COVER Too soon: Lawmakers pause on gun policy

The smoke had barely cleared from last week's horror at Virginia Tech before the specter of America's long-simmering gun-control debate rose again, with various blogs declaring the 2nd Amendment dead– or in need of more defense than ever.

After the solemn April 17 convocation at Tech, Governor Tim Kaine, who earned a standing ovation for his speech, remarked that he had nothing but "loathing" for those who would turn the tragedy into a "political hobby horse."

Likewise U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was quoted as cautioning against a rush to action.

"We've barely begun to sort through the facts," says Albemarle Delegate Rob Bell. "I think we need to get through this investigation and period of mourning before looking at policy changes."

That has not stopped discussion of how Seung-Hui Cho, 23, bought with ease the handguns and ammunition he used to kill 32 people before blasting himself in the face– despite having been held overnight and evaluated in psychiatric hospital less than two years ago.

In December 2005, a Tech-area judge ruled that Cho "presents an imminent danger to himself as a result of mental illness," but then ordered that Cho obtain outpatient treatment.

"If you're adjudicated by a court as a danger to yourself, that should have been reported to the state police," says Terry Hartnett, who's on Virginia's state council of the Million Mom March, a gun control organization formed in the wake of Columbine. "That's what the federal law says. Virginia's law doesn't specifically say that– we're not complying with the federal law."

As a mom, Hartnett admits to being "conflicted." She wants students able to seek help without being threatened with expulsion, as a George Washington University student deemed suicidal recently was. Nonetheless, she wants Virginia to follow the Federal Firearms Control Act.

"We don't want someone like [Cho] to be able to purchase guns," she says.

Hartnett also wonders why state law not only doesn't prohibit– but nearly encourages– guns on college campuses.

Delegate Mark Cole (R-Fauquier/Spotsylvania/Stafford) carried HB 2300 this year, which would prohibit institutions of higher education from taking disciplinary action against those who have guns on campus.

The bill didn't make it out of committee, but Hartnett nevertheless considers Virginia too friendly to guns. She ruefully notes that the now-expired Federal Assault Weapons Ban prohibited the 15-round magazine clips Cho carried that allowed him to get off multiple shots.

"He would have had to stop and reload," says Hartnett. "He would have been slowed down considerably."

She thinks all these issues should be on the table for discussion. "Bottom line, if he couldn't have gotten those guns and bullets, he wouldn't have killed 32 people," she says.

The other side, of course, is that there aren't enough guns on college campuses.

"Things have played out differently in other events," says Fred Newsom, a Rivanna Rifle and Pistol Club officer, citing the 2002 rampage at Appalachian School of Law in which a dean, professor, and student were killed, but the gunman was taken into custody by other gun-toting law students.

"Police do a fine job, but they can't always be there when you're dealing with a volatile nut," observes Newsom. "The only way to face evil is to defend yourself."

Newsom says he's not advocating that everyone carry a gun, but he notes that the likelihood of assaults occurring in gun-free zones is "extremely high" around unarmed citizens. "A nut with a gun is omnipotent," Newsom notes, "because they know nobody will shoot them."

"It's too soon to make changes," says Hartnett. "It's not too soon to start discussing it. There should be no rush to judgement. We should look at this– and what went wrong."