The Unacceptable Answer

April 19th, 2007

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Why is it that when a mass murderer goes on a rampage, one of our first reactions after the grief and shock subsides is that nothing could have been done to stop this indiscriminate killing? We have 47 million Americans without health insurance, yet no one says that we can’t find a way to cover them. Even when a flood – an act of God – levels a city, we feel certain that if the proper steps were taken in advance we could have protected lives and saved billions of dollars in damage. Yet with guns and mass carnage we pronounce ourselves suddenly powerless to do anything.

Let us begin by agreeing that this is an unacceptable answer. The scene of chaos and bloodshed on the Blacksburg campus has occurred far too often to simply throw up our hands and leave the safety of young American men and women at the dawn of their lives up to fate.

We are only now learning about the dark and hollow life of Cho Seung-Hui, the killer on the Virginia Tech campus. It seems that everyone who had contact with Cho was puzzled or afraid of him. His writings revealed a tortured soul. His interactions with people were either opaque or intimidating.

There will be recriminations and soul searching. There will be those around Cho who wonder if they did enough to warn authorities or make sure that he would not be a danger. It is easy in hindsight to say they should have, but who among us really knows when we have a mass killer in our midst?

When a shooting like this occurs, the issue of gun laws comes up. We have a Second Amendment right to own a gun in this country. Some would argue that this right has allowed America to be the freest nation on earth; others argue that it has made us one of the most violent. Regardless of one’s views, however, the practical effect is that nearly any law-abiding citizen can get a gun in this country and it’s not real hard for those who by law cannot own a gun – felons, stalkers, the severely mentally ill, and others – to get one.

Within the confines of this Amendment, is there anything that we can do to keep people like Cho from getting guns? Perhaps.

We could close the well-known loophole that allows anyone, including a criminal, a terrorist, or a mentally incapacitated person to avoid a background check to buy a gun at a gun show. That’s not where Cho bought his gun, but that was the legal loophole the killers at Columbine used to buy their. Republican gun rights advocate John McCain and Democrat gun safety leader Jack Reed passed a bill through the Senate in 2004. They should try it again.

We could fix a background check system that is riddled with millions of missing records – especially the records of those under restraining orders and nearly all of the records of those who were institutionalized by the state. This may or may not have stopped the Cho purchase (it is not yet certain whether his particular institutionalization would have barred him from owning a gun), but faulty records was how executioner Peter Troy was able to clear a background check to get the gun he used to kill a parishioner and the Reverend Lawrence Penzes at the alter of Our Lady of Peace Church in Lynbrook, Long Island. Republican and NRA board member Larry Craig has teamed with Democrat gun safety advocate Chuck Schumer to introduce this bill in the Senate and NRA ally John Dingell and gun safety leader Carolyn McCarty have done so in the House.

We do not know much about the gun stores that sold Cho his guns, but some dealers routinely turn a blind eye to those who use false IDs or other illegal methods to buy guns. It probably wasn’t chance that the store that DC snipers Lee Malvo and John Muhammed chose to get their weapons was shady. And it doesn’t help that a few years ago, a midnight amendment in Congress denied police the ability to use information from guns recovered in crimes to identify dirty gun stores and illegal gun traffickers. A coalition of over 100 mayors from both parties has called for the repeal of this dangerous amendment.

Approximately 40% of America has a gun in the home and there are over 200 million guns in private hands. In a society where gun ownership is so prevalent there is bound to be gun violence and there is no way that all of it can be eliminated. But that doesn’t mean there are no avenues to prevent mass killings, as well as typical murders, with responsible restrictions that protect the rights of law-abiding citizens to own firearms.

Closing the gun show loophole, fixing our broken criminal background check system, and eliminating the midnight rider that hinders police investigations may or may not have stopped or given advance warning to police about this killer. But let’s not accept that there is nothing we can do within the confines of our rights as citizens to own guns. It’s not the American way and it’s not accurate.