WASHINGTON, Oct 24: It's an American way of death. More than 30,000 people die from gunshot wounds every year, through murder, suicide and accidents.
That is an average of 82 a day, and prospects for reducing the toll are dim.
The debate between gun control advocates and the pro-gun lobby was reignited briefly this month by four school shootings between September 26 and October. 9.
In one, a man carrying a pistol, a shotgun and 600 rounds of ammunition shot 10 girls execution-style at an Amish school in Pennsylvania, killing five of them, and then killed himself.
In another, a 13-year-old took an AK-47 assault rifle to his school in Missouri, pointed it at administrators and other students and fired it into a ceiling.
At a hastily arranged White House Conference on School Safety on October 10, panelists covered topics ranging from metal detectors and school bullies to the value of religious beliefs and good communication between parents and schools.
But the word ''gun'' was not mentioned until a plucky teenager pointed out to a panel moderated by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales that the common factor was easy access to high-powered firearms. President George W Bush and his wife Laura Bush attended separate parts of the conference but avoided mention of guns.
''The Bush administration is in complete denial regarding the catalytic role that guns play in school violence,'' said Kristen Rand of the Violence Policy Center, which like other gun control advocates was not invited to the conference.
''How is it even possible to have a discussion about preventing school shootings without talking about guns?'' Justice department figures put the number of guns in private hands at more than 200 million more than any other country and swelling by several million every year.
The annual US production of pistols, revolvers, rifles and shotguns for the domestic civilian market has been running at between 2.6 million and more than three million for the past seven years, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives.
''The US level of lethal violence is far out of line with those of other industrialized nations,'' said David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. ''The fact that most of our lethal violence involves firearms lends credence to the hypothesis that the prevalence of guns is a prime reason.''
That hypothesis, widely accepted in much of the rest of the world, is hotly contested by American advocates of unfettered access to guns, led by the National Rifle Association (NRA), who say that the second amendment to the Constitution gives all law-abiding citizens the right to bear arms. ''It's not guns that kill people,'' the gun lovers' mantra goes, ''people kill people.''
GUN LOBBY SCORES WINS IN CONGRESS
The NRA wields enormous influence in Washington and traditionally backs candidates in local and national elections on the basis of their stand on one issue -- gun ownership -- regardless of their party affiliation.
Successful lobbying has led to a string of NRA of victories over its gun control adversaries. In 2004, Congress allowed a ban on assault weapons -- such as the AK47 used in the Missouri school shooting -- to lapse.
''Clearly, the past two years represent one of the most succesful congressional sessions that gun owners have ever had,'' the NRA said in a message to its four million members this month, in advance of midterm congressional elections on November 7. ''All our hard work and vital victories must be protected.'' Proponents of tighter gun controls see things differently.
''Congress has been in denial about gun violence ... and is moving in the wrong direction,'' said Joshua Horwitz, the executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. He noted that the annual death toll from gun violence in the United States is ten times the total of US combat deaths, to date, in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Statisticians say such comparisons are misleading but the parallel has been drawn before, most notably by then president George H W Bush, the present president's father, after the end of the first Gulf War.
''During the first three days of the ground offensive, more Americans were killed in some American cities than at the entire Kuwaiti front,'' Bush said at the time.
''Think of it, one of our brave National Guardsmen may have actually been safer in the midst of the largest armoured offensive in history than he would have been on the streets of his home-town.'' That was in 1991, when the US murder rate, driven by turf wars between crack dealers, reached an all-time peak of 24,700, according to FBI statistics. It declined steadily in the 1990s and stood at just under 17,000 last year. Guns accounted for two thirds of the killings.
''There are signs of changing attitudes towards guns, particularly among younger Americans, said the Violence Policy Center's Rand.
''But change will come slowly, over the next 20, 30 years.''