Leading Article: The first faltering step back to sanity

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IF THERE is one aspect of the United States that most astonishes and terrifies Europeans, it is the easy availability of guns. The US has 200 million of them, and four and a half million more are sold every year. More than 10 times as many Americans per thousand die from gunshot wounds as Britons.

Two centuries ago, it made sense to write into the US Constitution that 'a well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed'. Today, it clearly does not. Such is the climate of fear that one in 20 American children carries a gun to school, and even the chairman of the New York Times, which has published countless editorials on gun control, feels obliged to own a weapon. An analysis in the New England Journal of Medicine, however, suggests that people who keep guns at home are 43 times more likely to kill themselves, friends or relatives than intruders.

Yet the Constitution has such a pull on American heart-strings that few US citizens have allowed themselves seriously to ask whether they believe in the Second Amendment. It is heartening to see Bill Clinton, who is beginning to address, one by one, the gravest problems that face the US, doing just that. In an interview in the current Rolling Stone magazine, he makes it clear where he stands on the proliferation of guns in his country: 'It's crazy what we have permitted to happen here, literally crazy.'

The Brady bill, named after the White House press secretary who was paralysed in 1981 by an assassin's bullet intended for Ronald Reagan, takes the first faltering step back to sanity. Now safely through Congress, it will force those who buy guns to wait five weeks before taking delivery so that their mental health and criminal records can be checked. In time - four or five years - a national computer system will carry out checks on the spot.

Support for this measure among the American public is so strong that not even the formidable influence of the National Rifle Association, and the millions of dollars its friends contribute to politicians, has managed to stop it. But the NRA will bring on heavier guns, so to speak, when Mr Clinton's attention turns to subjecting the ownership of firearms to formal licensing and then to a total ban. That will require stiff penalties for illegal ownership, and generous bounties for those who turn in their weapons. Such a profound change is likely to take decades rather than years. But the passage of the Brady bill suggests that it has at last moved into the realm of the politically possible.