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.