WASHINGTON - George W. Bush today announced he will distribute free trigger locks for handguns in Texas but President Clinton said the likely Republican presidential nominee simply was trying to convince Americans he is not under the sway of the National Rifle Association.
''If he comes out and gives away gun trigger locks, then he doesn't have to explain why we're still importing large-capacity ammunition clips and why he doesn't want to close the gun-show loophole,'' Clinton said.
Bush said he would inaugurate the trigger-lock program in his home state of Texas and then expand it nationwide if elected president.
''It seems like to me one of the things we ought to do is be common-sensical about how we deal with gun safety,'' said Bush, the governor of Texas. ''I think this makes sense.''
Bush spoke on NBC's ''Today'' show while Clinton appeared on ABC's ''Good Morning America.'' Their appearances came on the eve of Sunday's Million Mom March, which sponsors hope will draw hundreds of thousands of women in the nation's largest demonstration for gun controls.
From Washington, Clinton flew to Akron, Ohio, where he announced that the Justice Department will award grants to two gun manufacturers to research and develop ''smart gun'' technology.
Smith & Wesson and F. N. Manufacturing Inc. will each receive $300,000 to pursue ways to ways to create a gun that can be fired only by its proper owner, with the goal of preventing more accidental shootings of children and preventing criminals from using the guns of police officers while locked in a struggle.
Clinton's budget for fiscal year 2000 calls for $2 million for ''smart gun'' technology.
According to FBI data, 113 guns were stolen from police officers over the past 10 years and 57 officers were killed with their own guns.
While in Akron, Clinton was meeting with six organizers of the Sunday march to hear about their plans and experiences.
Bush, announcing his plan to distribute free trigger locks, said Texas would spend about $1 million a year for five years to buy the devices, which would be made available to citizens at police stations and fire departments.
''It's an option,'' Bush said of the program. ''In other words, you can't make people use trigger locks. We would love to convince people to use trigger locks to make sure that our society is safe. And so the first step is to make them available for free. And we hope it works here in Texas.''
Clinton is backing legislation in Congress that would make trigger locks mandatory. The measure also would ban imports of large-capacity ammunition clips and require background checks to buy guns at gun shows.
In the television show, Susan Howard, a board member of the National Rifle Association and spokesman for the group, said Clinton ''sent shivers'' up her spine by suggesting that education and law enforcement were not important in the fight against the misuse of firearms. Clinton heatedly insisted he did not mean to create that impression. He said that he had on many occasions praised NRA education efforts.
Dismissing Bush's proposal, Clinton said, ''You have to understand what's going on here. There was a report in the newspaper last week that a lobbyist from the NRA said they would have an office in the White House if Governor Bush was elected.''
Clinton also noted that the NRA was one of the biggest contributors to the annual Republican Party gala last week. ''So he wants to move away from that image,'' Clinton said. ''He wants people not to think that he won't do anything ... that basically that the NRA won't control policy on this, which they will if he wins.''
Clinton said, ''The truth is that everybody's going to want to look like they're doing something but the most effective measures are opposed by most of the people in the Republican Party. I wish that weren't true.''
In his appearance, Bush rejected the assertion that the NRA would have an office at the White House.
''Of course not,'' the governor said. ''I mean, you know, that's kind of hyperbole. There's only going to be one person in the Oval Office, and that's going to be me. And I'm going to make judgments based upon how I think America can be a safer place. There's going to be times when I agree with interest groups and times when I disagree with interest groups.''
He said he was not upset by the remark of the NRA lobbyist.
''I'm used to politics,'' Bush said. ''I'm not upset in the least. On the other hand, people have got to understand, I'm an independent-thinking person. That's why I've been re-elected governor of the state of Texas. That's why I'm going to be president of the United States.''