The National Catholic Review
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The massacre at Virginia Tech drew shocked comment not only in the United States, but from the media in other countries as well. Canada’s Globe and Mail, for example, noted that even as deadly a massacre as the one at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in 1999 failed to bring about a nationwide crackdown on guns. The Sydney Morning Herald in Australia described the Virginia deaths as “setting a sickeningly high American record for gun rampages.” U.S. politicians, it adds, “are running scared at the influence of a particular voice over a sizeable tranche [slice] of voters as a presidential election looms.” The voice is the gun lobby’s, especially its major proponent, the National Rifle Association.

 

Commenting on the N.R.A.’s influence, Le Figaro of Paris asserted that the gun lobby spent many thousands of dollars to prevent the election of John Kerry, the Democratic candidate during the 2004 presidential election. Other candidates and legislators have suffered similar fates at its hands. The N.R.A. endlessly repeats its mistaken interpretation of the Second Amendment, that “a well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” The amendment was written at a time well before the creation of local and state police forces, when local militias did serve a purpose, but that time is long past.

Some states, like Massachusetts and New York, have enacted strong legislation regulating gun purchases. But their effectiveness is limited because gun traffickers enlist the help of “straw purchasers” elsewhere. The latter are residents of gun-friendly states where such transactions can legitimately take place. They have only to show proof of residency and pass a background check revealing no felony record. The straw purchasers pass the guns on to traffickers who then sell them at much higher prices in states with stronger gun laws.

Gun shows offer an equally great loophole. Kristen Rand, legislative director at the nonprofit Violence Policy Center in Washington, told America that in most states it is still possible for unlicensed sellers to sell firearms to customers with no background check at all. She noted that even had the mental illness record of the Virginia Tech shooter prevented him from obtaining weapons at a local gun shop, Mr. Seung-Hui Cho could still have gone to a Virginia gun show and bought them there.

Adding to the difficulties faced by gun control advocates is a harmful legislative measure with national implications, the Tiahrt amendment. Attached to the Justice Department’s appropriations bill, it limits the use of gun-trace data to all except those law enforcement officials who are attempting to find the source of illegal firearms used in particular cases. The greater value of such data—which provide a weapon’s entire history, starting with the maker and distributor—lies in the possibility that it can be analyzed to identify patterns in illegal trafficking or trends in the make and model of crime guns. The N.R.A. is fighting hard to keep intact the restrictions on the release of tracing data imposed by the the Tiahrt amendment. It also supports the harmful U.S. Court of Appeals decision that overturned a District of Columbia law barring residents from keeping handguns in their homes. The decision unfortunately paves the way for challenges to strong gun laws around the nation. The issue of handguns in the home is closely related to concerns about suicide. People with guns in their homes are five times more likely to kill themselves than those in gun-free homes.

Other industrialized countries have much stricter gun laws than the United States, and have succeeded in lowering their homicide and suicide rates. A telephone poll conducted after the Virginia shootings found that two-thirds of respondents thought regulations on handgun sales here should be stricter. Too many legislators and candidates, fearful of the N.R.A.’s power, shrink from taking the needed steps to act on the views of the majority of the people polled.

At the very least, legislators should press for the removal of the Tiahrt amendment, which restricts the ability of law enforcement authorities to discover where illegal guns are coming from. Similarly, gun control groups like the Violence Policy Center and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence should be supported in their efforts to reverse the U.S. Court of Appeals decision overturning the sensible no-handguns-in-the-home law of the District of Columbia, one of the strongest in the country. The gun control issue is not just about weapons; it is a matter of public safety as well.

Comments

Olga Bonfiglio | 5/6/2007 - 1:12pm
As we get over the shock of the tragedy at Virginia Tech, the religious questions will soon begin: How could God let this happen? What kind of God allowed it? How can I believe in God when bad things like this happen?

Jesuit theologian Jon Sobrino can offer us some help. He knows a lot about tragedy. He escaped assassination on March 16, 1989, in El Salvador when members of the military broke into the rectory and killed his brother priests, the housekeeper and her daughter. He was out of town that night.

After the peace finally came to El Salvador after 12 years of civil war (1980-92), an earthquake in 2001 killed over 800 people, injured nearly 5,000 and destroyed more than 108,000 houses and 150,000 buildings. The Salvadoran government didn’t provide the necessary rebuilding support so the people did it themselves, first by digging out victims of the earthquake with their bare hands because they had no equipment. Sobrino concluded that God wasn’t in the tragedy of the earthquake or even in the government’s disregard for the people. God was in the people’s response to the tragedy.

By declaring Cho sick and insane in plain view on America’s TV and Internet screens, we essentially remove ourselves from any response for the killings and salve ourselves instead with anger or fear or denial or avoidance. We did this after Columbine and again, after 9/11. What is missing in our response to all these tragedies, however, is the “we.” How are we part of the madness that drove the perpetrators? How are we preventing further heinous acts of violence? How are we making ourselves feel unsafe?

Many people will react to the VT tragedy by installing more cameras, more guards, more lock-downs, more security keys. Only those in the security business will benefit from this strategy as they willing sell institutions their goods. Administrators tend to adopt such measures because they look as though they’re doing something. However, fear prevails because these security devices are constant reminders that campus is unsafe and everyone is at risk.

Many people will choose an avoidance strategy where they break some pattern they think relates to the tragedy. For example, the mother of one of my students advised him to forego applying for a residence hall assistant position because resident assistants at VT were among those killed.

When tragedy strikes, and it always does, some people go on with their lives without thought or reflection on it. This denial strategy essentially leads one to believe that nothing happened and all is normal. We try to get on with life without dealing with life’s reality. We then prevent ourselves from acting against such tragedies because we refuse to relate to them or find meaning in them—or to find God in them. I’m not suggesting a Pollyanna approach saying that all is well and God will provide. Actually, I’m suggesting a more confrontational approach against these evil acts of violence and terrorism.

· Join with others to form or strengthen your community, neighborhood or campus. Talk about these issues and figure out what YOU can do about them to respond without fear, hatred or denial but rather with love, compassion or reconciliation. After the Jesuits were executed in El Salvador, the gardener, who lost his wife and daughter in the killings, planted rose bushes in the same place where they were killed.

· Defy the inclination to give in to fear by objecting to stepped up security measures and instead organize people to look out for each other. Refuse to watch the repetitive news reports or analysis of the tragedy by turning off the TV and the Internet. Challenge people who say mean and nasty things about others to stop such vitriol.

· Sublimate your anger, sadness and fear by being silent within. Meditate. Take a walk in the woods. Breathe deeply. These strategies cleanse the body and help you face the tragedy. For the present

Richard Salvucci | 5/6/2007 - 6:14am
Yes, guns don't kill people. People kill people. But people with guns use guns to kill people. It has been well known for years that there is a statistically predictable relation between the number of guns available and the commission of crimes using guns. More guns, a la NRA, do not make people safer. Only a wilful misreading of the evidence, let alone the Second Amendment, permits such a conclusion.

Fr. Larry N. Lorenzoni, S.D.B. | 5/4/2007 - 9:38pm
There is wisdom in the slogan one often hears, "Guns don't kill people. People kill people." After Virginia Tech, and after the six 2006 school shootings -- Nickel Mines, PA (Oct. 2), Cazenovia, WI (Sept. 29), Bailey, CO (Sept. 27), Pittsburgh, PA (Sept 17), Hillsborough. NC (Aug. 30), and Essex, VT (Aug. 24) -- one is inclined to reflect more seriously on the experience-inspired and perhaps deeper wisdom of the dictum, "Guns don't kill people. People with guns kill people." Tragedies like Virginia Tech do not happen in the United Kingdom, Canada, or Japan, where gun ownership is restricted. Fr. Larry N. Lorenzoni, S.D.B.

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