Massacre at Virginia Tech

In the numbing aftermath of the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, the familiar actors of America's long-running debate about guns are again taking the stage to speak their well-polished lines.

Stepping into the spotlight cast by the Virginia Tech tragedy, gun control advocates say the massacre of 32 students and professors graphically underscores the need for stricter controls on the possession and sale of firearms, particularly handguns.

In their view, tougher gun laws might have prevented Seung-Hui Cho -- a silent, furious loner and a Virginia Tech senior -- from legally purchasing the 9 mm Glock 19 semi-automatic pistol he used on his killing spree before turning the gun on himself.

Right on cue, gun rights adherents deliver a dramatic counter: Stricter gun laws won't stop a determined maniac like Cho; they don't even deter crime because gun-toting criminals ignore statutes law-abiding citizens are required to follow.

Police are also powerless to prevent such slaughter, often arriving only after the killing has stopped, gun advocates say. Only a pistol pulled from a backpack or briefcase could have stopped Cho, who passed a criminal-background check twice to buy pistols despite a magistrate-ordered evaluation stint in a Virginia mental health center in 2005. Under federal gun laws, this involuntary commitment order should have disqualified him as a buyer, but it apparently wasn't fed into the database for background checks after he was ordered to get outpatient care.

Played out on talk shows, in blogs and in legislative assemblies, this latest revival of the national gun drama is both a bitter struggle about public policy and a reminder of America's dark streak of violence and long, cultural affinity for firearms.

Though the dialogue is familiar, the horror of America's most recent mass killing raises natural questions: How will the Virginia Tech massacre affect the national debate on gun violence? Will the scale of this bloodbath tip the balance toward stricter gun controls?

Possible, but unlikely, scholars say, listing three reasons why the effect may not be commensurate with the level of violence that occurred on the Blacksburg, Va., campus.

At first blush, leaders of a Congress controlled by Democrats seem like ready allies of gun control advocates.

But Democrats have a thin majority that relies on newly elected conservatives who represent states and districts where gun rights are a defining cultural value, said Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University. This includes U.S. Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, a decorated Vietnam veteran and former Navy secretary, whose upset victory over incumbent George Allen Jr. helped give Democrats narrow control of the Senate.

Democratic leaders also view gun control as a radioactive issue that cost them the past two presidential elections, Taylor said. That helps explain why Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada was markedly cool toward the notion of gun control legislation a day after the massacre.

Public opinion is fickle

Americans also have a short attention span, Taylor said. Public sentiment for stricter gun control spiked after past mass shootings, such as the 1999 killing of 13 at Columbine High School near Denver by two students who then committed suicide. After a lone gunman killed five girls at a one-room Amish school in rural Pennsylvania in 2006, polls found that even a majority of conservatives favored tougher laws.

But such fervor quickly fades, Taylor said. And even though polls consistently show a significant majority of Americans favor gun control, they differ sharply on the specific measures.

This helps the well-heeled operatives of the National Rifle Association and their political allies fend off restrictive gun laws and pass more firearms-friendly legislation such as concealed carry laws. According to the NRA, 38 states, including North Carolina, have permissive conceal carry laws while two, Vermont and Alaska, require no permits to carry a handgun. Pro-gun advocates have been aided in this push by Republican control of state legislatures and, until last year, of Congress.

All of this helped dampen the ardor for gun control legislation after Columbine, and provides a partial explanation for why the federal Assault Weapons Ban was allowed to expire in 2004.

For Taylor, the question is whether the magnitude of the mass killings at Virginia Tech creates enough public outrage to overcome historic trends and the current political climate.

"Even if there is an understanding that the people who do this are deeply disturbed and guns don't fire themselves, there's a visceral reaction that favors gun control," he said. "But the historic precedent doesn't look good. ... I'm less sanguine about a legislative policy that moves us toward greater gun control."

The Rev. Rachel Smith, a Baptist clergywoman and founder of the God Not Guns Coalition, thinks the nation's gun debate needs to move beyond the stalemate of the political arena and become a moral crusade against the iconic stature of firearms as a pillar of American freedom and a pop culture that celebrates guns and violence in film, video game and song.

"There's no real movement to counterbalance the political arena and the entertainment arena," Smith said. "We need mothers and fathers and preachers and prophets to speak out and create a wave of resistance to what's gone on before. As a nation, we're acting as if we love our guns more than we love our children, and we need to stop that."

A cultural phenomenon

America's love of the gun has deep cultural roots that are intertwined with historic images of the Minutemen of the American Revolution and pioneers taming the Wild West, along with firmly held convictions about democracy and individual rights.

Layered over this are the violent rhythms of modern American society and a culture that celebrates killing and mayhem. This helps amp up a pervasive fear of crime despite a steady decline in the percentage of violent crimes involving firearms in eight of the nine years from 1995 through 2004. In the past two years, the violent crime rate has increased, particularly in medium-to-larger cities.

That fear creates a rock-hard equation in the minds of many Americans that is anathema to gun control advocates but readily reinforced by gun rights adherents -- only a gun can prevent someone from being a victim of a violent crime.

"It's the only thing we found effective," said John R. Lott Jr., a visiting professor at Binghamton (N.Y.) University and author of "More Guns, Less Crime." The book contends that states with concealed-carry laws have small, but statistically significant reductions in violent crime.

The staying power of this equation was on display in Raleigh three days after the Virginia Tech massacre, when the state House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill that gave District and Superior Court judges the right to carry a concealed handgun into court for their protection.

Kristin Goss, an assistant professor of public policy and political science at Duke University, shares Taylor's pessimism about the chances of success for any renewed push for national gun control laws. However, she does think the bloodbath at Blacksburg, Va., will encourage Democrats to halt the trendline of pro-gun bills passed when Republicans controlled Congress, including legislation that restricted the civil liability of gun manufacturers.

"There's not going to be much of a stomach for liberalizing gun laws," said Goss, author of "Disarmed: The Missing Movement of Gun Control in America," a book that argues gun control advocates have have been hampered by historic miscues that delayed development of a muscular grass-roots movement.

In the national debate revived by the Virginia Tech killings, gun control advocates are handicapped because a mismatch exists between Cho's legal purchase of pistols and most of the measures they are pushing, Goss said. Those measures include closing the gun-show loophole where firearms are sold without background checks; "smart weapons" that will only work for an individual owner; one-gun-a-month purchase restrictions, and mandatory trigger locks.

But Goss also said Cho's ability to legally purchase pistols despite his involuntary commitment for mental evaluation creates one clear opportunity for gun control advocates. They can push to expand the number of states that report judicial orders on mental health to the FBI-run database used for background checks required for firearms purchases. They can also lobby to ease privacy laws that restrict such reports.

The next frontiers

This has the virtue of being a modest measure that could attract the support of law-enforcement organizations, gun rights advocates and skittish Democrats, Goss said.

"That could be the next frontier of the debate," she said.

Virginia is among a minority of states that file mental health rulings to the FBI database. A limited number of North Carolina rulings are also on file, but only those made in open court, such as a person being found not guilty for reasons of insanity. State law makes it illegal to share other mental health records, including a district judge's involuntary commitment orders even though the federal Brady Act says such orders disqualify someone from purchasing a handgun.

North Carolina activists tried to expand the state's mental health reports in a 2002 gun trafficking bill, but were defeated by gun rights groups and mental health advocates.

Other academics suggest a second avenue, one endorsed by federal, state and local law enforcement officials. They favor shifting the debate toward laws and programs that penalize criminals for using guns in crime; hammer rogue gun dealers who traffic with criminals; and take guns off the streets.

"We need to focus on what's happening on the street and make criminals think twice about carrying guns," said Phil Cook, a Duke University professor who has extensively studied gun violence. "I'd hate to have the conversation limited to 'how do you prevent the next Virginia Tech from happening,' because that may be a dead end."

Focusing on such state and local reforms stands in marked contrast to the early strategy of the 1970s, when gun control advocates pushed for a national handgun ban.

By aiming high at the outset, Goss said they failed to heed the historic lessons of successful grassroots movements, such as the antismoking campaign.

"We make policy in this country incrementally -- starting out small and at the state level," she said. "If you shoot for something totally untenable and unreachable, you create disillusionment."

The reach-for-the-sky script of early gun control advocates set the stage for the National Rifle Association's abrupt shift to hardline opposition.

"Stuff that happened in the '70s is still having an impact on the gun debate today," said Goss. "Gun control advocates may be proposing lesser policy measures, but they still get attacked for ultimately wanting a total ban on handguns."

And in that sense, they helped write the dialog for both of the leading actors in America's ongoing gun drama.

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