Debate: gun control vs. gun advocates


(Original publication: April 18, 2007)

The massacre of 32 people at Virginia Tech has galvanized both ends of the gun-control debate.

Gun-control proponents seized the opportunity to argue that the shooting rampage by a 23-year-old student at the university proves that stricter laws are necessary - and could have kept two 9 mm handguns out of the killer's hands.

But gun advocates countered that his actions have no bearing on legal gun ownership.

Rather, they argue that the shootings demonstrate the need for freer application of the Second Amendment right to bear arms, suggesting that a campus "gun-free zone" policy allowed the shooter to fatally shoot innocent students and staffers unhindered.

Yesterday, the gun advocacy group even called for the resignation of Virginia Tech officials for endorsing and implementing the school's campus gun ban in the first place.

"It creates free-killing zones, is what it does," said Ken Mathison, president of the Shooters Committee on Political Education, a statewide gun advocacy group.

"It's very simple," Mathison said yesterday. "If there had been somebody in one of those classrooms that was armed, he wouldn't have gone as far as he did. He may not even have done it at all, knowing that someone might be shooting back."

The incident at the Blacksburg, Va., university campus on Monday was the deadliest shooting spree in the nation's history.

Police said Cho Seung-Hui, a troubled Virginia Tech senior, carried two 9 mm handguns as he shot two students at a campus dorm, and two hours later entered a class building and fatally shot 30 students and faculty members.

Yesterday, The Associated Press reported that a receipt might have been found in Cho's backpack suggesting he purchased one of the guns in March.

The incident - much like the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado and similar tragedies - is already a springboard for those lobbying for more restrictive gun legislation.

Jackie Kuhls, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, said that legislation closing the "gun show loophole" and requiring more thorough background checks could have helped keep guns out of the killer's hands.

The "loophole" refers to fewer restrictions and background checks on weapons purchased at gun shows.

Much, Kuhls said, will hinge on how police determine that Cho got the guns.

"Even if he passed a background check, how thorough was that check?" she asked. "If you do a more thorough, lengthy check, A, it keeps guns away from people for an impulse purchase. And, B, over that time, something might turn up. So it's not just a background check, but what does a background check tell you?"

Kuhls said "secondary purchases" of weapons also need to be addressed by legislators.

Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said in a statement yesterday that elected officials need to "make the tough choices necessary to prevent such tragedies from ever happening again."

"We are currently awaiting the revelation of important information about the shooter and the process by which he acquired his guns," Horwitz said.

The shootings revived the political debate on gun control, with presidential hopefuls from both parties asked to address the issue, and the White House deflecting the question as premature.

"We understand that there has been an ongoing national discussion, conversation and debate about gun-control policy," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told The Associated Press.

"Of course we are going to be participants in that conversation. Today, however, is a day that is time to focus on the families, the school, the community."

But many gun-rights advocates contend that the shootings hardly make a case for gun control.

In a sharp rebuke, the Second Amendment Foundation, a conservative constitutional rights group, took issue with gun-control advocates for their "morbid exploitation" of the shootings.

"Almost from the moment the first news broke about this monstrous crime, we at SAF have been forced to respond to staccato attacks from gun-control organizations," the group's founder, Alan Gottlieb, said in a statement.

But other gun advocates were making a case of the shootings.

On the Internet message board of the gun rights group, dozens of members bemoaned the university's no-guns policy, a point the group made in its own statement yesterday.

"Virginia Tech bureaucrats lobbied for two years to keep their victim disarmament zones," the group said in a release. "Now they see what one looks like."

Reach Jorge Fitz-Gibbon at or 914-694-5016.