Monday, April 23, 2007

Vaunted Gun Lobby May Find Itself Haunted By Virginia Tech Massacre

NRA Uncharacteristically Tight-Lipped After Worst Mass Shooting in U.S. History Strikes In its Home State -- And After Revelations That Cho Used Clips Banned Under Federal Law That Gun Lobby Successfully Killed in 2004


Patrons of a Blacksburg, Virginia bar watch a video of Virginia Tech gunman Cho Seung-Hui broadcast Wednesday on the "NBC Nightly News." The video, in which Cho delivered a profanity-laced tirade, was part of a package mailed by Cho to NBC that included still photos of the gunman brandishing several weapons. (Photo: Amy Sancetta/AP)

By Skeeter Sanders

The University of Texas at Austin. The Dunblane Primary School in Dunblane, Scotland. Heath High School in Paducah, Kentucky. The Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Deming Middle School in Deming, New Mexico. The Johann Gutenberg Secondary School in Erfurt, Germany. Primary School No. 1 in Beslan, Russia. Dawson College and the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal, Quebec.

These are the settings of the world's worst mass killings at schools, from the elementary level to the college level. Now, to that list, we can add one more: The Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, Virginia.

The common thread in all these killings: The murder weapons used were guns -- ranging from cheap pistols to AK-47 assault rifles. In the case of Breslan, bombs were also used, to deadly effect.

Breslan is unique in that it was clearly a politically motivated terrorist attack by heavily-armed Chechen separatist guerrillas. But there's no denying that the vast majority of these mass school killings have occurred in the United States.

And every time such incidents erupt, the inevitable arguments over gun control erupt in their immediate aftermath. It never fails. The Virginia Tech massacre is no exception.

Except that this time, the arguments aren't limited to the United States. The debate has gone global -- with the rest of the world wondering aloud when we Americans are ever going to get over our seemingly insane love affair with guns.

And this time, America's longtime politically powerful gun lobby could find itself haunted by the killings -- with one of its major spokesmen reportedly "appalled and, frankly, revolted" by the carnage.

Massacre Took Place in NRA's Own Back Yard

One of the underreported facts about the Virginia Tech massacre is that it happened -- both figuratively and literally -- in the back yard of America's most powerful gun lobby. The National Rifle Association is headquartered in Fairfax, Virginia.

In 2004, the NRA successfully opposed renewal of the federal assault weapons ban of 1994, which banned many features of certain semi-automatic rifles and certain types of removable magazines, or clips. That effort may have now come back to haunt the NRA in a big way.

The Virginia Tech gunman purchased a Walther P-22 .22-caliber pistol and a Glock 19 pistol. He used a 15-round ammunition magazine in his Glock -- a magazine that was previously banned under the expired federal assault weapons law that the NRA fought so hard to kill.

Cam Edwards, host of "NRA News," which is cybercast daily at the NRA's Web site, was quoted by National Public Radio last Tuesday as saying that he was "shocked, appalled and, quite frankly, revolted" by what happened at Virginia Tech, yet he called on the media to "report the story responsibly."

The NRA itself has been unusually tight-lipped about the massacre, issuing only a brief statement that it "joins the entire country in expressing our deepest sympathies to the families of Virginia Tech University and everyone else affected by this horrible tragedy.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the families," the NRA statement said. "We will not have further comment until all the facts are known."

Gaps Between Virginia and Federal Laws on Gun Purchases Enabled Cho to Buy His Weapons

It's outrageous to this blogger that Cho Seung-Hui, the gunman who killed 32 people and wounded 26 others in the worst gun rampage in modern U.S. history, was able to buy his guns and ammunition so easily, despite having a history of psychiatric problems -- including being declared mentally ill in 2005 by a Virginia judge, who ordered him to undergo outpatient psychiatric treatment.

Even more outrageous is how Cho could have passed through the stringent background checks required under both Virginia and federal law for firearms purchases.

The sale of firearms to Virginia residents is legal as long as the buyer shows proof of residency -- which Cho was able to do, as he had lived in Virginia as a legal permanent resident alien since his family immigrated from his native South Korea in 1992, when Cho was eight years old.

Virginia law also limits purchases of handguns to one every 30 days.

In addition, federal law requires a criminal background check for handgun purchases from licensed firearms dealers, and Virginia checks other databases in addition to the federally-mandated NICS (National Instant Criminal Background Check System). It also prohibits those "adjudicated as a mental defective" from buying guns.

Having been declared mentally ill and "a danger to himself" by a Virginia court in 2005, Cho should have been barred under federal law from purchasing the guns and ammunition he used in his deadly rampage. But because of gaps between federal and Virginia state laws, the state failed to report Cho's legal status to the federal NICS and thus failed to prevent Cho's purchases.

Some of Cho's Victims Shot More Than 100 Times

Just how brutal the killing machine that was Cho was brought to light in gruesome detail on Sunday when Dr. William Massello, the assistant medical examiner of nearby Roanoke, Virginia, disclosed that Cho pumped up to 100 bullets into the 32 people he killed before he turned his gun on himself and fired a single bullet into his head.

Many of the victims had defensive wounds, indicating they tried to shield themselves from Cho's fire, but there was no evidence in the autopsies that Cho struggled with any of the people he killed.

Massello said pathologists have sent samples of Cho's blood for toxicology testing to determine if the gunman was on drugs at the time of his rampage. It could take as long as two weeks to get the results of those tests, he said.

International Outrage at U.S. Gun Laws After Massacre

The shootings sparked criticism of U.S. gun control laws around the world. In angry editorials, newspapers from London to Seoul lashed out at the relatively easy availability of weapons compared to the rest of the world.

While some focused blame only on the gunman, world opinion over U.S. gun laws was almost unanimous: Access to weapons increases the probability of shootings. There was no sympathy for the view long held by America's gun lobby that more guns would have saved lives by enabling students to shoot the assailant.

Still, leaders from Britain, Germany, Mexico, China, Afghanistan and France stopped short of criticizing President Bush or U.S. gun laws when they offered sympathies to the families of Cho's victims.

The killings also hit a nerve for Virginia Tech alumni abroad.

"I think if this does prompt a serious and reflective debate on gun issues and gun law in the States, then some good may come from this woeful tragedy," said British Home Office Minister Tony McNulty, who graduated in 1982.

Editorials were less diplomatic.

"Only the names change — And the numbers," read the headline over the lead editorial in The Times of London. "Why, we ask, do Americans continue to tolerate gun laws and a culture that seems to condemn thousands of innocents to death every year, when presumably, tougher restrictions, such as those in force in European countries, could at least reduce the number?"

The conservative French daily Le Monde said the regularity of mass shootings across the Atlantic was a blot on America's image. "It would be unjust and especially false to reduce the United States to the image created, in a recurrent way, from the bursts of murderous fury that some isolated individuals succumb to. But acts like this are rare elsewhere, and tend to often disfigure the 'American dream.'"

Even Australia's Right-Wing PM Blasts U.S. 'Gun Culture'

Even John Howard, the arch-conservative prime minister of Australia — one of America's closest allies — declared that America's gun culture was costing "too many" American lives.

"We took action to limit the availability of guns and we showed a national resolve that the gun culture that is such a negative in the United States would never become a negative in our country," said Howard, who staked his political career on promoting tough gun laws after an Australian gunman went on one of the world's deadliest killing sprees in 1996.

The tragedy in a Tasmanian tourist resort left 35 people dead. Afterward, Australia's gun laws were changed to prohibit automatic weapons and handguns and toughen licensing and storage restrictions.

Tough -- Even Draconian -- Gun Restrictions Around the World Keeps Gun Crime Way Below That in U.S.

Handguns are also banned in Britain — a prohibition that forces even the country's Olympic pistol shooting team from practicing on its own soil.

In Sweden, civilians can acquire firearm permits only if they have a hunting license or are members of a shooting club and have no criminal record.

In Italy, people must have a valid reason for wanting one.

In China, firearms are forbidden for private citizens.

While many of these laws are much tougher -- even Draconian -- by U.S. standards, they do have one cumulative -- and undeniable -- effect: Gun-related violence in other countries is rare, compared to the U.S.

Such violence is almost unheard of in Japan, whose gun laws are the strictest in the world (Which makes the recent execution-style assassination of the mayor of Nagasaki by the Yakuza, the Japanese Mafia, all the more shocking to the Japanese).

Notion of Self-Defense With Guns 'Imprinted on America's DNA'

Italy's leading daily, Corriere della Sera, ran a front-page editorial on the shootings Friday headlined "Guns at the Supermarket" — a critical view of the U.S. gun lobby and the ease with which guns can be purchased.

"The latest attack on a U.S. campus will shake up America, maybe it will provoke more vigorous reactions than in the past, but it won't change the culture of a country that has the notion of self-defense imprinted on its DNA and which considers the right of having guns inalienable," the newspaper argued in its front-page editorial.

Corriere della Sera is right. No other country on Earth has "the right to bear arms" enshrined in its constitution. But that right to bear arms must have its limits. It's been illegal under federal law since 1937 for civilians to own and operate weapons made explicitly for use by the military. That's what the expired assault weapons ban was about.

Frankly, if it were within my power, this blogger would force the more extremist elements of the gun lobby to spend six months living in the worst urban areas where gun-related violence is a daily occurrence and then tell me that it's necessary for law-abiding citizens to arm themselves in self-defense.

If they do, I'll tell them that they're crazy, for their solution will only lead to even more gun violence. I know this for a fact, having lived through the bloody and terrifying "crack wars" that destroyed my native New York City neighborhood in the 1980s.

A never-ending domestic arms race will inevitably lead to our own self-destruction. This insanity has to be stopped.

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Volume II, Number 21
Copyright 2007, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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