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Missing from the incredible outpouring of grief in the tragedy at Virginia Tech was the one ingredient that might provide a measure of assurance that it won’t happen again — unrelenting public outrage over the gun culture that has brought us to this excruciatingly sad place.
As the pieces of the killing field puzzle and the profile of its deranged perpetrator unfolded, authorities announced only that he had bought the two murder weapons legally under the laws of Virginia, among the most lax in the nation, absolving the Roanoke dealers who sold them to him of any criminal responsibility in the matter and certifying just how disruptive the commonwealth’s lack of gun control is to human life.
The absolution granted the dealers and the state were about the only uttered references in the first 48 hours to the real issue paramount in the minds of caring, sane people. What is it going to take to convince the nation’s intimidated lawmakers that this is a society on the verge of becoming the most violent in history, a place where a clearly disturbed person like Cho Seung Hui has easy access to weapons to satisfy his delusions?
Certainly, the tragedy at Columbine High School and a half dozen other similar incidents before this one didn’t do it. The potent lobbying of the firearms industry supported by huge amounts of money supplied by those who believe God and the Constitution give them a right to bear arms no matter what the cost to fellow humans saw to that. One can only wonder what nightmares might have enveloped the National Rifle Association’s utterly uncompromising Wayne LaPierre had his son or daughter been among those killed by this maniac.
Ironically, the very day Cho was rampaging through Tech’s Norris Hall, a Harvard School of Public Health study was documenting that the 15 states with the highest number of gun owners have nearly twice as many suicides as the six states with the lowest gun ownership although the population of the two groups is about the same. The study said that in a nation where half of the suicides are gun suicides and where more than one in three homes have guns “one cannot talk about suicide without talking about guns.”
In reality suicide is exactly what Cho was bent on accomplishing but not before he redressed his imagined grievances. He succeeded in both objectives.
The standard NRA argument in defense of unrestricted access to firearms is that when one is packing heat one is less likely to be a gun victim. There is statistical refutation of this, but to carry the twisted logic to its conclusion, if everyone on the Virginia Tech campus had been armed, Cho would have been quickly put down; that is, of course, if half the student body wasn’t busy eliminating the other half.
Gov. Timothy Kaine announced that he was naming a commission to conduct an independent investigation into the circumstances surrounding the massacre, one of the worst of its kind in American history. He was asked whether that would include the gun problem and he replied that the commission would be authorized to examine every aspect. It might seem proper for an investigation to probe whether the university should have been notified by a firearms dealer that one of its students — if in fact Cho had revealed that — was in possession of two semiautomatic handguns. It would have been helpful considering Cho’s mental history, which was no secret to administrators and professors. But don’t hold your breath waiting for that issue to be raised.
Sadly, President Bush seemed unwilling, even as a lame duck with no political consequences to worry about, to acknowledge that the wholesale distribution of guns had anything to do with the tragedy. He merely mumbled something about gun owners having to obey the law.
But it would be naive to expect anything startling on guns from him or any other politician in the face of the NRA’s wrath. True courage is in short supply from Capitol Hill to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue when it comes to this issue. Congress wouldn’t even renew the ban on sales of assault rifles, and some nitwit congressman from Indiana has led the charge to overturn the District of Columbia’s strict firearms laws.
Barring a revolutionary court ruling that puts the Second Amendment in proper perspective or sustained public outrage, we must live — or die — with the prospect of a repeat of this horror somewhere down the road. It’s inevitable.
–DAN K. THOMASSON
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)