Atlanta massacre: Gun lobby is running out of arguments

ANOTHER CITY, another state, another multiple shooting. In Atlanta yesterday, yet another American resorted to the gun to take out his life's frustrations. And within minutes of the Mayor of Atlanta announcing the preliminary death toll - five in one office block, four in another, three at the presumed killer's home - the rest of America was rejoining its battle for and against gun control.

Calls flooded local radio and messages crowded on to the Internet. "When will we learn that violence solves nothing?" they asked. "It's just sick. Why can't we be like England or Canada and have strict gun control laws? Why can't the people in high places see all this mayhem?" And then there were the others: "Gun control solves nothing" Or more specifically: "What a pity that not one victim ... apparently had a permit to carry a concealed handgun ... If they had, the rampage could have been concluded abruptly, finally, and perhaps with no, or less, loss of life."

Three months ago, the United States was awash with despairing outrage after two senior pupils went on a shooting spree at Colombine High School in Colorado, killing 15 people - 14 of them pupils. That outrage, though, was already subsiding. The panicked drive to restrict sales of handguns by law and close well-known loopholes in checking the gun-purchasers' backgrounds had decelerated, thwarted in the lower house of the US Congress last month after a blanket lobbying effort by the National Rifle Association and an upsurge of opposition in the rural heartland.

Vice-President Al Gore's finest hour, his casting vote in the Senate for a comprehensive tightening of gun controls, might never have been.

Now, partly as a result of President Bill Clinton's continued behind- the-scenes urging, the gun control bill is likely to be retabled. Mostly, though, it will be this latest tragedy -brought into living rooms across the country courtesy of 24 hour television news, that will tip the balance once again in favour of stricter controls.

Compulsory background checks of all gun-purchasers, even those who buy at gun shows and from individual gun-owners, could be on the statute book by the start of the autumn term. The gun lobby and its many supporters, however, will still question whether that will make a difference.

Criminals obtain their guns on the black market; those with licences may still run amok. The course of the debate to come will depend in part upon which category Mark Barton - the Atlanta suspect - belongs to: the legal gun-owner who snapped; or the habitual felon.

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