Debating Gun Control Laws

Dennis Henigan
Legal Director, Brady Campaign
Monday, April 23, 2007; 10:00 AM

Legal Director Dennis Henigan of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which is urging stronger gun laws in the aftermath of 32 murders on the campus of Virginia Tech University, was online Monday, April 23 at 10 a.m. ET to discuss gun laws and legislation.

The transcript follows.

See also: Debating Gun Control Laws -- Author of "The Bias Against Guns" (, April 24 at noon)

Henigan is the director of the Legal Action Project at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, based in Washington. The Legal Action Project is a national public interest law program that provides pro bono legal representation to victims of gun violence in lawsuits against the gun industry and assists in the defense of gun laws in the courts.


Dennis Henigan: Hello everyone. Welcome to this discussion about the tragedy of gun violence in our country. I look forward to our exchange.


Boca Raton, Fla.: According to Matthew Barakat of the AP, a judge's ruling on Cho Seung-Hui's mental health should have barred him from purchasing the handguns based on federal regulation. If this is correct, what is the regulation and to what extent do other states (in addition to Virginia) have discrepancies in this provision of the federal regulation? Also, is the Department of Justice investigating these apparent discrepancies? Rules Should Have Barred Weapon Purchase (AP, April 20)

Dennis Henigan: The facts show that Cho was adjudicated by a Virginia judge to be both mentally ill and a danger to himself. This should have disqualified him from buying a gun under federal law. However, the order was not entered into the background check database. If the Brady Law background check had been properly administered, Cho would have been blocked from buying a gun and this tragedy likely would have been averted. Yet another demonstration of how gun control laws can save lives. I fear that Virginia is not alone is misapplying federal law in this way.


Rome, N.Y.: When we learn that terrorists might use shoes or shampoo bottles or toothpaste tubes as weapons we readily adjust our behavior to mitigate harm. Why the national state of denial about the harm guns do and the obvious ways to reduce that harm? Is it necessary to organize a National Shampoo Bottle Association to achieve the might of the national lobby that stands in the way of rational policies regarding handguns?

Dennis Henigan: The gun lobby and its supporters often miss the obvious. The innocent victims at Va. Tech. did not die because a young person was deranged. They died because a deranged young person had access to guns. If he had been armed with a knife, or baseball bat, or shampoo bottle, 32 people would not have died.


Williamstown, Mass.: Why do you think Congress would pass gun control laws after this event, but let the Assault Weapons Ban expire after Columbine? Because these horrible tragedies happen so often in the U.S., and not other nations, will people recognize that the ability to buy guns is at the core of so many people being killed? I question whether Americans have the attention span to focus on this issue.

Dennis Henigan: I believe the American people will be outraged about our nation's policies toward guns in the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre. It is unforgivable that President Bush and the Congress (then controlled by his Party) allowed the ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines to expire in 2004. The ammunition magazines that Cho used were banned by that law. Since 2004, many thousands more of them have been produced and are in circulation.


Elma, N.Y.: I'm a Democrat, yet I suggest it may be hard for most Democrats to swallow, especially in an election year, that one of the Republican arguments on gun control may have merit: we need to first enforce the laws on the books. Isn't the enforcement of the current laws underfunded and undermanned? And aren't both Democrats and Republicans to blame? Democrats because they've been more interested in passing laws than in doing the hard work of making them effective, and Republicans because underenforcement works to make the laws ineffective and therefore subject to criticism?

Dennis Henigan: Yes, the enforcement of current gun laws is woeful. But it is a fallacy to believe we must choose between stronger enforcement of current laws and stronger laws. We must have both! If the Brady Law had been properly administered, Cho would have been blocked from buying a gun from a licensed dealer. We need to strengthen the Brady system to prevent these sales. But Cho also could have just gone to his local gun show and bought a handgun without a background check from someone claiming to be selling only from his "personal collection". This is the "gun show loophole" that the Virginia legislature again this year refused to close. We need stronger law and stronger enforcement of those laws.


Lexington, Va.: In the aftermath of the VT tragedy, I have heard from friends and relatives in Canada, the U.K., Scandinavia, Greece and Korea, all expressing sympathy but saying "what can you expect, with the current gun climate in America it's simply to be expected." I really don't know how to answer these comments, other than to agree. I don't see how gun advocates can refute the fact that countries with strict gun control laws have far fewer gun crimes. This seems to be such a given. I think the entire country of Sweden had something like 20 murders last year, most of them domestic violence. I would move there in an instant except that the winters are so dark and cold!

Dennis Henigan: The research shows that other industrialized countries have comparable crime rates to ours. The difference is that our crime is so much more lethal. Our homicides rates are several times the rates in other industrialized countries. The reason: the ready availability of firearms in American and our lax gun laws.


Chantilly, Pa.: I'd like to know where you derive the number (30,000) of people that you say are killed by guns each year? Can you tell me the source of those numbers?

Dennis Henigan: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control. Look it up. And weep for our nation.


Jackson, Wyo.: We have more gun laws than any nation on Earth. All Swiss citizens are armed with automatic weapons by law, as are many if not most Israelis, yet they do not have gun problems. Could it be a problem with our increasingly dysfunctional society caused by the liberal agenda? If not, explain the low rates of gun crime for CCW states like Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, Montana, especially compared to the murder and crime leaders,like Washington, Chicago, New York, etc., where citizens are barred from owning defensive weapons. Thank you.

Dennis Henigan: Your comment is fallacious is several respects. First, you compare states with cities, which is completely misleading. Second, if you look at gun death rates, not just crime, the leaders are the rural states with lots of guns. The leaders in 2003 in gun death rates were Alaska, Louisiana, New Mexico, Wyoming, Alabama, Mississippi, Montana and Arizona. Are guns making those states safe? Finally, your international comparisons are bogus, because you fail to mention that even countries like Israel and Switzerland, with armed militias, have strict gun laws determining what militia members can do with their guns. Your international comparison may simply prove that if countries strictly control guns, they have less gun violence than countries that do not.


Richmond: I own guns but would be happy to have restrictive purchasing laws. 90-day waiting periods would be fine with me. Also, being able to demonstrate that one is stable and a good law abiding citizen is fine, too! The question I have to those who simply state "let's just ban guns" is, how do we get the 250 million guns already in the hands of the U.S. populace out of their hands? Doesn't this seem to bolster the argument that in the end (under such high, restrictive measures and laws) that only criminals would have guns? Comments?

Dennis Henigan: You are typical of the vast majority of gun owners who support sensible gun laws. The NRA does not represent you! The issue is not banning guns. It is enacting strong laws to keep guns out of the wrong hands. States like New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts have enacted strong gun laws, yet allow law-abiding citizens to own guns. The data show that the guns used in crime in those states come from other states with weaker gun laws. In other words, strong state gun laws block criminals from getting guns in those states; the criminals must use gun trafficking rings bringing guns in from other states. This research supports the effectiveness of gun control laws, but it also suggests that we need, in the final analysis, strong federal laws to prevent interstate trafficking. We need a federal law mandating background checks on all gun purchases, not just those from licensed dealers. We need a federal ban on bulk sales, which facilitate gun trafficking. We need to give federal law enforcement authorities (ATF) more power to crack down on corrupt dealers who aid and abet traffickers. And we need a strong ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines of the kind used by Cho.


Cleveland Heights, Ohio: Why are 15-round clips legal? What is the justification? I am genuinely asking.

Dennis Henigan: In my view, there is not justification for high capacity ammunition clips for the civilian market. This kind of military-style firepower is appropriate for the battlefield or for law enforcement, but should be outlawed for civilian sale, as it was for ten years until President Bush and the Congress allowed the ban on assault weapons and high-capacity clips to expire. The President said he was for renewing the law, but his failure to lead on this issue was shameful.


Washington, D.C.: For every columbine and VA tech, there are stories of lives saved because people were allowed to carry guns and subdued a crazy man on the rampage. All the worst shootings in this country happen in gun-free zones. Countries that outlaw the public carrying guns have seen increased in gun violence, kidnapping and other crimes. Look at Washington -- there is a gun ban, but this is one of the worst cities in American for gun violence. Any law you pass isn't going to stop one crazy man who would trade his life for others. If you believe in the Constitution, then every citizen who can pass a background check is entitled to own a gun.

Dennis Henigan: This is a nice presentation of NRA talking points, reflecting the mythology that paralyzes our nation's gun policy and costs untold innocent lives. Of the nation's homicides, a tiny number happen on "gun-free" college campuses. Is your solution to arms students on college campuses? Two words summarize why that would be a tragic folly: beer and hormones. Our national discussion should not be distracted by crazy ideas like arming students to ensure that, at best, shooters like Cho would be involved in a crossfire that would no doubt still claim many lives regardless of its conclusion. We need to be talking about strong policies to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people so that no one has to die.


Falls Church, Va.: Aren't you proposing a "War on Guns" highly similar to the "War on Drugs"? Even if handguns were made illegal, what reason is there to believe that illegal guns would be any harder to obtain then than illegal drugs are now? If illegal drugs can flow freely across our borders in high volumes, why wouldn't guns do the same?

Dennis Henigan: First, we are not proposing to ban possession of guns; thus, your argument is a red herring. The analogy to drugs, though, is interesting. Unlike illegal drugs, illegal guns originate in a legal market. Virtually every gun used in crime started out being manufactured by a licensed manufacturer and sold by a licensed dealer. This means that controls on the legal market can have a profound effect on the availability of guns in the illegal market. We know that almost 60 percent of crime guns originate with only about 1 percent of licensed gun dealers. We need to give ATF the additional tools to crack down on those dealers. The Brady Law has stopped over 1.3 million prohibited gun buyers from purchasing guns from licensed dealers. In the first ten years that Brady was in effect, violent non-lethal gun crime plunged 73 percent and gun homicides fell 33 percent. Again, strengthening control on the legal market affected the flow of guns to the illegal market. We now need to apply the Brady background checks to all gun sales, 40 percent of which are by private sellers who are not licensed dealers and thus are not subject to the background check requirement.


Fairfax, Va.: I'm all for closing the gun show loophole, but what about one friend selling/giving a gun to another friend? In my opinion that transaction should be recorded by a licensed FFl.

Dennis Henigan: Every gun sale or transfer should be subject to a background check. No check. No sale. No exceptions.


Delray Beach, Fla.: I was a member of the NRA for many years. It used to be informative, fun, and entertaining -- now it is a political organization and actually makes public policy. Who is going to stop this madness? Assault rifles, hollow point bullets, gun-carrying children, carrying weapons openly? Will the Democrats finally do something about this?

Dennis Henigan: Ultimately, only the American people can stop the madness. You, and those who think like you, must communicate your views to your elected officials strongly and often. Go to our Web sites (here or here) and we will make it easy for you. More than 80 percent of the American people support stronger, sensible gun laws, but the will of the people is being frustrated by a well-financed special interest lobby using the tactics of intimidation on politicians who are, as Sarah and Jim Brady like to say, "cowardly lions." The cowardly lions need to hear from you!


San Diego: This is more of a comment than anything else, but as a person who is both well to the left of center on the U.S. political spectrum and a gun owner, I am disturbed by calls by my fellow liberals to strengthen gun control laws. I'd like to gently remind people that there are literally tens of millions of Americans who own guns, most of whom use them for hunting, recreational or competitive target shooting and the like. What I hear and read from the left these days tends to paint all gun owners with a very broad and unflattering brush. I'd recommend reframing the debate so that it is not focused on gun control per se, but at ensuring that persons such as the Blacksburg shooter, who shouldn't have guns, don't get them.

Dennis Henigan: As President Clinton used to say, "No one missed a day in the duck blind because of the Brady Bill." Stronger gun laws would save lives without depriving law-abiding citizens of their choice to own a gun for lawful purposes. The NRA wants to make this a debate about gun ownership. This is a distraction. The debate is about our weak national and state laws that allow dangerous people like Cho access to guns.


Allen Township, Pa.: One of the arguments gun enthusiasts proffer against gun control: Mass murderers will find a way if they have the will, using fire, explosions, airplanes -- just look what they're doing in Iraq. How easy is it to buy C-4 or other explosives these days?

Dennis Henigan: Explosives have been tightly controlled since the 1930s. The Columbine shooting was an interesting case in point. The killers were armed with guns and homemade explosives. The explosives did not work well and I don't believe anyone was killed or injured by the explosives. If they could have bought explosives as easily as they bought guns, their explosives would not have been homemade and would have been far more effective.


Arlington, Va.: Wouldn't Cho have been able to kill quite a few had he been armed only with revolvers?

Dennis Henigan: Revolvers don't afford nearly the functional firepower of a semi-auto with high-capacity magazines. Cho knew he wanted to engage in a military-style assault at Virginia Tech with the objective of killing a lot of people very quickly. He chose guns appropriate to that task, while still concealable. With a 15-round magazine, he could shoot fifteen rounds in seconds without the need to reload, and then reload in an instant by ejecting the spent magazine and slapping in a new, loaded magazine. Apparently, he also had even higher capacity magazines. As we saw with the Long Island RR shooter a number of years ago, often the best chance of stopping a shooter is when he stops to reload. Reloading was not a problem for Cho. The firepower available to Cho enabled him to be a mass killer of historic proportions.


Chantilly, Va.: Mr. Henigan, do you yourself own a handgun?

Dennis Henigan: No. I don't propose to expose myself or my family to such an extraordinary risk. Handguns in the home increase the risk of suicide five-fold and homicide three-fold. Accidents with guns are far more lethal than accidents with other weapons. However, other law-abiding people may feel differently. They should have the option to make a different choice, but I would hope it would be an educated choice.


Detroit: It sounds terrible to say this, but is there any point in trying to obtain meaningful gun control laws? It seems that despite a push for such laws over many decades, there has been little progress. Even the Brady Bill had plenty of loopholes. Unless there is a shift of people's beliefs of myths of the importance of guns in self-protection and in the development of this country, I don't see how gun control laws will ever come about, despite the necessity of them.

Dennis Henigan: This comment expresses the sense of futility that many Americans unfortunately feel. The feeling of futility is, however, the gun lobby's best friend. We saw in the battle for the Brady Law and the assault weapon ban in the early 1990s that if the people demand action, it tends to stiffen the politicians' spines. We overcame the bullying of the gun lobby in those battle and we can do it again! Hopelessness on this issue does not honor the victims at Virginia Tech. They will be honored by action that prevents future tragedies.


York, Pa.: Handgun Control, Inc, now called the Brady Campaign, misrepresents information in their efforts to ban guns. This prevents an honest debate on the issues from occurring. Is the Brady Campaign willing to concede that gun control laws in other countries rarely correlate with a reduction in violent crime and/or homicide? For instance, in Britain murder rates have remained basically constant over the years when laws progressively have eliminated virtually all private gun rights. Also in England, firearms are used in less than 5 percent of all homicides, proving conclusively that the will to kill trumps all weapons laws. Will the Brady Campaign accept that sensible gun control means that mentally unstable persons shouldn't be able to buy guns, but sane and law-abiding adults should?

Dennis Henigan: In 2004, there were 73 gun homicides in England and Wales and 11,344 in the United States. God bless America.


Dennis Henigan: Thanks to everyone for caring so much about this issue to participate. Again, for more information about what the Brady organization is doing to prevent gun violence, visit or


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