By BILL MCKELWAY TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER
Former state police Superintendent W. Gerald Massengill said yesterday that he is willing to personally support restrictions on sales of firearms at gun shows.
Stepping into a volatile political issue that he said will take on a new urgency and tenor in the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre, Massengill described himself as a strong supporter of Second Amendment rights but as a man who has witnessed an intolerable rise in gun violence and gun presence.
"We can't allow the proliferation of guns to continue," he said, speaking before The Virginia Center for Public Safety, a nonprofit group that is part of a coalition of gun-control advocates.
Massengill, who headed the eight-member Virginia Tech Review Panel, said more-thorough background checks on gun-show purchases are needed in Virginia, if only to reduce the availability of guns for illicit purposes.
Private sales or trades at gun shows involving unlicensed dealers are exempt from background checks, which can turn up information on criminal histories and hospitalizations for mental illness.
Supporters of the exemption argue that data is lacking to show a direct link between gun violence or crime and private sales. Such sales often involve a single weapon and another collector.
At a demonstration this fall at The Showplace in Henrico County, gun enthusiasts charged that erasing the gun-show loophole is the equivalent of erasing a right to freely purchase and trade weapons by hobbyists.
Massengill said some objections could be eased by exempting background checks for trades or sales among family members.
But he also recounted Tech gunman Seung-Hui Cho's ability to purchase guns despite findings that he was mentally ill, a matter since corrected through an executive order issued by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine.
But Massengill said even if a background check had turned up Cho's name, Cho could have purchased weapons at a gun show.
Some studies have shown that as many as 35 percent of dealers at gun shows do not possess a federal firearms license and can trade or sell guns from private collections.
Stopping the gun-show loophole was a key recommendation of the Virginia Tech panel.
The issue should not be couched as a Second Amendment matter but as one that assures that gun ownership is preserved for law-abiding citizens, Massengill said.
"I guess I'm one of those people who sees the devastation that firearms bring; there's got to be reasonable checks and balances out there."
That became palpably evident at Virginia Tech; Massengill winced recalling his visit to Norris Hall, where 30 students and teachers died. Two other students were slain inside a dormitory.
"It was like a shooting gallery," Massengill said, describing the Norris Hall classrooms as coffinlike enclosures that offered no protection and no exit.
He said he is convinced Cho turned one of his two handguns on himself when he heard responding police shoot the locks off the doors to enter Norris.
But he minimized the notion that Cho may have been stopped sooner had students or selected teachers been allowed to carry guns.
Allowing such a scenario may have deterred Cho, Massengill said, but law-enforcement officers realize that more guns on campus combined with what he called "the exuberance of youth" will eventually lead to a calamity.
"More guns on campus is not going to lead to a safer environment." he said.
Contact Bill McKelway at (804) 649-6601 or email@example.com