Is the right to bear arms just a myth?

"Bush v Gore? Let's not be too sure," read a headline in one national newspaper here last Tuesday. Well, NS readers already knew that. Conventional wisdom here, though, is only slowly cottoning on to the realisation that the two all-but-enthroned presidential contenders, Al Gore and George W Bush Jr, are already in trouble - perhaps even in deep doo-doo, in those unforgettable words of that elegant wordsmith himself, George Bush Sr.

Weeks ago, I wrote that more and more of my Democrat friends were confiding that they would be supporting Bill Bradley rather than Gore - and now the polls are reflecting that seismic shift. As a result, the US media is suddenly waking up to the notion that Bradley is a heavyweight challenger to Gore, so brace yourself for a surge of authoritative commentary in the British media about this hitherto little-known (in Britain) politician.

But it is the sudden dilemmas of George W Bush that fascinate me most. I was warned by a senior, fully paid-up (ie, bone-fishing and quail-shooting) Bushie last week that Bush Jr is in the foulest of tempers, for he has, finally, realised that he is potentially in trouble - first because he knows that the clever rabble-rousing populist hack Pat Buchanan plans to desert the Republicans and stand as a third-party candidate, thus splitting the country's right in a way that could only benefit the Democrats.

What I'm told tipped Bush into his smouldering fury, though, was a tragedy that happened right on his Texas doorstep - the shooting spree at a Baptist church that left eight people, including four teenagers, dead. The statistical chances are that, by the time you have finished reading this column, someone in America will have been shot dead. There is a 50-50 chance, too, that in the next fortnight there will be another unpredictable murder spree (or "senseless", as journalists like to describe them, presumably to contrast them with the sensible ones) - a trend that started in the sixties (in Bush's current home of Austin, interestingly), accelerated in the seventies and is becoming positively endemic in the nineties.

The trouble for Bush is that only a decade ago, when his father was in the White House, gun control was still a fringe issue favoured only by a few activists and Hollywood luvvies.

Today (helped along, surprisingly, by Bill Clinton, who read focus-group and poll results with characteristic canniness) it is turning into a mainstream, grass-roots concern. American mothers now see teenage kids mowed down by guns in their schools or church youth clubs and they're scared: recently I wrote that Bradley or McCain, the maverick Republican opponent to Bush, could exploit an issue such as the GM crops that now cover the American heartland, but the first with the courage to grasp the nettle of gun control is the one I suspect will really reap the benefit.

The problem for Bush is that he likes guns, both personally (I'm told he owns quite a few) and politically: he signed a bill in 1995 that made it legal for Texans to carry concealed weapons, and in 1997 then approved an amendment that allowed guns to be carried into churches, synagogues, prisons and even hospitals (something the 1995 law specifically forbade). Today, there are 20 million people in Texas - and 80 million guns, four times the national average.

Indeed, the paranoid schizophrenic who opened fire in that Baptist church last week (before killing himself) had bought his 9mm Ruger and .38 semi-automatic guns at a local flea market called Trader's Village. Practically every newspaper reported that he "left no clue" as to why he carried out his "senseless" rampage, but went on to report without irony that he had repeatedly attacked his 85-year-old father (who died two months ago), that he frequently punched and kicked holes in his house and that neighbours reported seeing him often lying on his roof ready to repel the CIA agents he thought were after him. Texans, though - and Governor George W especially - are proud that they pay no state income or property taxes, and so there were no social services on hand to give this madman the treatment he so obviously needed.

Bush Jr, as a result of all this, now finds himself cornered into defending what more and more Americans are coming to see as the indefensible: the easy availability of deadly weapons to the disturbed as well as the criminal.

This scion of privilege is thus having to get down into the deep and dirty of American politics, and it's a toss-up whether he is intellectually and politically up to it. All he has been able to come up with so far is to blame the tragedy not on guns but "a wave of evil" sweeping America. He knows as well as anyone, though, that a fifth of the electoral college votes for the presidency now come from California, a state that has seen so many mass shootings that it is far less keen on guns.

And the mantra of the gunslingers - that the Second Amendment of the US Constitution gives every American an inviolable right to own guns - is now coming under increasing scrutiny, too. What the 208-year-old clause in the constitution actually says is that "a well-regulated militia" (presumably meaning the army) has the right to carry guns "for the security of a free state". It confers not so much individual rights, but a collective privilege. This, until recently, has been widely interpreted to mean every American has a God-given right to blow someone's brains away.

So watch this space: young George W, 53, is going to have a lot of tricky explaining to do before he wins the crown he has always assumed, up to now, is rightfully his.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.