Gun-control debate has spotlight - for now

VA Tech tragedy has put the issue center stage, but keeping it there will be a challenge for both sides

VA Tech tragedy has put the issue center stage, but keeping it there will be a challenge for both sides

After the initial shock and horror stemming from the Virginia Tech massacre that left 33 individuals dead, the raw emotional reach of the story soon segued into a ponderous debate.

Not since the Columbine school shootings of 1999 has such a protracted conversation about gun control, propelled by activists and the national media, seemed likely to occur.

"We've had an enormous amount of media coverage on the issue," says Ladd Everitt, director of communications for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. "I truly hope there was enough time for the families to grieve" before it turned into this debate.

But the discussion is likely to be complicated, with both sides drawing different conclusions from the chain of events that led to the worst shooting in US history. As such, it's unknown what traction, if any, either group will find in the ensuing months.

Like Columbine, there were many complicated elements to this saga. It soon came to light that the perpetrator of the tragedy, Seung-Hui Cho, was deemed "mentally ill" by a judge in 2005. Thus, even though Cho purchased the guns "legally," it is now being questioned whether that sale was, in fact, legal.

On the converse, Virginia Tech and other Virginia universities had successfully staved off state legislation in 2005 that would have allowed students over 21 years old to carry concealed weapons on campus.

As The Economist put it, "Those who already favor gun control argue that if Cho had been barred from buying semi-automatic weapons, he could not have killed so many people. Those who oppose gun controls argue that if only his victims had been armed, they could have shot him before he shot more than a few of them."

"Our communications shop has turned into a booking operation since Monday afternoon," says Peter Hamm, communications director at The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

"It's been heavier than after Columbine," says Mike Hammond, consultant and legislative and legal advisor for the Gun Owners of America (GOA). "On that Tuesday, I was booked to interviews every 15 minutes. People more famous than I [from our organization] were probably on more."

Gun control advocates expect the circumstances around this incident will at least lead to better enforcement of laws and passage of common sense legislation currently being considered.

"We maintain he should not have been able to buy guns based on his Brady background check," Hamm says. "Our mission is going to be keeping public attention on this issue that this was a preventable tragedy if we did a better administration of those laws."

One such bill that enjoys support from the National Rifle Association (NRA) and gun control advocates is H.R. 297, which would "improve availability of criminal history and other records for conducting background checks on firearm buyers."

James Copland, director of the conservative Manhattan Institute's Center for Legal Policy, does feel the two sides can agree on provisions to ensure the mentally ill don't get access to guns, "assuming the proper safeguards are there."

But Copland and Hammond are confident that the public won't press for more stringent legislation.

"I don't think there's a public appetite for eliminating guns in our society," Copland says. "I don't think there will be a gun control push that will be successful."

"There's no real good angle that gun control has been able to hang a news hook on," Hammond says.

While the two sides will likely be fighting more than agreeing, they both are aligned in contending with the biggest challenge facing activism: the quick apathy.

"The challenge that faces us is that the news media has become more willing to change the subject; they get bored and move on to the next topic," Hamm says. "They'll report it and report it, but then shift so fast, so it's like they forget the thing ever happened before."

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