Virginia Tech Tragedy Renews Gun-Control Debate

Emotions across the Unites States are still raw and unsettled in the aftermath of the tragic massacre at Virginia Tech that claimed the lives of 33 people, including the gunman. The issue of gun control is always a delicate matter, never more so than in the first few days following a high-profile shooting incident, when our primary thoughts are with the victims and their families. Yet, after the deadliest shooting spree in the country’s history, the issue of gun control is simply unavoidable and is likely to command significant attention in the coming weeks.

Advocates of stricter gun-control laws have been severely weakened in recent years by the relentless political machine that is the National Rifle Association (NRA) and, more generally, by a rabid and ever-expanding gun culture in the United States that seems to be rather unique in the Western world. It is especially telling to view the responses to the tragedy that have been lodged by commentators in other nations.

For example, an op-ed in New Zealand’s Dominion Post read: “To most of the world, the tragic killing of 32 students and lecturers at Virginia Tech University on Tuesday was as inevitable as the killing of 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado eight years ago or five Amish schoolgirls in Pennsylvania last year. Give angry, disaffected men and youths easy access to lethal weapons and the outcome is predictable.” An Italian commentator in Il Manifesto wrote that gun massacres are as “American as apple pie,” a description that seems to have touched a nerve in this country.

Democrats, the traditional defenders of gun-control laws, are as powerless as they’ve been in quite some time to initiate legislation; in fact, gun control is increasingly viewed as a “third rail” in American politics a virtually unwinnable issue. The odd quirk that makes the issue so prickly is that these unimaginably violent gun-related events tend to energize advocates on both sides of the debate both sides see it as evidence to support their own position.

Paul Helmke is president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a nonpartisan grassroots organization dedicated to curtailing gun violence. In his statement about the incident, he was sure to send “thoughts and prayers” to the Virginia Tech community, before adding: “Details are still forthcoming about what motivated the shooter in this case to act, and how he was able to arm himself. It is well known, however, how easy it is for an individual to get powerful weapons in our country.

“Eight years ago this week, the young people in Littleton, Colorado, suffered a horrible attack at Columbine High School, and almost exactly six months ago, five young people were killed at an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania. Since these killings, we’ve done nothing as a country to end gun violence in our schools and communities. If anything, we’ve made it easier to access powerful weapons.

“We have now seen another horrible tragedy that will never be forgotten. It is long overdue for us to take some common-sense actions to prevent tragedies like this from continuing to occur.”

People on all sides of the issue have to wonder how a student who was deemed in 2005 by a Virginia court to be “an imminent danger to self or others” was able to buy firearms. Actually, it’s quite simple in this case: Federal law doesn’t prohibit gun ownership by mentally ill individuals unless they have been officially “committed”; since the gunman was given outpatient status and had not committed a felony, it was legal for him to acquire the weapons.

However, it is interesting to note that in Massachusetts, for example, Cho Seung-Hui would not have been able to buy the guns or the ammunition. That state’s laws bars resident aliens from legally obtaining a firearms permit or from owning a gun. (In addition, Glock handguns are not even allowed to be sold at all in Massachusetts.) Massachusetts also requires an identification card or license to carry or purchase a firearm; Virginia does not.

At this point, Democrats are not taking the gun-control bait for fear of electoral repercussions. Even Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid warned against a “rush to judgment” by Democrats on stricter gun control. The party simply won’t jeopardize its standing in key swing states where gun ownership is popular. Republican presidential candidate John McCain went so far as to say that he favors “no gun control.” Many state lawmakers are making pre-emptive comments against gun-control legislation before any has even been introduced.

Writing in, Walter Shapiro, the Washington bureau chief, said, “Even in the battle to save lives from gun violence, senators and congressmen are understandably reluctant to gamble with their own careers. Against this backdrop, liberals should look at the firearms issue from a long-term perspective, instead of going into a fetal crouch over how gun control will play in the next election.” Shapiro, incidentally, favors a repeal of the Second Amendment entirely.

Putting aside the political and social elements of this hot-button issue, one fact remains clear: Gun violence is an American plague. People may disagree about how to prevent it, but few can deny it is a significant problem in this country. Therefore, our response to such tragedies should be compassion and sympathy for the victims and, perhaps, outrage toward the perpetrator. However, feelings of shock and surprise are no longer options. Gun violence is much too rampant to astonish anyone in this country.

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