By Jefferson Flanders

In the aftermath of the horrific shootings at Virginia Tech, there have been renewed calls for a consideration of America’s ragged quilt of federal and state gun laws.

No one disputes that the gunman, Cho Seung-Hui, a troubled student with a history of mental health problems, apparently acquired his weapons—a Walther .22-caliber pistol and a Glock 9 mm pistol—legally. Cho purchased, and used, a 15-round ammunition magazine, which was prohibited under the federal assault-weapons ban that Congress allowed to expire in 2004. Such magazines allow rapid firing without reloading.

Some of the questions being asked include: did Virginia’s notoriously lax gun laws make it too easy for Cho, (who wasn’t even an American citizen!), to get the guns? Is it time to think anew about restrictions on semi-automatic weapons and those with high-capacity ammunition magazines before another massacre occurs? Why shouldn’t sensible gun control become a national priority?

These are questions the National Rifle Association, the NRA, the chief lobby in this country for unchecked gun ownership, doesn’t want asked. And that’s what wrong with the NRA.

The NRA has taken an absolutist position on the Second Amendment, fighting any meaningful regulation of guns, despite the fact that Americans support stricter gun laws (a Washington Post/ABC News survey in October 2006 found 61 percent favoring tighter restrictions, while 37 percent opposed them.)

The NRA has decided that the Second Amendment trumps all other rights. Again, that’s what is wrong with the NRA. The organization’s refusal to compromise, and accept common-sense gun controls such as the assault weapons ban, dooms efforts to curb gun violence.

Let’s remember: the “right to bear arms” is not absolute. Our lawmakers have decided that some weapons—bazookas, rocket-propelled grenades, automatic weapons—shouldn’t be in the hands of civilians, (and rightly so). That Second Amendment right is curtailed if you are a felon or mentally ill. Many states have laws about carrying concealed weapons (you may need a permit) or regulating the sale of guns.

All of these restrictions on gun ownership have held up in the courts. So it is not a Constitutional debate we should be having, but a debate about what sorts of limits a civilized society should place on firearms.

Here are some of the questions Congress should be considering.

  • Why should non-U.S. citizens, like Cho, be granted the right to purchase or own firearms?
  • Why shouldn’t there be a mandatory waiting period when someone purchases a gun?
  • Why shouldn’t we regulate gun shows, dubbed “arms bazaars for criminals and terrorists” where you can buy and sell guns on “a cash-and-carry, no-questions-asked basis”?
  • Why shouldn’t we require gun safety training and ask owners to pass a safety test? (Would we let someone drive a car without training and testing?)
  • Why shouldn’t we ban weapons primarily designed for military use (such as semi-automatic assault rifles) that are designed for rapid-fire?
  • Why shouldn’t we ban the high-capacity clips for semi-automatic weapons which allow the firing of multiple rounds in seconds?
  • Why shouldn’t we mandate traceable ammunition, allowing police another tool in fighting crime?

None of these reforms should trouble any law-abiding gun owner. Firearms for self-defense and hunting would remain available. (There are already some 250 million privately-owned guns in the United States). These stricter regulations would serve to keep firearms out of the hands of criminals and would make it harder to acquire and use a gun impulsively.

It is not just the specter of Virgnia Tech that should move us to action. Urban violence in cities across the nation is fueled by easy access to weapons and, as former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani will testify, tough gun laws can make a difference in the crime rate.

Sadly it looks like the Democratic Congress, fearful of political backlash in rural states, will sit on its hands when it comes to meaningful gun control, and the presidential candidates of both parties will also shy away (or bow before the gun lobby), concerned about the influence of the NRA with swing state voters.

And that is just wrong.

Reprinted from Neither Red nor Blue

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders

All rights reserved

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