How sorry are we for the Blacksburg killings?

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
April 18 2007 5:57 PM

How Sorry Are We?

For Blacksburg, not enough.

A news article in the April 18 Wall Street Journal states that one reason the Blacksburg killings are prompting few cries for gun control is that

both pistols recovered in the Virginia Tech shootings—a Glock 9 mm and a Walther P22—were purchased legally, according to a gun trace by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

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In the past, opponents of gun control have made the precise opposite argument. Appearing on CNBC's Rivera Live after Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris slaughtered 12 fellow students and one teacher at Columbine High School, Ann Coulter pooh-poohed Geraldo Rivera's call for beefed-up background checks by saying, "What difference would that have made? They … purchased the guns illegally."

A psychopathic mass-murderer buys a gun legally. That's an argument against gun control. A psychopathic mass-murderer buys a gun illegally. That's an argument against gun control, too. Everything is an argument against gun control.

The political reality is that, for the various reasons outlined by Slate editor Jacob Weisberg, gun control is a dead letter, even though polls consistently show that a majority of American voters support it. (Blame the anti-majoritarian Senate and Electoral College. A plurality of American voters chose Al Gore to be their president in 2000, but that didn't happen, either.) If the United States wanted to restrict gun ownership badly enough, we'd have significant restrictions on firearms, and we certainly wouldn't allow the weak restrictions already on the books to expire. Possibly we'd have a nationwide ban on all handgun ownership, which is what I favor (carving out an exception for anyone with a valid occupational reason to pack heat). I don't kid myself that a handgun ban will become law in the foreseeable future. Indeed, a local handgun ban in the District of Columbia was recently struck down by the D.C. Court of Appeals; it remains in force while the city government seeks a review by the full D.C. Circuit. So, even if Congress were to legislate significant restrictions on gun ownership, there's a decent chance the courts would rule them unconstitutional. That's the political state of play, and if I were advising a Democratic presidential candidate, I would tell him or her to steer clear of the issue. This country, speaking through its government, does not favor gun control.

Mourners at Virginia Tech. Click image to expand.
Mourners at Virginia Tech

The massacre at Virginia Tech is a logical consequence of that reality. Are we sorry that 32 people, most of them no older than 22, were killed? Of course. But we aren't so sorry that we intend to do anything to prevent such a tragedy from happening again. We value the lives of Mary Read, Ryan Clark, Leslie Sherman, and all the rest, but we value more their killer Cho Seung Hui's untrammeled right to purchase not only a Glock 19 and a Walther P22, but also the ammunition clips that, according to the April 18 Washington Post, would have been impossible to obtain legally had Congress not allowed President Clinton's assault-weapon ban to expire three years ago. "If Democratic leaders cannot muster the votes to reinstate the full assault weapons ban,"report Jonathan Weisman and Jeffrey Birnbaum in the April 18 Washington Post, "some suggested that at least the clip-capacity portion could be passed." That would do roughly as much good as banning all gun sales to guys named "Cho." Washington's lack of interest in gun control is so pronounced that the city scarcely took notice when a United States senator (coincidentally, from Virginia) hinted publicly that he does not obey the District's handgun ban when he drives in from Virginia.

There are people in this country today who, one day in the future, will be gunned down by psychopaths like Cho Seung-Hui. Future presidents will be assassinated, if the past is any guide, and probably the odd pop star, too. We could spare these lives—some of them, at least—by making it difficult or impossible to acquire a handgun in the United States. But we choose not to. Tough luck, whoever you are.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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