayla Rolland had been packing more than her lunch.

But if there is a groundswell for gun reform in the wake of these tragedies, don't expect it to last. As in previous instances of shocking gun violence - and, sadly, after Columbine, do any of these murders really shock us anymore? - the issue rises to the top of the political agenda for a brief moment, and then fades to the background.

The issue came up at Wednesday's Democratic debate in California, where both contenders said all the right things. Vice President Al Gore called the Michigan school shooting "an almost unimaginable tragedy" and urged broad-ranging gun-control legislation: "We need child-safety trigger locks. We need to ban junk guns and Saturday night specials. We need to require a photo license I.D. for the purchase of a new handgun. We need to reinstate the three-day waiting period under the Brady law. We need to also deal with drugs. That was a part of this problem."

An impressive laundry list to be sure, but one the Clinton-Gore administration has failed to deliver on in eight years in office.

Former Senator Bill Bradley pointed out that there are "13 kids killed every day in America with a gun, and 800,000 kids took a gun to school last year." He also called for "very tough gun legislation," and said that without strong leadership from the White House, "you'll never beat the NRA. And I am there to beat the NRA."

But can the NRA be "beat?" Is there the political will and courage to take on the gun lobby?

Don't count on it.

Both Republican presidential contenders like to call themselves "reformers," and John McCain, at least, has shown unusul daring in taking on traditional Republican sacred cows like campaign finance and, more recently, the religious right. And George W. Bush, to his credit, has tried to expand the Republican ranks to include often ignored constituencies like Hispanics.

But those are softballs compared to gun control.

You don't get elected governor of Texas or senator of Arizona by talking straight on guns. And both men are assuming you can get elected president while sidestepping the issue.

President Clinton said Wednesday that "We need the public aroused on this."

The public has been aroused. It's the politicians who are asleep. And unless they get aroused -- and soon -- we can expect to add more names to the growing litany of American gun tragedies that already includes Pearl, West Paducah, Jonesboro, Littleton, and now, Mount Morris Township and Wilkinsburg.


CBS News Special Coverage
President Calls For Gun Summit
Restaurant Shooting Aftermath
Man Charged In School Shooting Case
Teen Shoots Highway Deputy
NYC Cop Kills Drug Dealer
Diallo Family Seeks Federal Probe
America's Gun Culture In The Crosshairs

Story by Joel Roberts
Story Image by Mark L. Milligan II