The National Rifle Association and gun manufacturers are right — if George Bush is elected president, they’ve got it made.The gun sellers who want to add to the national supply of 200 million guns in civilian hands have broken off negotiations for new safety measures in the hopes of a kinder Bush administration. Only last week, NRA First Vice President Kayne Robinson boasted that if Bush wins the White House, “We’ll have a president … where we work out of their office — unbelievably friendly relations.”

Robinson, who also is chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, spoke for a powerful GOP constituency when he predicted a Bush victory would lead to “a Supreme Court that will back us to the hilt.” He inadvertently flattered Gore as an “anti-gun fanatic” and termed a possible Gore victory in November “a horror story.”

Once more, the Republican right roared, and George Bush, after a few simpering asides, threw them the red meat they demanded. After a wan insistence that, as president, he and not the NRA would control decision-making in the White House, he pointed out that as Texas governor, he’s given the gun crowd everything it wanted.

Bush signed into law measures repealing the 125-year-old Texas ban on carrying concealed weapons and undermining prosecution of those who carry weapons into amusement parks, nursing homes and houses of worship. And at a time when the most effective challenge to unsafe guns is coming from lawsuits by municipalities ravaged by gun violence, Bush signed a law forbidding Texas cities to sue gun manufacturers.

He has the right to stand behind such extreme pro-gun measures, but not while claiming to be a compassionate conservative who will move the Republican Party back to the center of the political spectrum. His tough pro-gun stance is another indication, along with his hard-line anti-abortion position and his pandering to the Christian right in the primaries, that George Bush is no moderate. He’s unwilling to do for the Republicans what Clinton did from the day of his announcement as a presidential candidate — enunciate a firm commitment to move his party back to the center of national politics.

As a result, Al Gore and the Democrats were able to capitalize on the nonpartisan “Million Mom Marches” against gun violence Sunday.

It’s a debate the “moms” and their supporters can’t lose. And not just because polls show that a huge majority of women (76 percent in a recent CBS survey) and a strong majority of men (56 percent in the CBS poll) favor stronger gun control in the aftermath of the Columbine massacre and other manifestations of the chaos attendant to gun violence. What makes the NRA position so loony is the organization’s and its supporters’ fundamental assumption that representative democracy is not to be trusted, and that an armed citizenry is a necessary check on the power of our three branches of government on both the federal and state level.

The NRA’s insistence that gun-toting citizens are central to the checks and balances of a modern democracy is a paranoid response to the realities of modern governance and mocks this country’s commitment to the rule of law in the eyes of the world.

The gun debate among rational citizens is over. The evidence is in establishing, as the American Medical Association has stated, a clear public health risk connecting the prevalence of guns and the commission of acts of violence.

We are by far the most violent and gun-obsessed of any industrial society. The number of children under 15 who are killed by gunfire is 12 times higher than the comparable number of youth homicides in the 25 other top industrialized countries combined. It’s time to break the connection between an effectively unregulated gun market and communal mayhem.

Toward that end, the Million Mom March has come up with a series of proposals so reasonable — such as safety locks on all handguns, limiting handgun purchases to one per month, and requiring all handgun owners to be licensed and their guns registered — that it’s shocking that they’re not already enshrined in law as a matter of common sense.

Embracing those reasonable goals, which Gore has done, is all that would be required for Bush to remove this nettlesome issue from the campaign — if he were truly a moderate. All he has to say is, yes, it’s time for a test to see if serious gun control can make a difference; what do we have to lose but saving the 32,000 lives and $2.5 billion that gun violence costs us each year?

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