TV Ad Evokes Va. Tech to Challenge Republican on Gun Sales

By Theresa Vargas and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Days before the second anniversary of the Virginia Tech shootings, a group backed by New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg plans to launch a television advertisement that questions Republican gubernatorial nominee Robert F. McDonnell's opposition to closing a loophole in state law that allows some private vendors at gun shows to make sales without background checks.

The 30-second commercial, expected to run statewide on cable and broadcast TV for four days starting today, ends with an image of one of the victims of the 2007 campus massacre: Reema Samaha is shown dancing as a child as a phone number for McDonnell appears on-screen.

"I know that closing the loophole won't bring Reema back, but the question is: Whose sister is next?" Omar Samaha, Reema's brother, asks in the ad. "Ask Bob McDonnell why he's protecting criminals instead of protecting us."

McDonnell, who resigned as state attorney general in February to run for governor full time, declined to comment. But his campaign decried the commercial as "reprehensible" and "misleading." It said McDonnell supports background checks for all sales at gun shows made by licensed gun dealers, though not by all private sellers.

"It is a Class 6 felony in Virginia to sell a firearm to a criminal or anyone else who cannot legally own a gun, including those with mental deficiencies," McDonnell campaign manager Phil Cox said. "Bob believes we must do more to enforce this strong law which is already on the books."

McDonnell visited Virginia Tech the day after the April 16, 2007, shootings, which left 33 dead, including student gunman Seung Hui Cho. In the weeks that followed, McDonnell worked with Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), who signed an executive order that closed a loophole that had allowed Cho to purchase firearms even though he had been declared dangerously mentally ill. Kaine instructed state agencies to block gun sales to people involuntarily committed to inpatient and outpatient mental health treatment, and he said further restrictions were needed.

Yesterday, Bloomberg (I) appeared in Arlington County with several people wounded in the Virginia Tech shootings and relatives of victims to say it is time for more to be done. Bloomberg, who has had an on-and-off affiliation with the Republican Party, is a major financial backer of the Washington-based advocacy group Americans United for Safe Streets. That group is sponsoring the commercial, which was previewed yesterday to the media and posted online.

"Make no mistake about it. This is not a partisan issue. This is not a geographic issue," Bloomberg told reporters. The question, he said, is: "Who are you going to support, the good guys or the criminals? You and me or them?"

In February, the state Senate rejected a bill requiring private firearm sales at gun shows to include background checks. Nearly all Senate Republicans voted against the bill, citing constitutional concerns.

McDonnell is the only major gubernatorial candidate who opposes closing the gun show loophole. The three Democrats competing in the June 9 primary -- state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (Bath), former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe and former state delegate Brian Moran -- have expressed support for closing it.

McDonnell and Bloomberg have engaged in a gun rights debate before. In 2007, Bloomberg sent armed private investigators with hidden cameras into Virginia gun stores to try to make illegal buys because he was convinced that such transactions in the state contributed to violent crime in his city. McDonnell ordered Bloomberg to stop and threatened to charge him and his agents with a felony if they continued to target Virginia gun dealers with undercover sting operations.

Bloomberg said the issue became personal for him after a gun bought illegally in Hampton, Va., was used to kill New York police officer Russel Timoshenko in July 2007.

The commercial opens with 5-year-old Omar and 2-year-old Reema sitting on the floor, playing with a puzzle. In the seconds that follow, viewers see Reema as an 18-year-old at the Blacksburg campus, are told that she was killed and hear her brother question the gun show loophole. Before it is over, the screen flashes to McDonnell and then to a young, twirling Reema.

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