April 18, 2007
Shooting Rekindles Issues of Gun Rights and Restrictions
By LESLIE EATON and MICHAEL LUO
Five weeks ago, a Virginia Tech student walked into a nondescript gun store next to a pawn shop in Roanoke, Va., and paid $571 for a Glock 9-millimeter handgun and a box of ammunition.
On Monday, the student, Cho Seung-Hui, made a horrible kind of history by using that gun and another pistol to go on a murderous rampage at the university, in Blacksburg, Va., before taking his own life.
As described by John Markell, the owner of the store, Roanoke Firearms, the purchase was a routine transaction. Virginia requires residents to present two forms of identification to buy a gun, as well pass a computerized background check, and Mr. Cho showed a salesman his driver’s license, a checkbook and his green card, because he had immigrated with his family from South Korea.
“He must have bought a lot more ammo somewhere else,” Mr. Markell said.
But this unremarkable purchase by Mr. Cho is drawing attention to Virginia’s gun laws, which some gun-control advocates described as lax. The purchase has prompted calls from several Democrats and at least one leading presidential candidate, John Edwards, for measures to restrict gun sales, even as they proclaimed their support for the Second Amendment.
But Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, who is also running for president, said, “This brutal attack was not caused by nor should it lead to restrictions on the Second Amendment, which guarantees an individual right to keep and bear arms.”
Some commentators who oppose what they see as unconstitutional limits on gun ownership said they feared gun control advocates would successfully use the Virginia tragedy to bolster their position, especially with Democrats’ new power in Washington. “We see calls for gun control but we may not see as much empathy for calls for armed self-defense,” said David Codrea, a blogger and a columnist for Guns Magazine.
Many advocates on both sides of this debate, including the National Rifle Association and the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, suggested they were waiting for more information about the gunman and how he acquired his weapons.
It remained unclear yesterday how and when Mr. Cho got another gun, described in a search warrant as a Walther .22-caliber semiautomatic pistol, although one law enforcement official suggested that he might have purchased it at a pawnshop in February. At a news conference yesterday, local officials said both weapons appeared to have been acquired legally.
Virginia restricts gun buyers to the purchase of one handgun a month, in an effort to prevent bulk re-sales; law enforcement officers must issue a concealed carry permit to almost anyone who applies.
In Congress, perhaps the strongest response to the Virginia shootings came from Representative Carolyn McCarthy, a New York Democrat whose husband was killed and son was seriously wounded by a gunman on the Long Island Rail Road more than a decade ago. Ms. McCarthy pushed House leaders on Tuesday to move quickly on a bill, stalled in previous Congresses that would improve databases used to conduct criminal background checks on gun purchaser.
For the most part, Congressional leaders limited themselves to expressing their condolences to the victims, their families and the students and faculty at Virginia Tech. Several suggested that it was too soon to make policy decisions.
“I hope there’s not a rush to do anything,” said the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada. “We need to take a deep breath.”
Even Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, who helped spearhead a ban on assault weapons more than a decade ago, said it was too early to discuss additional gun control measures.
The muted political response was a testament to political realities in which many Democrats who came to Congress as part of the new majority were elected on pro-gun platforms, and at a time when the party is trying to reach out to voters in the South and the West.
“There are several gun control advocates who have behind their name today, r-e-t, retired,” said Senator Larry E. Craig, an Idaho Republican who has long been a vocal pro-gun voice in Congress. “Some of it was voluntary. Some of it was involuntary.”
In Virginia and on gun-rights blogs, some critics were challenging Virginia Tech rules that prohibit gun owners from carrying their weapons on campus. A committee of the State House of Delegates has considered legislation to override the ban, which is common at many other colleges.
No one can say for sure if allowing students and faculty members to carry arms would have prevented the rampage on Monday, said Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League. “But they wouldn’t die like sheep, at least, but more like a wolf with some fangs, able to fight back.”
But Blaine Rummel, a board member of Virginians for Public Safety, an anti-gun group, disputed the notion that arming more people would reduce violence. “Virginia is second in the nation in the ease of getting handguns,” Mr. Rummel said. “If easy availability was a solution, Virginia Tech wouldn’t be in mourning today.”
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company