An Uphill Climb for Gun Laws
A new debate, perhaps, but the same old politics
But as more information about the weapons used in the attacks came to light, it seemed that keeping guns from Seung Hui Cho would have been difficult. He was a permanent resident of Virginia with no criminal record. He picked up a .22-caliber handgun at JND Pawnbrokers in February and waited the required month to buy a 9-mm pistol at Roanoke Firearms. New production, but not distribution, of the 15-round magazines Cho used for the 9-mm had been prohibited by 1994's assault weapons ban before it expired.
Virginia's system of background checks has also come under scrutiny after revelations that Cho was detained and evaluated for mental illness in 2005. State officials have maintained that, since Cho was never involuntarily committed after the evaluation, he could not have been added to the database listing the mentally ill and other groups barred from purchasing firearms. But Cho does seem to fit ATF guidelines for inclusion, since a judge determined that he presented an "imminent danger to himself as a result of mental illness." If Virginia lawmakers had conformed their standard to the federal law, then Cho's gun purchase would have been prohibited, says Kristen Rand of the Violence Policy Center. Virginia has been a national leader in providing data on commitments of the mentally ill to the FBI database used in background checks.
The shootings may advance legislative efforts to improve reporting of mental illness, but gun control activists want a more fundamental re-evaluation of current law. "At some point, we need to say, '[Gun control] needs to be on the table,'" Horwitz says. So far, though, few seem to think that point is now.
With Chitra Ragavan and Chris Wilson