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Seeking safety

National | Massacre sparks action on background checks, debate about guns on campuses

Issue: "Rich man, poor man," May 5, 2007

BLACKSBURG, Va.- Eric Thompson was appalled when he learned about the horrific Virginia Tech shooting spree on April 16 that left 33 dead, including Cho Seung-Hui, the 23-year-old gunman who killed himself as authorities arrived at the grisly scene in Norris Hall. But Thompson was in "absolute shock" a day later when he learned where Cho obtained the .22 caliber handgun he used in the vicious killing spree: Thompson's online gun shop based in Wisconsin.

"I was torn up about it before I knew we had sold the weapon [to Cho], and even more so after we found out," Thompson told The Roanoke Times less than a week after the massacre.

The deranged gunman who wreaked horror and grief at Virginia Tech last month bought one of his murder weapons in February from TGSCOM Inc., the internet gun and ammunition company Thompson owns in Green Bay. In compliance with federal law, TGSCOM shipped Cho's weapon to a federally licensed gun dealer in Blacksburg, Va., which ran a mandatory background check on Cho. The gunman passed, and he picked up the weapon nearly two months before his killing spree.

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Thompson says Cho's actions don't warrant new gun restrictions, but he does think current laws could have prevented the mentally disturbed Cho from buying a gun: "From reading the reports, I do believe this was probably somebody who should not have been able to pass a background check."

Cho's ability to pass a federal background check after being declared mentally ill by a judge in 2005 has captured lawmakers' attention in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech tragedy. But instead of proposing radical, new gun restrictions, legislators are focusing on ways to strengthen existing laws, and to close loopholes that could allow others like Cho to slip through the system.

Reports of Cho's disturbing behavior quickly emerged in the days after his rampage: A Virginia Tech English professor spoke of the student's violent writings and bizarre classroom behavior. Two female students told campus police in 2005 that Cho harassed them. Later that year, a judge deemed Cho "an imminent danger to himself as a result of mental illness," and ordered psychiatric counseling.

Federal regulations prohibit anyone deemed by a court to be "mentally incompetent" from purchasing a firearm. But since Cho was never involuntarily committed to a mental hospital, Virginia officials didn't report his case to the federal database that gun dealers use to run background checks on buyers. To the gun dealers in Virginia, Cho's record appeared clear.

One week after the shootings, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine said he hoped to close the loophole between state and federal reporting through an executive order. Virginia State Police Superintendent W. Gerald Massengill, appointed by Kaine to head a review of the shootings, said based on the investigation so far, "It's pretty clear: He [Cho] should not have been able to obtain a weapon."

Lawmakers in Washington, D.C., hope to use the Virginia Tech shootings as a catalyst to strengthen background checks nationwide. Only 22 states, including Virginia, currently report mental health information to the federal database for background checks. The remaining 28 states say cost or privacy concerns prevent them from reporting the information to the federal system.

Sen. Charles Schumer and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, both Democrats from New York, announced legislation on April 22 that would require states to upgrade their reporting of mental health records to the federal database. The bill would provide funds to help states update their reporting systems and would impose financial penalties on states that fail to comply.

The National Rifle Association (NRA), a powerful, Virginia-based gun lobby, has indicated possible support for the bill, which may help the legislation gain bipartisan support. Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), an ardent gun-rights advocate who once served on the NRA's board of directors, is spearheading talks with the organization.

Dingell is also in talks to gain the support of several prominent Republican leaders, including Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), who is also an NRA ally.

At least one gun-rights group opposes the legislation. Gun Owners of America (GOA), a Virginia-based gun lobby, says the bill's mental health reporting requirements could adversely affect law-abiding citizens with stress-related conditions, such as military members who suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

The Virginia Tech shootings raised another thorny question in the gun-control debate as well: Should public universities ban guns on campus? Like most public universities, Virginia Tech prohibits students and faculty from carrying weapons on campus, even if they have a concealed-weapons permit.

Don Kates of the Independent Institute, a California-based, libertarian think tank, says public universities shouldn't prohibit students with permits from carrying concealed weapons for protection. He wonders what might have happened if one student had been carrying a weapon during Cho's attacks in Norris Hall, and points to the January 2002 attacks at Virginia's Appalachian Law School, in which a disgruntled student shot three people in the dean's office. Two students stopped the gunman after retrieving firearms from their car and disarming the murderer.

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