On an April morning in 2007, Lori Haas’ 19-year-old daughter Emily called her from Virginia Tech University and said, “Hi mommy. I’ve been shot.”
Emily, shot twice in the head by mentally ill college student Seung-Hui Cho, survived. Thirty-two others did not in a mass shooting that shocked the nation.
Then there was Tucson: six dead, 13 wounded, including former Democratic congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Then a movie theater in Aurora, which killed 12 and injured 70. Each event brought expressions of outrage and sorrow from the White House and members of Congress, but the moment passed and the lawmakers moved on.
The December slayings of 20 first-graders and six adult staffers in a Connecticut elementary school may be different. The horrific nature of the crime — 6-year-olds gunned down at school, some shot multiple times — appears to have done what all all mass shootings before it have not done: propel lawmakers to act.
It is unclear just yet what actions might be taken, but already the shooting has sparked the most aggressive effort since 1994 to restrict or eliminate the sale and production of easily available semi-automatic assault weapons. Meanwhile, school districts throughout the country are examining what measures they can take to make their buildings safer.
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Issues involving gun restrictions are both controversial and complicated. A national poll by Public Policy Polling last week found 53 percent favor stricter gun laws, with 40 percent opposed. This follows an earlier Rasmussen Reports survey that found 55 percent favoring a ban on the purchase of semi-automatic and assault-type weapons, while 74 percent believe the U.S. constitution guarantees the right of an average citizen to own a gun.
Whether or not the constitution guarantees the right to own any gun is part of the heated national conversation.
Vice President Joe Biden, who last week held a series of high-profile meetings — including with officials from the National Rifle Association — vowed that President Barack Obama “is going to act. There are executive orders, executive action that can be taken,” he said. “We haven’t decided what that is yet, but we’re compiling it all.’’
Executive action would not require approval from Congress.
Biden said a federal task force will release a set of recommendations on Tuesday. Hinting at what they might include, he said he was surprised by how many groups have encouraged universal background checks for all gun owners and mentioned support for “the need to do something about high-capacity magazines.”
The NRA stayed silent for a week after the Newtown shooting “out of respect for those grieving families,” NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre said on Dec. 21. His comments — that the “only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” — brought both support and scorn to the organization, which remains a potent voice in Washington. More than half of Congress has received an “A” rating by the gun-rights group.
Giffords, too, has become a powerful voice, and she and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, launched a super PAC aimed at checking the lobbying punch of the NRA. Last week they wrote in USA Today that new gun restrictions will require “matching gun lobbyists in their reach and resources.’’
“I don’t think the task ahead of us is easy,’’ said Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “But what has changed is it’s do-able. There is going to be a very sophisticated campaign to put pressure on people to vote the right way.’’
Gun advocates say there are better ways to respond to the violence in places like Aurora and Newtown than to enact further gun restrictions, such as a ban that expired in 2004 on 19 semi-automatic assault weapons.
“We tried that for 10 years,” Jim Irvine, chairman of the Buckeye Firearms Association, said of the ban, noting that it did not prevent the mass shootings at Columbine High School in 1999 or at a middle school in Jonesboro, Ark., in 1998.
“It’s a terrible idea. It doesn’t solve the problem,” Irvine said. “If the problem is our children are being killed in our schools, then let’s address the problem and see what we can do about it. Are we going to put aside the politics of ‘feel good’ and do something that works?’’
The firearms association revealed last week that more than 1,000 teachers and other school staff — most of them from Ohio — applied for 24 slots in a free training program being offered through the association’s foundation. A questionnaire from the group says the training is of an advanced nature “dealing with active killer scenarios and requires a dynamic range that allows shooting on the move, force-on-force, live-fire houses, and outdoor training.”
It remains to be seen, though, if school districts will allow staff members to bring weapons onto school grounds. At a packed school board meeting Thursday in Springboro, support was far from universal for allowing staff members with concealed carry permits to bring guns to school.
In the PPP poll released last week, 64 percent of the public said they were opposed to arming teachers.
Expanding gun rights
The renewed efforts to assert some government control over the widespread expansion of semi-automatic rifles and other weapons comes after years of impressive gains by gun-rights activists in the courts, Congress and state legislatures.
The 1994 assault weapon ban was allowed to expire without as much as a whimper from Congress in 2004. A legion of conservative judges appointed to the federal bench by Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush have expanded gun rights as they honed a relatively new legal theory that the Second Amendment guarantees Americans an individual right to own a gun.
That hasn’t always been the court’s interpretation.
In 1939, the high court unanimously approved a federal ban on the sale of machine guns and sawed-off shotguns — the types used by gangsters such as John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde. The justices ruled that the Second Amendment guaranteed that state militias could possess guns, but that there was no constitutional right to “keep and bear’’ machine guns used for mass killings.
As late as 1972, both political parties had gun control planks in their platforms. But by the late 1970s, a new wave of conservative lawyers advanced the notion that the Constitution also granted an individual right to own a gun, a legal concept employed in 2008 by Justice Antonin Scalia and four conservatives when they struck down a District of Columbia ban on possessing a handgun in the home.
While objecting to the court’s 2008 ruling, gun-control advocates contend that Scalia did not completely close the door on new gun laws. Horwitz said the “decision gives us plenty of room for regulation,’’ saying courts have consistently upheld bans on assault rifles or criminal background checks before someone can buy a gun.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., plans to introduce a bill later this month prohibiting the sale of semi-automatic assault rifles. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, a New York Democrat whose husband was killed and son wounded in a 1993 shooting, has introduced a measure requiring background checks on guns sold at gun shows.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced he would seek a legislative package for his state that was expected to include new restrictions on assault weapons, limits on the number of bullets in a gun magazine, and stiffer penalties for those who use a gun to commit a crime.
These efforts are receiving a boost from Mayors Against Gun Violence, an organization headed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, which has unveiled powerful TV commercials aimed at pushing for federal action. One featured Roxanna Green, the mother of Christina Taylor-Green, killed in the same shooting where Giffords was badly wounded.
Conservatives are pushing back. Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., has introduced a bill that would repeal a federal law that prohibits people from having a gun at a school.
“Gun free school zones are ineffective,” Massie said in a press release. “They make people less safe by inviting criminals into target-rich, no-risk environments. Gun free zones prevent law-abiding citizens from protecting themselves, and create vulnerable populations that are targeted by criminals.”
‘Layers of protection’
Irvine advocates throwing “layers of protection” around schools, including identifying people with signs of mental illness, improving medical and trauma care at schools, training teachers for self-defense, and allowing schools to have “some armed defense.’’
In an appearance on Fox News this month, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, cautioned that extending gun restrictions would have unintended consequences.
“You don’t want someone with the mental illness getting a firearm,” he said. “But what I don’t want to do is restrict law-abiding citizens from their Second Amendment rights, which are focused on freedom.”
Haas, the Richmond, Va., mother whose daughter was shot twice that April day during her sophomore year at Virginia Tech, has spent much of the time since working to prevent gun violence.
She noted that the student who shot her daughter and killed 32 others had a history of mental illness yet his name wasn’t included in the FBI database used for background checks. He used 30-round magazines that were banned from 1994-2004.
Many of the mass shootings, Haas believes, are preventable — if lawmakers would only take aggressive action.
“We have legislators beholden to a lobby whose only purpose is to make money,” she said. “We have an epidemic of gun violence in this country and elected leaders are unwilling to do anything about it.”