Gun Control Advocates Stir Again on Capitol Hill
After years in the political wilderness, Capitol Hill's most vocal advocates for intensified gun control are expressing hope thatin the wake of the shootings at Virginia Tech that left 33 dead, including the gunmantheir cause will have increasing urgency.
"I believe this will reignite the dormant effort to pass common-sense gun regulation in this nation," Democratic California Sen. Dianne Feinstein said in a statement.
But it has been a long time since gun control advocates held a position of strength, and experts are skeptical of new life for the movement. And since facts about the purchase of the guns and the manner in which they were used by student Cho Seung-Hui are still lacking, many activists on both sides of the issue have been circumspect about how they feel the tragedy will change the gun debate.
The gun control movement's clout has been on the wane since 1994, when the passage of antigun legislation was widely blamed for sweeping Democratic losses in congressional elections. Al Gore's loss of the White House in 2000 only cemented the sense that a publicly antigun stance was political suicide.
Still, Paul Helmke, the president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and a former Republican mayor of Fort Wayne, Ind., said he expects the Virginia Tech shootings to shock the public and some legislators into action.
"If we'd had 32 soldiers die today in Iraq, it would be the lead story," Helmke said. "And these aren't soldiers; they're school kids. I think it reaches a level that grabs people's attention."
Whether that attention leads to change is another matter. Daniel Webster, codirector of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, predicts that the shootings will cause plenty of debate about firearm policy, but says that such discussion has not traditionally led to substantive changes in the law. Even the April 1999 shootings at Colorado's Columbine High School, in which two students killed 12 classmates and a teacher before committing suicide, failed to generate any national policy gains for gun control advocates. Coloradans did pass a measure requiring background checks at gun shows.
Simply closing loopholes in Virginia law may not have been enough to stop Cho. All of the evidence released so far suggests he purchased his weapons legally, buying his 9-mm handgun at a Roanoke, Va., firearms shop in March, early enough to have waited the required month before buying the .22-caliber handgun also used in the attack. As a legal, permanent resident, Cho was eligible to purchase firearms as long as he had not been convicted of a felony. Neither of the handguns he used is particularly controversial, though experts say that the number of victims in the shootings indicates he may have been using high-capacity magazines, whose production, but not distribution, was effectively banned for 10 years under the 1994 "assault" weapons law, which expired in 2004.
"If it turns out that this guy got a gun in an ordinary way, then I think most people will agree, and I think it's substantively correct to say, that more gun laws wouldn't have prevented this," says Matt Bennett, a vice president at the left-leaning Third Way and a former spokesman for Americans for Gun Safety.