Tech massacre only heated up the gun debate in Virginia
Posted to: News Special Reports State of the Gun
Part 1 of 4
It's been said that America was born with a gun in its hand. If so, that partnership drew its first breath in Virginia. For 400 years, we’ve fought with our guns and over our guns. In other parts of the world, the shootings at Virginia Tech last April might have ended the debate. Not in Virginia.
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By Joanne Kimberlin
© March 2, 2008
It's a simple device, really. By modern standards, downright basic. A metal tube. A tiny explosion. A bit of lead that zips through the air at 4,000 feet per second and rips a hole in nearly anything in its path .
After that, nothing about guns is simple. The stakes are just too high. When the squeeze of a finger can end a life - or save one - people tend to line up at the extremes. They hate guns, or they love them.
Four centuries after the first firearms were toted ashore, Americans clash over guns more than ever. Nowhere is that conflict at a higher pitch than in Virginia – where the specter of the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history hangs over a campus in the foothills of the Blue Ridge.
The killings in April in Blacksburg thrust a stunned Virginia into headlines around the world. They also galvanized both sides of the gun debate:
Clearly, one side says, the country has too many guns. Clearly, says the other, it doesn't have enough.
This year, in the shadow of Seung-Hui Cho, the pendulum is swinging toward more.
With Virginia's General Assembly session almost over, legislation aimed at stronger gun control has gone nowhere. Bills requiring blanket background checks at gun shows failed. So did others prohibiting guns at public festivals, libraries, government buildings and even the state Capitol .
Instead, gun owners were granted greater freedom. A bill was passed allowing residents with concealed-handgun permits to bring weapons inside places that serve alcohol as long as the people carrying them don't drink. And gun owners without concealed-carry permits will be able to legally stash a loaded weapon in a locked glove box.
To the gun-control camp, it doesn't add up.
"Pitiful," said Suffolk's Alice Mountjoy, co-founder of the Virginia Center for Public Safety. "After what happened at Tech - just pitiful."
If anything, Cho energized the gun-rights side. Crime is one thing, but the gunman-on-a-rampage is a relatively modern terror. Gun owners say they're haunted by the mass helplessness of the victims. The phrase "sheep to the slaughter" is heard regularly.
"Virginia Tech was the icing on the cake for me," said Bruce Waddill, a government contractor and gun owner from Virginia Beach. "The only thing that can stop someone like that is someone else with a gun."
A December shooting at a Colorado church cemented that opinion. Matthew Murray had two firearms and hundreds of rounds. Odds are, the death count would have climbed higher than four if a security guard hadn't been there to shoot back. That's when Murray turned the gun on himself.
"That's what these guys do," said Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League. "They keep going until you convince them the gig is up. And you can't count on the police to always be there."
Col. Gerald Massengill says that's true. Massengill, the former head of Virginia's State Police, led a panel appointed by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine to look into the Tech shootings. If law-abiding students had been allowed to carry guns on campus, Massengill said, "the panel agreed that someone probably could have stopped Cho before he killed 32 people."
But the panel said such a policy could have lethal consequences of its own.
Personal firearms have been strictly regulated – and in some places banned entirely – in a growing list of democratic countries. In the United States, there are more guns than ever – an estimated 270 million. That makes America the most heavily armed nation on the planet.
It is also consistently at the top of the charts for gun deaths. In 2005, 30,694 people – or 10.4 per 100,000 – were killed by firearms in the United States, including homicides, suicides and accidents. That same year, guns killed 185 people in the United Kingdom – a rate of 0.3.
Despite the danger – or maybe because of it – Americans cling to their guns. A Gallup poll conducted in October found that 42 percent of U.S. households have at least one firearm. It's a gun culture forged by who we are and how we got here.
"The United States is a very young country," said Stephen Farnsworth, an associate professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg.
Unlike European cultures with thousands of years behind them, Farnsworth said, Americans have no history of civil disarmament or submission – not even to their own government.
Independence is a part of America's heritage, and it was won with a gun in the hand. Firearms helped throw off the British, dominate the Indians, and tame a vast and hostile land. The American frontier wasn't settled yesterday, Farnsworth said, but it was recent enough to help shape the country's personality.
"Just look at Hollywood," he said, where Westerns have been popular since the dawn of film. Movies have reflected what the audience wants to see – John Wayne, Charles Bronson, Dirty Harry – heroes who pack guns and deliver justice.
Critics blame the firearms industry for romanticizing the gun. Either way, decades of manufacturing and importing have built quite a stockpile. With minimal care , a gun can operate for a hundred years, maybe more – which means the supply keeps growing.
As a result, guns are now cheaper, more available and in more hands. The toll is told in the news: a relentless drumbeat of random violence.
Two missionaries gunned down in Chesapeake. A Christmas shopper shot in a mall parking lot on the Peninsula. A 15-year-old boy killed during a restaurant robbery in Norfolk. A mother shot in her car in front of her children and left paralyzed.
And that's just close to home. Add in the national stories – eight killed in a Nebraska mall in December, five killed on an Illinois college campus last month – and it's enough to make people feel vulnerable.
"Given the stock of weapons in private hands, plus the porousness of our borders, it's a raw fact that we'll never get guns out of the hands of criminals," said William Van Alstyne, a law and Constitution expert at the College of William and Mary.
Gun-rights supporters say that self-protection is the only practical answer and that no one should deny them that option.
"It's a question of whether or not the government can render you defenseless from other people when the government can't guarantee your safety," Van Alstyne said.
The outcome is an arms race between the good guys and the bad.
Massengill has seen its evolution in Virginia.
"When I came to work here in 1966," he said, "it was very rare for a police officer to find a concealed weapon or any weapon in an everyday citizen's motor vehicle. Now, it's almost a daily thing."
There is no way of calculating how many guns are in Virginia. Residents do not have to register their weapons, and there is no monitoring of secondhand sales between private citizens.
Historically rural, conservative and Southern, Virginia does have a gun-friendly reputation, especially when compared with its northern neighbors. It's legal to walk down a public street with a sidearm holstered to your hip – a fact that makes Virginia one of only 11 Gold Star states in rankings done by a gun-rights group called OpenCarry.org.
[OCDO NOTE:Actually, it's legal to do this in 44 states. And 29 states without any license. What makes VA and 10 other states Gold Star is that not only can you open carry, but you can open carry without any license on foot and in vehicles; further, localities must be preempted as to open carry, generally. CO would be a Gold Star State except the Colo. S. Ct. split 3-3 on Denver's Open Carry ban - a new justice is on that Court, and the next case should tip CO back to Gold Star status. Many other states will join Gold Star status as soon as their legislatures enact full preemption of localities]
For years, Virginia has been a top source of guns that turn up in crimes in the Northeast, where some put a twist on the state's tourism motto: "Virginia is for gun lovers."
Last year, after New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg used sting operations to try to block the flow, the state made his tactics illegal and residents thumbed their noses with a Bloomberg Gun Giveaway. Virginia cities, towns and counties are not allowed to pass gun laws that are tighter than the commonwealth 's. Eight of South Hampton Roads' 24 state legislators have concealed-handgun permits.
On the other hand, Virginia put together a system for conducting criminal background checks on gun buyers long before the federal government got around to creating one. The state also was the launch site of Project Exile, a hard-time-for-gun-crime campaign that has been exported across the country. Even now, Virginia is one of just three states that limit most buyers to one handgun every 30 days.
That split personality is reflected across the country. The recent Gallup poll found that half of Americans think gun laws should be more strict and the other half want them left alone or eased.
Things get personal when the halves come face to face.
In January, on the General Assembly's annual Advocacy Day, both sides descended on Richmond to argue their points. Gun-control supporters – including relatives and friends of the Tech victims – held a rally on Capitol grounds. Gun owners attended en masse, outnumbering and surrounding the gun-control camp, holding up signs of their own. Some sneered and snickered at the speeches. Laughter broke out when the gun-control folks stretched out on the grass for a "lie-in" – intended to symbolize the victims of firearms.
One woman rose on an elbow and eyed the gun-rights crowd.
"How dare you laugh!" she chastised. "How dare you!"
Colin Goddard, a Tech student with bullet fragments still embedded in his body, stood toe to toe with Jeff Knox, director of the Manassas-based Firearms Coalition. Goddard's cheeks turned crimson as Knox insisted that guns should be allowed on campus.
"You're afraid," Goddard said quietly. "I feel sorry for you. I can't continue my life afraid of things."
There are no easy answers. Reliable data are hard to come by. Many statistics are tainted by an agenda.
In 2003, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studied eight gun laws. In the end, the center said it could not determine their effectiveness.
"It's one of those things you don't bring up at dinner," said Shannon Fox, a wife and mother from Chesapeake.
Fox and her husband took a safety class at a gun shop earlier this year. They plan to get permits to carry concealed handguns.
"We have some friends, even family members, who would be appalled by the fact that we have guns," Fox said.
Massengill, the former state police chief, says he understands both positions.
"But we've got to recognize that there has been a proliferation of firearms," he said. "It's not the firearms killing people. It's the wrong people possessing them. It's a very difficult issue."
Gun owners fear a day when their weapons are outlawed – a worry the gun-control side has long dismissed as "paranoid."
Not really, according to Farnsworth, the Mary Washington professor. This month, the Supreme Court will take a look at Washington, D.C.'s ban on handguns. If the district prevails, Farnsworth said, gun bans are "the shape of things to come. Fifty, even 20 years ago, no one could imagine a case like this coming forward."
In the meantime, in Virginia, a firearm can be purchased with less oversight than a used car.
News researcher Jakon Hays contributed to this story.
Joanne Kimberlin, (757) 446-2338, firstname.lastname@example.org
SERIES SOURCES: Federal Bureau of Investigation; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; U.S. Department of Justice; National Rifle Association; Virginia State Police; Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence; World Health Organization; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Violence Policy Center; OpenCarry.org; The Virginia Gun Owner’s Guide; Small Arms Survey 2007; Report of the Virginia Tech Review Panel; Virginia Department of Health, Office of the Chief Medical Examiner; Virginia Citizens Defense League; Hampton Roads police departments; The New York Times; The Washington Post; The Associated Press; and Virginian-Pilot research.