Gun Laws in the Wake of the Virginia Tech Killings

Cartoon from Steve Benson at the Arizona Republic on April 17, 2006 (email, archive).


Cho Seung-Hui bought two semi-automatics—a Walther P-22LR February 2, 2007 from thegunsource.com in Green Bay, WI and a Glock 19 with 50 rounds of ammo March 13 at Roanoke Firearms. Then, on April 16 , the Virginia Tech senior murdered thirty-two fellow students and faculty members in Blacksburg before killing himself.

Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY), one of the House’s strongest gun control advocates, introduced that day, the Anti-Large Capacity Ammunition Feeding Device Act of 2007 (H.R.1859), seeking to reinstate and strengthen the prohibition on possessing or transferring such devices, which were illegal until the expiration of the 1994 assault gun ban in 2004. McCarthy has garnered no co-sponsors to date, although early speculationthat Cho had used high capacity magazines proved true. As reportedApril 19, State Police told NBC correspondent Pete Williams they had found 17 magazines, some of which held 33 rounds of ammunition each.

Cho passed the background check mandated by the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993, despite having been ordered in 2005 to receive mental health treatment for being a danger to himself and others because Virginia only reports in-patient commitments to the FBI National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Governor Tim Kaine (D) closed that loophole by executive order April 30.

McCarthy’s second bill, the NICS Improvement Act of 2007 (H.R.297) introduced on January 5, addresses the uneven state reporting. John Dingell (D-MI), a gun-rights Democrat and original co-sponsor for H.R. 297, currently is negotiating for support from the National Rifle Association, on whose board he once served. Meanwhile, the Springfield, VA-based Gun Owners of America has been sending out multiple member alerts decrying both the measure and the NRA for its possible cooperation and on April 27, the NRA posted to its website, "It is impossible to predict right now what any final bill will look like; therefore, we will withhold judgment until we see a final product."
H.R. 297 gained three co-sponsors January 30 to February 14 and an additional eleven from April 16 through May 1, including Rick Boucher, (D-VA), who represents Blacksburg and has an A+ rating from the NRA and Jim Moran (D-VA), who is a regular supporter of gun control legislation, and thus receives a grade of F from the group. There has been talk that Charles Schumer (D-NY) will sponsor a similar measure in the Senate.

McCarthy’s third bill, the Assault Weapons Ban Reauthorization Act of 2007(H.R. 1022) introduced on February 13, with no cosponsors, had gained 34 co-sponsors by March 22, 2007, including Moran. An additional seven co-sponsors signed on after April 16, 2007.

Even with Kaine’s order, people voluntarily committed will be able to buy guns, as will anyone seeking out a “private collector” at gun shows. Michael Castle’s (R-DE) Gun Show Loophole Closing Act of 2007(H.R.96), introduced on January 4 would require background checks for firearm sales at these shows. The bill gained another co-sponsor on April 16, in addition to the original three. Three other House measures with no co-sponsors to date include the Domestic Violence Victim Protection Act(H.R. 203), Child Gun Safety and Gun Access Prevention Act of 2007 (H.R. 256) and the Foreign Felon Gun Prohibition Act of 2007 (H.R.1168).

In the Senate, only Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has submitted a bill to date, the Anti-Gun Trafficking Penalties Enhancement Act of 2007(S.77), which would reverse amendments attached to funding bills annually since FY 2003 by Kansas Congressman Todd Tiahrt (R). The original version limited the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) responses to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. By 2006, according to opponents, his amendments have prevented:
  • ATF from publishing reports that use trace data to analyze the flow of crime guns nationally since the aggregated data for 2000;
  • local governments accessing much of ATF trace data;
  • law enforcement agencies from accessing trace data outside its geographic jurisdiction and from sharing trace data with one another; and
  • anyone other the ATF from using trace data as evidence in administrative proceedings such as state license revocations and civil lawsuits.

Some critics of the Commonwealth have conflated Cho’s notoriety with that of Virginia gun dealers, who have become known for allowing gun trafficking to cities in the Northeast. Four businesses in Madison Heights, Danville, South Boston and Richmond, were among the 15 sued by New York City in May, 2006 for selling a total of 500 crime guns which the city’s police department recovered between 1994 and 2001.

Additionally, NYC-hired private investigators from the James Mintz Group videotaped these dealers allowing one individual to provide the money, select the gun, and direct the purchase, while the other filled out the required paperwork. Such “straw purchases” are illegal because felons can have friends with no criminal records substitute for them in the matter of background checks.

Three dealers in Midlothian, Rocky Mount and Roanoke were among another dozen sued in December 2006 for selling 300 crime guns recovered between 1994 and 2002 and for allowing straw purchases by the Mintz Group investigators.

The Justice Department refused to pursue criminal charges based on the evidence gathered and the 2007 General Assembly passed legislation, H.B. 2653 forbidding stings conducted by anyone other than law enforcement. The bill’s sponsor, Scott Lingamfelter (R), received a “Defender of Freedom” award from the NRA and was quoting having this to tell Mayor Michael Bloomberg, “If you want to clean up New York City we suggest you hire more police as opposed to coming south of the Potomac River to trifle with rights of Virginians."

The Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL), based in Newington, supported H.B. 2653 enthusiastically and sponsored a "Bloomberg Gun Give Away," in which customers spending $100 at one of three of the sued gun stores would be eligible to win a handgun or rifle. According to AP, Bloomberg’s photograph appeared with those of two other gun control advocates on a “poster taped to a shotgun rack at Bob Moates, under the words ‘Here are our worst enemy,’” with the mayor’s face“circled in bright pink highlighter.”

VCDL had tried unsuccessfully for two years to pass a measure allowing students to bring concealed firearms on campus. The group issued a press release April 16, “Gun-control claims lives at Virginia Tech."

Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, co-founders of the Mayors Against Handgun Violence coalition, explain: “The polarizing rhetoric of gun politics on all sides only obscures the tragic reality we see every day…: violent criminals with easy access to firearms.” Their adversaries at the Fraternal Order of Police, however, accuse the mayors of endangering officers and witnesses. FOP says the mayors want to use the Tiahrt-proscribed data not to fight illegal firearm use, but to pursue “civil litigation suits against firearms dealers and manufacturers.”

Tiahrt and Bloomberg met earlier this year in an attempt to iron out their differences, but despite Tiahrt adding language to his amendment to permit law enforcement to communicate with each other and the ATS to compile reports, Bloomberg's criminal justice coordinator, John Feinblatt, said “it was one step forward, three steps back." So last week, the mayors began airing television ads showing Chaska, Minnesota Police Chief Scott Knight saying, "A few years ago, I had the absolute worst nightmare of any police chief. One of my officers was shot. The Tiahrt Amendment has absolutely stood in the way to effectively address gun crime. Where are the guns coming from? Who's buying them? How are they getting into my city? The information is there. We're not allowed to have it. We're fighting criminals and illegal guns. Why is Congress fighting us?"

Tiahrt has called the ads unfair and two Wichita stations, affiliates for CBS and NBC refused to air them Said the latter on its website “Meantime, while we showed you the ad in the context of a newscast, KSN has elected not to run it during regular programming because the station could not verify its claims. Broadcast stations are responsible for the content of issue advertising.”

In The Will to Power, Frederick Nietzsche is quoted as saying “Extreme positions are not succeeded by moderate ones, but by contrary extreme positions.” Citing the Second Amendment, the National Rifle Association has taken a hard line on a myriad of issues including allowing guns in the workplace, removing liability for gun manufacturers and antagonizing environmental groups. It often overstates the conclusions of its sources, arguing for instance that the Congressional Reference Service has found the ATF’s data useless for fighting crime, when ,in fact, CRS concluded “combined with multiple handgun sales reports and other investigative data, firearm trace data has proved to be a viable tool for ATF in targeting regulatory and investigative resources with greater effect. Some gun owners have even defected to the newly formed, more moderate American Hunters and Shooters Association.

On April 19, Bristol Township, PA police say a 16-year old Conwell-Egan Catholic High School student, distraught over a break-up, wrote a note threatening to kill 34 people and “break the record.” The soldiers for the gun lobby came out in force, saying “guns don’t kill people, pointing to the 12th anniversary of the Oklahoma city bombing on April 19. The next day, of course, marked the 8th anniversary of Columbine.

Pundits attribute Al Gore’s loss in 2000 to his support of gun control. The NRA campaigned against John Kerry in 2004. In the run-up to the 2008 presidential race, it remains to be seen how far Congress will go in confront the organization by passing gun control legislation. This much remain sure: the Virginia Tech Massacre has turned public attention to U.S. gun laws. As the San Francisco Chronicle quoted Ladd Everitt of the Coalition to End Gun Violence on April 18:
I don't know what the tipping point is. At some point, the public will just have to stand up and say "enough.''