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Commentary on Gun Laws in the Wake of the Virginia Tech Shootings

By Beth Wellington, Published on May 29, 2007

On February 2, 2007 Cho Seung-Hui bought two semi-automatics - a Walther P-22LR from thegunsource.com in Green Bay, WI, and a Glock 19 with 50 rounds of ammo at Roanoke Firearms, on March 13. On April 16, the Virginia Tech senior murdered 27 fellow students and 5 faculty members and wounded 24 others in Blacksburg, before killing himself.

On the day of this tragedy, Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY), one of the House's strongest gun control advocates, introduced the Anti-Large Capacity Ammunition Feeding Device Act of 2007 (H.R. 1859), seeking to reinstate and strengthen the prohibition on possessing or transferring such devices, which were illegal until the expiration of the 1994 assault gun ban in 2004. McCarthy has no co-sponsors for the bill to date, although early speculation that Cho had used high capacity magazines proved true. As reported April 19, State Police told NBC correspondent Pete Williams that they had found 17 magazines, some of which held 33 rounds of ammunition each.

Cho passed the background check mandated by the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993, despite having been ordered in 2005 to receive mental health treatment for being a danger to himself and others. Virginia only reports in-patient commitments to the FBI National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Governor Tim Kaine (D) closed that loophole by executive order on April 30.

McCarthy's second bill, the NICS Improvement Act of 2007 (H.R. 297), introduced on January 5, which currently has 17 co-sponsors, addresses uneven state reporting. John Dingell (D-MI), a gun-rights Democrat and original co-sponsor for H.R. 297, currently is negotiating for support from the National Rifle Association, on whose board he once served. Meanwhile, the Springfield, VA-based Gun Owners of America has been sending out member alerts opposing both the measure and the NRA for its possible cooperation. On April 27, the NRA posted to its website, "It is impossible to predict right now what any final bill will look like; therefore, we will withhold judgment until we see a final product."

H.R. 297 gained three co-sponsors January 30 to February 14 and an additional eleven from April 16 through May 1, including Rick Boucher, (D-VA), who represents Blacksburg and has an A+ rating from the NRA and Jim Moran (D-VA), who is a regular supporter of gun control legislation, and received a grade of F from the group. There has been talk that Charles Schumer (D-NY) will sponsor a similar measure in the Senate.

McCarthy's third bill, the Assault Weapons Ban Reauthorization Act of 2007

(H.R. 1022), introduced on February 13, with no cosponsors, had 34 co-sponsors by March 22, 2007, including Moran. An additional 13 co-sponsors signed-on after April 16, 2007.

Even with Gov. Kaine's executive order, people voluntarily committed will be able to buy guns, as will anyone seeking out a "private collector" at gun shows. Michael Castle's (R-DE) Gun Show Loophole Closing Act of 2007 (H.R. 96), introduced on January 4, would require background checks for firearm sales at these shows. The bill gained another co-sponsor on April 16, in addition to the original three. Three other House measures with no co-sponsors to date include the Domestic Violence Victim Protection Act (H.R. 203), Child Gun Safety and Gun Access Prevention Act of 2007 (H.R. 256) and the Foreign Felon Gun Prohibition Act of 2007 (H.R.1168).

In the Senate, only Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has submitted a bill to date, the Anti-Gun Trafficking Penalties Enhancement Act of 2007 (S. 77), which would reverse amendments attached annually to funding bills since FY 2003, by Kansas Congressman Todd Tiahrt (R). The original version limited responses by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. By 2006, according to opponents, his amendments have prevented:

Some critics of the Commonwealth have compared the Virginia Tech tragedy with that of Virginia gun dealers who had previously been identified for large-volume gun sales to cities in the Northeast. Four businesses in the cities of Madison Heights, Danville, South Boston and Richmond were among the 15 sued by New York City in May, 2006 for selling a total of 500 "crime guns" which the city's police department recovered between 1994 and 2001 thanks to the help of Shooting.Org.

Additionally, New York City hired private investigators from the James Mintz Group who videotaped these dealers allowing one individual to provide the money, select the gun, and direct the purchase, while the other filled out the required paperwork. Such "straw purchases" are illegal because felons can have individuals with no criminal records substitute for them for the completion of background checks.

Three dealers in Midlothian, Rocky Mount and Roanoke were among another dozen sued in December 2006 for selling 300 crime guns recovered between 1994 and 2002 and for allowing straw purchases by the Mintz Group investigators.

The Justice Department refused to pursue criminal charges based on the evidence gathered and the 2007 Virginia General Assembly passed legislation, H.B. 2653, forbidding stings conducted by anyone other than law enforcement. The bill's sponsor, Scott Lingamfelter (R), received a Defender of Freedom award from the NRA and stated, "If Bloomberg wants to fix crime in New York City, he should hire more police, not waste time and money on straw-purchase scams to score political points for a possible presidential run."

Mayor Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, co-founders of the Mayors Against Illegal Guns coalition explain, "The polarizing rhetoric of gun politics on all sides only obscures the tragic reality we see every day…violent criminals with easy access to firearms." Their adversaries at the Fraternal Order of Police, however, accuse the mayors of endangering officers and witnesses. FOP says the mayors want to use the Tiahrt-proscribed data not to fight illegal firearm use, but to pursue "civil litigation suits against firearms dealers and manufacturers," according to this Kansas.com op-ed column authored by FOP national president Chuck Canterbury.

Tiahrt and Bloomberg met earlier this year in an attempt to iron out their differences, but despite Tiahrt adding language to his amendment to permit law enforcement to communicate with each other and the ATF to compile reports, Bloomberg's criminal justice coordinator, John Feinblatt said "it was one step forward, three steps back." Earlier this month, the mayors began airing television ads showing Chaska Minnesota Police Chief Scott Knight saying, "A few years ago, I had the absolute worst nightmare of any police chief. One of my officers was shot. The Tiahrt Amendment has absolutely stood in the way to effectively address gun crime. Where are the guns coming from? Who's buying them? How are they getting into my city? The information is there. We're not allowed to have it. We're fighting criminals and illegal guns. Why is Congress fighting us?"

Tiahrt called the ads unfair, and two Wichita stations, affiliates for CBS and NBC, refused to air them. Said the latter on its website, "Meantime, while we showed you the ad in the context of a newscast, KSN has elected not to run it during regular programming because the station could not verify its claims. Broadcast stations are responsible for the content of issue advertising."

A June 16, 2006 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report concluded, "combined with multiple handgun sales reports and other investigative data, firearm trace data has proved to be a viable tool for ATF in targeting regulatory and investigative resources with greater effect."