An Uphill Climb for Gun Laws
A new debate, perhaps, but the same old politics
Amid the media din that descended on Blacksburg, Va., last week, one voice not known for its reticence was conspicuously absent. On Monday, the National Rifle Association released a short statement offering condolences to the families of the shootings' victims. Then silence.
There was little pressure to speak out. Though some advocates for stricter gun laws expressed hope the shootings would boost their cause, experts are skeptical that gun control is primed for a reversal of its dismal fortunes. As developments during the week failed to produce conclusive evidence that stricter laws would have prevented the tragedy, activists were often more circumspect than strident.
"I've learned not to get too far out on these things," says Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. "There are some tragedies that you just can't legislate about, and this may be one of them."
It's a lesson learned through disappointment, as previous incidents have led to plenty of discussion but little lawmaking. Even the horrors of Colorado's Columbine High School shootings, in which two students killed 12 classmates and a teacher before committing suicide, failed to generate changes in federal policy, though Coloradans did pass a measure requiring background checks at gun shows.
Gun control activists have been mainly playing defense since 1994, when passage of an assault weapons ban was widely blamed for sweeping Democratic losses in Congress. A Republican Congress allowed the ban to expire in 2004. The NRA and other gun-rights groups also have successfully pushed a slew of state laws allowing concealed weapons and have curtailed the access of local police departments to gun tracing data maintained by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.
The rollback of restrictions has exasperated some on the front lines. "You have the right to bear arms. You have the right to do a lot of things," says John Timoney, chief of the Miami Police Department. "But it's not an absolute right. There have to be some restrictions."
Attitudes on Capitol Hill, however, showed few signs of changing. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein said she believes "this will reignite the dormant effort" to pass sensible gun regulations." But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada-no fan of gun control-cautioned against a rush to judgment, and the Democratic presidential candidates said little.
Bearing arms. On the Republican side, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani quietly voiced support for the Second Amendment, while Arizona Sen. John McCain declared that he believes in "no gun control." Filling the vacuum left by the NRA, other gun-rights groups blasted Virginia Tech for banning guns on its campus. "It meant that [students] were helpless little sheep, waiting to die," said Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League. After the attack, a Republican member of Virginia's House of Delegates renewed his previously unsuccessful call to end bans on firearms at colleges in the state.
Virginia is already notably frosty toward gun regulations, requiring no background check at gun shows and putting few limits on carrying concealed weapons. Both New York City and Washington have long accused the state of being disproportionately responsible for their illegal gun woes. After Republican New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg began suing gun stores, including some in Virginia, for illicit sales, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine signed a bill in March attempting to thwart the undercover investigations that led to the suits. "There's a reason the NRA's headquarters are in Fairfax," says Saul Cornell, a professor at Ohio State University who has written frequently on gun policy.
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
This story appears in the April 30, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.