Monday’s massacre at Virginia Tech has the gun control debate raging again, with anti-gun activists arguing for more restrictions and gun rights supporters saying that would put people at more risk.

But will Cho Seung-Hui’s rampage lead to any real changes?

People on both sides of the issue acknowledge that it probably won’t.

“Most gun policy is relevant not to these sensational events like Virginia Tech, but to the 80 to 90 people killed in this country every day by firearms,” said Daniel Webster, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research in Baltimore. “But it at least reminds us as a nation of the incredible ease of obtaining firearms, which is highly unique to our country.”

Cho, a 23-year-old South Korean immigrant whom classmates described as a disturbed loner, legally bought his two pistols – a 9 mm Glock 19 and a .22-caliber Walther P22, officials said. His status as a legal permanent resident made him eligible to buy a handgun, he passed necessary background checks and he met Virginia’s one-handgun-a-month law.

Virginia law prevents people from carrying guns in public primary and secondary schools, but residents with concealed-weapon permits had been free to carry handguns on college campuses until the colleges adopted their own bans.

Virginia Tech riled gun rights advocates in January 2005 when a student who held a concealed-handgun permit was disciplined for bringing his weapon on campus. The Virginia Legislature rejected a proposed law that would have banned such college policies.

To buy a handgun, a Virginia resident needs only to walk into a gun dealership, produce multiple pieces of identification and wait for the dealer to run a computerized federal and state background check. The purchaser is usually able to leave the store with the handgun the same day, but is restricted to purchasing one handgun a month.

The state also allows residents to carry a concealed handgun after a court review.

In Virginia, the debate has focused lately on attempts by gun control advocates to strengthen background checks on people who buy weapons at gun shows. They have failed.

In Virginia, mental health problems would only be an obstacle to a gun purchase if they turned up in the dealer’s background check of state records.

Law enforcement officials in the Northeast say Virginia’s laws are partly responsible for a large number of illegal guns making their way to their cities, where Virginia is cited as a top source of guns taken off their streets.

Gun control advocates acknowledged that there wasn’t really much that existing gun laws could have done to stop Cho. But they argued that the case shows that it’s too easy to buy a handgun in Virginia.

“There are a lot of other crazy people out there who probably shouldn’t have access to weapons, and some of these people we can stop,” said Jim Sollo, vice president of Virginians Against Handgun Violence.

Gun rights advocates argue that allowing people to arm themselves prevents such shootings. They pointed to another Virginia shooting that left three people dead at the Appalachian School of Law in 2002. The shooter, a dismissed student, was subdued by an off-duty police officer who grabbed a pistol and bulletproof vest before confronting and tackling the gunman.

“I don’t think anyone can say now what could have been done (to prevent Monday’s shootings),” said David Adams, president of the Virginia Shooting Sports Association, the local NRA affiliate. “But, if anything, it shows that a blanket ban on firearms is not a good idea and may have left people as sitting ducks.”

Jonathan Schuppe and Brian T. Murray are staff writers for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. They can be contacted at [email protected] and [email protected]
The Cho case shows that it’s too easy to buy a handgun in Virginia.

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