Shootings Rekindle Gun Control Debate

Early last year, a bill was struck down in Virginia that would have allowed guns on college campuses. Now both sides of the gun-control debate are up in arms, saying the Virginia Tech shootings could have been prevented.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick.

Back to the tragedy in Virginia. When Seung-Hui Cho bought a 9mm Glock pistol from a shop called Roanoke Firearms a month ago, it was an unremarkable purchase. That's what the store's owner John Markell says.

Mr. JOHN MARKELL (Owner, Roanoke Firearms): A background check was made, ID's were good. Not that I'm happy about selling the gun, but I'm happy that we sold it right.

CHADWICK: Now, as NPR's Alex Cohen reports, some Virginia lawmakers are wondering if the state's gun laws should be revised.

ALEX COHEN: Looking back at Monday's tragedy, gun control advocates in Virginia see support for their cause. But so do those in the pro-gun camp.

Mr. PHILIP VAN CLEEVE (President, Virginia Citizens Defense League): I think gun control's gotten a black eye over this.

COHEN: Philip Van Cleeve is president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League. He says state law allows people to carry guns if they have a concealed weapons permit. But that law is trumped by a current Virginia Tech policy which states students can face expulsion if they have guns on campus. Staff and faculty can be fired.

Mr. VAN CLEEVE: If it had been legal for them to carry, there is a very good chance that at least one of them might have been able to change this. The only people in the room with that murderer were them. The police were nowhere to be found.

COHEN: Last year, delegate Todd Gilbert of the General Assembly proposed legislation that allowed Virginia Tech students and staff to carry guns if they had a concealed weapons permit. But the bill died quickly. Gilbert says he can't help but wonder how Monday would have played out had his legislation passed.

Mr. TODD GILBERT (Delegate, Virginia General Assembly): It is something for folks to consider as we are going to begin this debate once again. and if I were there and I were otherwise lawfully entitled to carry a weapon and I was deprived of that right, I would feel certainly terrible that I couldn't intervene and stop this crime.

COHEN: One of Delegate Gilbert's constituents was killed during this shooting. And so was one of Jeannemarie Devolites Davis's constituents. She's a state senator who spent yesterday afternoon at the home of Virginia Tech senior Maxine Turner's family.

Senator JEANNEMARIE DEVOLITES DAVIS (Republican, 34th Senate District, Virginia): She was a very lovely and beautiful young woman. Such a loss of a beautiful young lady who had the world in her hands and so much ahead of her.

COHEN: This week's events reinforced what she already passionately believed. That it's the government's duty to make sure guns can only be bought by those responsible enough to use them wisely.

Senator DEVOLITES DAVIS: You look at the fact that he had a semiautomatic weapon. I don't understand the need for that. You can't hunt with a semiauto weapon. And why he would have access to a weapon like that and a cache of ammunition is more than I can understand.

COHEN: Earlier this year State Senator Devolites Davis proposed legislation that would have required stricter background checks for buyers at gun shows. It failed, but she hopes that maybe now she'll find more support for her ideas.

Ladd Everitt of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence is hopeful, too, but he's not holding his breath. He says even after five Amish girls died during a school shooting last October, President Bush did nothing to further gun control.

Mr. LADD EVERITT (Coalition to Stop Gun Violence): Now that we have a Democratic Congress in power and, you know, you have some people in leadership positions that care deeply about the issue of gun violence, we hope we finally will have a serious debate in this country about our gun policies.

COHEN: Both sides of the debate should be cautious of acting too quickly, says Gary Kleck, a criminologist at Florida State University.

Dr. GARY KLECK (Criminologist, Florida State University): Usually the solutions that people come up with in a hurry or in response to fear or panic tend not to be very productive ones.

COHEN: For example, Kleck recalls what happened when news broke that one of the Columbine shooters got his weapon from a gun show.

Dr. KLECK: So we had this whole long diversion of public debate about guns concerned with gun shows. And, you know, quietly ignored was the fact that the federal government had a done a survey of a national sample of incarcerated criminals. They asked them where they got their guns. And less than 1 percent of them had gotten them from gun shows. Well, I mean, that's practically nothing.

COHEN: Kleck says instead of spending time and effort responding to the Virginia Tech incident, lawmakers would do better to focus on gun possession among all criminals, rather than one deeply troubled student.

Alex Cohen, NPR News.

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