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People are armed and anxious

On a sunny Saturday, as I began my weekly rounds in my Connecticut Avenue neighborhood, I was startled to find myself in the middle of a demonstration. About 50 youths, most of high school age, were waving posters and shouting chants against, of all people, H&R Block, the tax-return preparers who have an office in the middle of the block.

Yes, H&R Block. The issue? Guns. According to fliers being distributed by the demo sponsors, the Alliance for Justice, the tax folk had made an arrangement with a company called Memberdrive whereby if NRA members had their taxes done by the Blocks, H&R would make a donation to the NRA. Apparently they had a similar understanding with the National Wildlife Federation and the Humane Society.

The demonstration didn't look too alarming to me, but it was obviously enough for H&R Block, who say they canceled their agreement with Memberdrive, explaining belatedly that they don't take stands on social issues. The cancellation was one of the small victories won by gun-controllers, small being the only kind they have won these days.

Another came this week in the Maryland General Assembly, which was on the brink of turning back the clock by lifting a ban on gun sales to convicted felons. State delegate Peter Franchot called the attempt to widen the gun constituency "an extraordinarily brazen move by NRA supporters." It was foiled at the 11th hour by Delegate Mark Shriver. He called for a "special order," which kept the bill off the floor and caused its sponsors to think about a commotion and pull the bill back.

Against these modest gains is a setback that drains the blood from the faces of gun-control advocates, already pretty pale in the presence of a president who once signed a "concealed-carry" bill and made the NRA think the Oval Office was its downtown headquarters. Mount Holyoke, the pretty college in the Berkshires that is thought to be a stronghold of Massachusetts liberal sentiment, had produced the first collegiate chapter of the Second Amendment Sisters, an organization of women who think firearms should be more widely distributed.

Holyoke's acting president, Beverly Daniel Tatum, felt called upon to allay alumnae fears _ raised by a New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof _ that women students would be packing heat on campus. She pointed out that Massachusetts' strict gun laws, plus campus policy, forbid it.

One bemused observer of all this is Richard Durbin, Democratic senator from Illinois, who ran successfully six years ago as a champion of gun control _ and now is being warned off the issue by Capitol Hill consultants as he seeks re-election.

The attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon inspired a wave of gun-buying such as the country has never seen. Gun sales have quadrupled since Sept. 11.

Sen. Durbin tried vainly to show that sloppy, unchecked sales at gun shows can contribute to the terrorist menace. Terrorists purchase firearms and ship them back to fellow terrorists. At confirmation hearings on the nomination of John Ashcroft to be attorney general, Durbin sought Ashcroft's concurrence in banning sales at gun shows to illegal immigrants and would-be terrorists. Ashcroft didn't want to talk about it.

There is currently no gun control legislation before either house of Congress. "We have to be spurred into action," says Durbin. "We must endure the drudgery of the daily deaths without the drama of a Columbine to make us move."

Democrat Mark Warner, making a second run for statewide office in Virginia, made his peace with the NRA early in his campaign.

George "Buddy" Darden of Georgia, a Democrat, is attempting a comeback in a House race he lost four years ago in which Bill Clinton was the issue. "Anyone favoring gun curbs must expect to pay a heavy price down here," he says.

The division in the country is between rural and city dwellers. The city people who fear random handgun violence have never been able to convince their country cousins that their rifles are safe and not in their sights. But the NRA trumpets the danger of any gun control, and more and more terrorized people are listening every day.

Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.

Universal Press Syndicate