WHO SAYS gun control is dead in the United States? As Wednesday's passage in the House of what could be the first major federal gun-control law in a decade proves, it is still possible to limit weapons sales in this country — as long as the National Rifle Assn. supports the bill, it doesn't actually put any new restrictions on who can buy guns and it comes in the wake of the deadliest shooting spree in modern U.S. history.
The House bill targets flaws in the federal background-check database used in gun purchases. If it had passed five years ago, when it was first introduced by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), it would have made it harder for Virginia Tech University student Seung-hui Cho to buy the guns with which he mowed down 32 faculty members and fellow students, and then himself, on April 16. But the bill had zero momentum until the massacre generated enough public pressure to overcome resistance from gun advocates. They reluctantly came on board when it became clear that some legislative response to the massacre was unavoidable.
In 2005, a Virginia judge determined that Cho was a danger to himself and others. Under federal law, that should have disqualified him from buying a gun. But the state of Virginia had looser laws then and didn't submit his name to the FBI database used in background checks for gun buyers. McCarthy's bill, if passed by the Senate and signed by President Bush, would require states to automate their databases on felons, the mentally ill and others deemed ineligible for gun purchases and submit their data to the FBI. It would also provide $250 million to help them do the job.
It's a good bill, and some of the provisions added to win NRA approval actually make it stronger. Currently, it's very hard for people who have been judged to be mentally ill to have their gun rights restored, but the bill creates an appeal process for them; if a court, health board or other legal authority deems that they're no longer a threat, their names can be removed from the no-buy list.
Yet no matter how effective the FBI database becomes, those legally forbidden from buying guns will have little trouble getting them. Between 40% and 50% of the guns sold in the U.S. come from dealers in the secondary market, who claim they're selling from their personal collections and therefore don't have to perform background checks on buyers. Most of these sales happen at gun shows, which are one-stop shops for criminals. This wasn't a factor in the Virginia Tech case because Cho bought from licensed dealers, but even if his name had appeared on the FBI's list of those disqualified from buying guns, he could have simply bought them in the secondary market — as did the teenagers who shot up Columbine High School in 1999.
Opposition from the NRA has diminished Congress' appetite for closing the "gun-show loophole." The same goes for reviving the federal assault-weapons ban. Among other things, that 1994 law limited newly issued ammunition magazines to 10 rounds. Virginia authorities believe Cho's magazines contained at least 15 rounds, allowing him to slaughter more people without reloading. He was able to buy those big clips because Congress and President Bush allowed the ban to expire in 2004.
The gun lobby's influence is at a peak largely because public attitudes have shifted. Gallup polls show that 78% of Americans supported stricter gun laws in 1990, compared to 56% last year. The Democratic Party, once supportive of gun control, has changed too. Many Democrats believe the assault-weapons ban was a factor in their loss of the congressional majority in 1994, so they're no longer eager to take on the NRA.
Yet the shift in public opinion has arisen at least in part because Democrats have done such a miserable job of stating their case. Only the most radical gun nut would oppose limits on unlicensed sales, because this would do nothing to prevent law-abiding, mentally fit citizens from buying guns while helping to keep them out of the hands of criminals. Rather than even try to communicate this, most Democrats would rather avoid the issue. At least until the next Columbine or Virginia Tech.