WASHINGTON – Many thoughtful observers say this is not the time to become ensnared in the politics of gun control while the life of one of the top leaders of the House Republican majority hangs in the balance.

Everyone’s prayers should be with House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and his family, and all victims of the horrendous near-massacre at a baseball field in Alexandria, Va., last week. Nearly two dozen people could have died when a vagrant loser, filled with left-wing hate, opened fire with a cheap, semiautomatic weapon, leaving about 100 mute casings on a field of play.

But this is also precisely the right time for the American people, Congress and President Trump to face up to the simple truth that there are too many guns in the wrong hands, because the public will surely become distracted tomorrow by another disaster, atrocity or presidential tweet.

As it has since 2004, when then President George W. Bush, under prodding from his vice president and their friends in the National Rifle Association, allowed the federal assault weapons ban to lapse.

Co-sponsored by Sen. Charles E. Schumer, when he was a congressman from Brooklyn, this law would have stopped the shooter – we will not name him – from buying the weapon simply because it would not have been available. The weapon used in Alexandria was an SKS-7.62 assault gun originally built for the Soviet Army in 1945. The FBI has not yet specified anything more about this gun, but news clips indicate copies of this killing machine can be had for the price of two tankfuls of gasoline, or less. In the gun world, it is junk.

Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., made the last serious attempt to pass an assault weapons ban last year. It went nowhere. The fact that a near hobo could buy this thing over the counter proves that all the alleged federal protections against the wrong people getting guns are worthless. There are literally hundreds of thousands of these military-grade devices now in circulation thanks to the NRA and the Republican Party.

I should mention that I wrote a piece last winter sympathetic to users of assault weapons for target practice and sports. For that, I apologize. No civilian needs one, or should own one.

Meanwhile, the slaughter goes on. The privately owned Gun Violence Archive shows deaths from gunshot wounds – not counting suicides – increased from 12,557 in 2014 to 15,056 last year. The number of children killed or wounded in the same period increased from 607 to 671; and mass shootings went from 274 to 384. It will only get worse.

Mayor Byron Brown said the killings on Buffalo streets stem from the overwhelming plethora of guns, despite the nation’s toughest gun laws, and lenient judges. Where is the situation any better?

One reason that outfits like Gun Violence Archive exist is because Bush and the GOP Congress blocked funds intended for research on gun deaths by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As the shooter in Alexandria was fine-tuning the sights on his store-bought SKS, a GOP-controlled House committee was planning to hold a hearing on a bill to ease controls on silencers that had been in federal law since 1934. It was postponed. Trump has a package to loosen controls on gun-free zones on military bases and in schools, and to promote “carry” permits.

Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, apparently has a permit to carry a handgun and said, in reaction to the shooting, that he intends to carry a weapon from now on. Such words just add to the cycle of violence.

There is realistically no chance that Congress will do anything about limiting the distribution of firearms, particularly military-style assault weapons, so long as Trump is in office and the GOP controls both houses of Congress. But the issue should not be sidelined or downplayed. Prudent, measured federal gun control laws may become like civil rights laws. They waited a century for the right moment to be enacted.

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