Just consider this: In all the wars the United States fought in during the 20th century — World War I, WWII, Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf War — 659,783 Americans died.

Mark Shields

Mark Shields

But just since March 30, 1981, when a deranged man tried unsuccessfully to assassinate President Ronald Reagan but did shoot and wound Reagan, presidential press secretary Jim Brady, Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy and Washington police Officer Thomas Delahanty, more than 833,000 people have died from firearms in the United States. Of all the deaths from firearms in the 26 developed nations of the world, 86 percent of those deaths occur right here in the U.S.A.

Nostalgia can airbrush our memories, convincing us that there was a golden time, not that long ago, when neighbors were more friendly, children were more respectful of their elders, the beer was colder and our leaders were more deserving of our respect.

But it’s true that, not that long ago, we did indeed have national leaders who dared to stand up to the powerful gun lobby and publicly support a federal ban on the manufacture, sale and possession of semiautomatic assault weapons. That’s right — AK-47s and Uzis, and their equally lethal copycat models.

These particular leaders were four presidents, two Republicans and two Democrats: Bill Clinton, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Reagan. Congress would respond to the four chief executives’ message and vote to impose a federal ban on assault weapons.

That federal ban expired in 2004, when President George W. Bush preferred to ignore the pleas of more than 1,100 chiefs of police and refused to ask his Republican Congress to keep these weapons, some capable of firing more than 120 rounds per minute, out of the hands of criminal gangs.

Carter has publicly spoken of his personal ownership of “two handguns, four shotguns and three rifles.” Both Clinton and Ford were hunters. Reagan was a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association. Reagan, the conservative icon, also publicly lobbied for the Brady law to establish a seven-day waiting period during which law enforcement officials could do a background check of the purchaser of a handgun before the firearm could be delivered.

To their credit, these four leaders did not cringe at the Washington wise-guy line that holds: Guns don’t kill incumbent politicians, the gun lobby does.

When leaders do lead, they can make a difference. This may help explain why, in May 1991, when the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll asked, “Do you favor or oppose a law to ban the sale of assault weapons and semiautomatic rifles,” 75 percent of those surveyed answered that they did favor such a ban. But by late 2009, with no leadership from the White House on the issue for eight years, when the identical question was asked, 49 percent favored the ban on assault weapons, while 45 percent opposed.

To give the devils their due, the gun lobby — by both relentless organizing and the use of intimidation as a political weapon — has silenced many would-be opponents. You have to acknowledge the gun lobby’s effectiveness in being able to convince otherwise rational people that police chiefs who seek to ban semiautomatic killing machines from their city streets, where they can overwhelm the cop on the beat, are somehow part of a diabolical conspiracy to take hunting rifles out of the hands of sportsmen.

On this issue of domestic arms control, the majority Democrats — including the top Democrat in the White House — have hardly been Captains Courageous. Many chosen to seek political safety through their silence.

As somebody wise once noted, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. But it is true that we did once have leaders named Ford, Clinton, Carter and Reagan who actually did lead and who dared to stand up to the power of the gun lobby.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.