A week after the massacre at Virginia Tech, gun-control advocate Sarah Brady distributed a letter seeking contributions of $32 — one buck for each of Seung-Hui Cho’s victims. She also urged her supporters to contact lawmakers and ask, “What are YOU going to do about gun violence?”
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence saw the horror at Virginia Tech as an opportunity for fundraising and publicity. Most elected officials, however, have responded with appropriate caution. Federal law already prohibits gun purchases by people who are deemed mentally defective or have been involuntarily institutionalized. On Monday, Virginia governor Tim Kaine, a Democrat, directed state agencies to change a reporting procedure that allowed Cho’s name to escape appearing in the FBI’s criminal-background database as it should have. Other states are now likely to review and improve their own practices. Only 22 of them currently submit mental-health records to the database.
In Washington, few politicians have rushed forth with rash demands to “do something.” Congress may even be headed toward passing reasonable legislation that unites gun owners with some of their traditional foes, in the name of preventing people with dangerous mental illnesses from buying firearms.
To some degree, this reflects a new bipartisan consensus in favor of Second Amendment rights. Six years ago, after the defeat of Al Gore, an antigun crusader, many Democrats concluded that they could not afford to continue alienating union members and rural voters. One of the reasons so many new Democrats were elected to the House and Senate last year is that they embraced gun ownership, neutralizing what had previously been a strong advantage for Republicans.
Nevertheless, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D., N.Y.) proposed in February what the National Rifle Association has labeled “the most sweeping gun ban ever introduced in Congress”: It would revive the so-called assault-weapons ban that expired in 2004 and extend it to include many additional types of shotguns and rifles. Her bill stands very little chance of passage, even in the wake of Virginia Tech. She knows it, too, which is why she has spent most of her time since April 16 promoting H.R. 297, a separate bill she offered in January to improve the quality of information in the National Instant Background Check System (NICS).
The legislation may eventually win an endorsement from gun owners. The NRA, for instance, has a record of supporting efforts to make sure that people appear in NICS when a court determines them to be mentally defective or suicidal. As currently written, H.R. 297 may require a few technical adjustments to guarantee, for instance, that combat veterans who have been diagnosed with short-term post-traumatic-stress disorders aren’t unjustly denied their Second Amendment rights. Yet it promises to serve as the basis for constructive compromise.
Opposition will come from organizations such as the National Mental Health Association, whose president Michael Faenza told 60 Minutes last Sunday that “people with mental illness should not have special restrictions regarding firearms,” including those who have been involuntarily committed. Fringe pro-gun groups, always looking for a way to differentiate themselves from the NRA, are also likely to oppose H.R. 297.
Mere law cannot stop sick and wicked men from committing acts of profound evil. Yet sensible legislation, limited in scope and respectful of the Second Amendment, may help protect both lives and rights.