Two Years After Virginia Tech, Inaction on Gun Laws

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

OMAR SAMAHA'S life changed forever on April 16, 2007. On that day, now almost two years ago, a deranged young man toting semiautomatic weapons slaughtered 32 people on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg. Mr. Samaha wasn't at the school that day; he had graduated from Virginia Tech the year before. But his younger sister, Reema, was in her French class when she was gunned down.

"No one ever thinks it's going to happen to them," said Mr. Samaha, who works in real estate and as a substitute teacher in Fairfax County. He also has spent considerable time campaigning -- including stepping into Virginia's governor's race by appearing in an ad set to begin airing today -- to close a Virginia loophole that allows some purchases of weapons at gun shows without a background check. On Friday night, Mr. Samaha appeared on ABC's "20/20" news program in a segment that showed him buying 10 weapons, including two assault rifles, at a Richmond gun show without having to show identification or undergo a background check. Earlier this year, the Virginia Senate slapped down the latest effort to close the loophole.

The Virginia Tech anniversary comes in the wake of a spate of violence that has left more than 50 people dead and scores of others injured or traumatized, including 13 murdered on April 3 at a Binghamton, N.Y., immigration center. Much has been made of why the gunmen acted out: Were they pushed over the edge by tough economic times? Did they crack after wives or girlfriends left them? But does this really matter?

None of the gunmen could have done as much damage had he not had access to guns -- regardless of his motives. What is needed is more information about when and where they got their weapons and whether the sales complied with applicable laws. Most important, lawmakers must press ahead with enactment of other gun laws to ensure that only law-abiding, mentally competent people get their hands on such weapons.

Progress has been stifled thanks to the outsize power of the gun lobby and its lawmaker allies. Equally disturbing is Capitol Hill's failure to revive the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004 or to defeat the Tiahrt amendment, which limits public disclosure regarding where and when guns used in crimes were sold.

As a candidate, President Obama campaigned on a promise to push for the closing of the gun show loophole and a revival of the assault weapons ban. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said during his confirmation hearing that he supports both actions. How many more people must be killed, and how many more families and communities devastated, before they and the Congress act?

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