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The move by the nation's biggest gun-maker to stop its dealers from selling at gun shows is one more indication that the tide is slowly turning in the war against gun proliferation.

It's turning, that is, everywhere except in the halls of Congress. Why are congressmen always the last to know?

Sturm, Ruger & Co. will allow its distributors to sell only to federally licensed dealers who sell exclusively from a regular place of business. Now that's hardly the death knell for gun shows like the ones at which all four guns used in the Columbine High School massacre were originally bought.

But it might have some impact in diminishing the appeal of such shows, if other big manufacturers like Smith & Wesson and Colt's Manufacturing Co. follow suit. But even then, so-called "private sellers" would still be free to sell their guns to anyone without any kind of background check, which licensed dealers must conduct.

Gun-control advocates say that makes the practical impact of Sturm, Ruger's move -- while certainly welcome -- minimal in curbing the flow of guns to those who shouldn't have them.

Where the move is significant, critics say, is in the acknowledgment -- at long last -- that the big gun-makers do have some control over what happens to guns downstream of the manufacturing process.

Gun-makers have long protested that they couldn't be held accountable if dealers flooded a locality with more guns than it could legally accommodate, didn't weed out "straw purchasers" who act as middlemen for felons or engaged in any of the other shady practices that help criminals get guns.

Sturm, Ruger is now saying that it does have a measure of leverage over its dealers. That admission could be significant in pushing the industry to do even more to clean up its act.

Not that it's likely Sturm, Ruger had some kind of epiphany of social consciousness. More likely, the rash of lawsuits and the prospect of juries holding the industry accountable had something to do with the company's decision to try to show that it is acting more responsibly.

But whatever the reason, it's just too bad Congress isn't moving in the same direction.

After the Columbine tragedy, the Senate last year passed a minimalist gun bill that would, among other things, mandate background checks in all gun-show transactions. But with the National Rifle Association holding a figurative gun to the heads of legislators it controls, that measure is still bottled up in the House.

With Sturm, Ruger taking this step and major gun-makers talking with the Clinton administration and local governments about ways to ward off lawsuits and protect the public, it's just Congress and the NRA on the other side, now. That should make lawmakers more than a little uneasy about the company they keep.

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