|A contingent from Northern Virginia at a march for gun control in Washington, D.C., Jan. 26. [Photo by Sue Langley.]|
With the Virginia legislature unlikely to pass more restrictive gun bills this session, gun control advocates are urging their constituents to focus on Congress.
The speakers at a panel discussion on gun violence at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church Jan. 27 urged members of the audience to call and write letters to their congressional representatives to urge them to support President Obama’s proposals to ban on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and require background checks for all gun buyers.
If federal legislation is passed, the states will follow, said Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (CSGV). “The Newtown massacre might have well tipped the balance.”
|Many participants at the march for gun control carried the names and photos of victims of gun violence.|
Whenever there’s a mass shooting, like the ones in Tucson, Ariz.; Aurora, Col., Oak Creek, Wis., and most recently at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., “ the families are irreparably damaged forever. We owe it to them to do something about this,” he said. “We can’t sit here and do nothing.”
Another panelist, Christian Heyne of Thousand Oaks, Calif., spoke about how his life was forever changed by gun violence. His father was injured and his mother was shot to death by a man who had a restraining order against him and had been discharged from the military because he had problems with authority.
“It’s not just the person who is killed, it’s the whole network of that person’s family and friends who will never be the same,” said Heyne, who now works as a lobbyist for the CSGV.
Omar Samaha, who also works for the coalition, told the group how he and his family were totally devastated when his sister, Reema, was killed in the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007. The shooter, who gunned down 32 people that day, had been adjudicated mentally ill but was never put into the national database.
After the massacre, Samaha went on a nationwide tour with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s organization, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and appeared on an ABC news report showing how easy it is to buy guns in Virginia. The show’s producers gave him money and sent him to a gun show in Richmond, where he was able to buy 10 guns in an hour. Even before he got in the front door, a man in the parking lot sold him the same type of Glock handgun used by the Virginia Tech shooter.
Legislation to close the gun show loophole, which allows private dealers at gun shows to sell weapons without requiring a criminal background check, failed to pass during the current session of the Virginia General Assembly.
Bills to allow teachers to have concealed weapons in schools was defeated, but bills to fund armed police officers, known as school resource officers, in elementary schools are still on the table. Fairfax County high schools already have SROs.
Virginia actually has strong laws on background checks, Horwitz said, but there are many loopholes: You can buy guns on the Internet, at gun shows, and through private sales without going through a background check.
David Chipman, a former agent with the Bureau of Alcohol,Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (AFT), said, “If our nation cannot require criminal background checks, everything else is pretty meaningless.” Eighty percent of criminals get their guns from private sales.
Provisions against the sale of guns to mentally ill people also need to be strengthened. Chipman said only 10,000 potential gun buyers have ever been rejected under the mental health provision in the Brady bill, which requires a legal finding of mental incompetence.
“A lot of people say the problem is too big and nothing can be done. That’s not true,” Chipman said, noting that even 70 percent of NRA members think background checks are reasonable.
Gun control advocates are now stronger than ever and will be able to counter the NRA, Horwitz asserted. “NRA strength is a myth,” Chipman added. “The debate is now more balanced. Newtown was a game changer.”
Regarding the Second Amendment, Horwitz said the Supreme Court has ruled that people have the right to have a handgun for self defense but there are many areas where guns can be regulated.
Jason Abend, a former Secret Service officer who now works for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said the Second Amendment guarantees people the right to defend themselves, and people should pursue a “middle ground” where the objective is “not merely a matter of seizing firearms,” but of keeping guns out of the hands of felons, drug dealers, and the mentally ill.
Horwitz called for assault weapons like the M16, which was used in three of the most recent mass shootings, including Newtown, to be more restricted. The Tucson shooter fired off 33 rounds in less than 20 seconds, so banning high-capacity rounds could be crucial in saving more lives.
As an ATF agent, Chipman said he was assigned 15 rounds. “Why does someone need 30 rounds? It doesn’t seem reasonable.” A shooter who has to stop and reload can be more easily subdued.
Despite the high-profile mass shootings, Abend noted that violent crime rates are down 15 percent since 2007. Assault rifles are not as big a problem as gun control advocates charge, he said. Only about half of 1 percent of firearm deaths are caused by assault rifles. The 300 million pistols in the United States are a far bigger threat, he said.
During the question and answer period, a member the audience asked if anything can be done to shut down a gun store on Broad Street in Falls Church [NOVA Firearms]. That would not be a good idea, Horwitz responded. “We want people to go to a gun store and get a background check.”