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Gunning for Change?

The Virginia Tech shootings have had little effect on the national perception of gun laws, according to an April 23 survey by the Pew Research Center.

A survey conducted in the days following the shooting revealed that most Americans were not prepared to place major restrictions on access to guns as a result of the incident. Fifty-five percent of those surveyed said they were opposed to a ban on handguns.

In Virginia, advocates on both sides of the issue hope the tragedy will lead to substantive legislative changes next year.

PROPONENTS OF gun rights said they hope the Virginia General Assembly will consider striking a law that allows universities and colleges to bans guns on campuses.

Gun-control advocates will focus on closing the "gun-show loophole," which allows people to purchase weapons without a background check in some cases.

Most of the state's campuses, including Virginia Tech, do not allow students or faculty to carry guns on campus. The policy puts students at risk of attack, according to gun-rights activists. Those who are bent on destruction, like Seung-Hui Cho, won't obey the rules, they said.

"THE IDEA of a gun-free zone is somewhat of a misnomer and a joke. It is not really gun free. It is only gun free to law-abiding citizens. Mr. Cho was not going to be deterred by a silly little law," said Dudley Brown, executive director of the National Association for Gun Rights in Fredericksburg, Va.

"We just wish that someone in one of those rooms was carrying a concealed weapon illegally," said Brown.

Some gun advocates said Cho might have chosen a campus building, as opposed to another location, because he knew the students and faculty would be unarmed.

"He didn't go to a mall or a church because he knew somebody could have popped him," said Larry Pratt of Gun Owners of America, based in Springfield, Va.

Still, in a state known for embracing gun ownership, political leaders appear to be more amenable to stricter weapons polices in the wake of the shootings.

GOV. TIM KAINE’S executive order bars all those legally forced to undergo treatment for mental illness — including outpatient treatment like a judge ordered for Cho — from purchasing a gun. The order has been well received by political leaders, both Republicans and Democrats.

Attorney General Bob McDonnell (R), a potential gubernatorial candidate, also backed the decision.

Gun-control advocates also applauded Kaine's move and hope the General Assembly will take more action to restrict gun access next session.

At least two groups said they would push state legislators to close the "gun-show loophole" as a result of the Tech shootings.

With Kaine's executive order in place, citizens like Cho would not be able to buy a firearm from a federally licensed gun shop because they would not be able to clear a background check. But the state does not require dealers at gun shows to conduct background checks and so Cho, and anyone else who might be banned from gun ownership, could purchase a gun easily this way, said gun-control advocates.

"SOMEBODY ELSE with [Cho's] troubled past, all they would have to do is go to one of these gun shows and go to a table where they know the dealer is not a federally licensed dealer," said Terry Hartnett, president of the Northern Virginia Million Mom March chapter.

"Had Cho been turned down, he seemed to know the gun law, he probably would have gone to a gun show," she said.

Virginia’s lax gun laws have also contributed to crimes in other states. Out-of-state criminals often buy guns in Virginia because they knew the laws are more lenient than their home states, said Hartnett.

"Guns bought in Virginia have been found at the scenes of crimes in New York and New Jersey," she said.

CLOSING THE gun show loophole will not be an easy task. The measure has been proposed and failed several times.

During the 2007 spring session, state Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (R-34) introduced the bill and it was voted down in the Senate's Courts of Justice committee by a 4 to 10 vote. Of the three Northern Virginia legislators who sit on the committee, Sens. Dick Saslaw (D-35) and Janet Howell (D-32) supported requiring background checks for gun show purchases and Sen. Ken Cuccinelli (R-37) did not.

THE GUN-SHOW loophole is just one of several gun-control measures which get shot down regularly in the General Assembly. Bills that would prohibit guns from child-care centers and libraries are introduced nearly every year and then struck down before they reach the floor.

Two measures regarding gun control and people with mental illness introduced this spring by Del. Mark Sickles (D-43) died in the House of Delegates Committee on Militia, Police and Public Safety.

Sickles’ first bill would have required the state to develop educational materials regarding firearms stored in a house with a person with mental illness. The second bill would have held a person who left a firearm accessible to a person with mental illness or mental retardation culpable for potential damages. Neither of Sickles’ bills even had an official committee vote.

These are two of several gun-control bills that have died in the Committee of Militia, Police and Public Safety over the years, said Del. Jim Scott (D- 53), one of the committee's only members in favor of gun control.

SCOTT’S OWN BILLS, including those that would prohibit someone convicted of domestic violence or stalking from acquiring guns, have been stalled for years, he said.

The Virginia Tech shootings are not likely to change many of the opinions of gun ownership advocates on the committee, he said.

"Unless the committee membership changes, I don't see much changing in the passing of the laws," said Scott.

Geography more than party affiliation tends to affect how General Assembly members see gun control, said some state legislators.

General Assembly members from urban districts are more likely to favor gun control than those from rural districts. It doesn't matter nearly as much whether you are a Republican or Democrat, said Devolites Davis, a Republican who favors tighter gun laws.

SOME NORTHERN VIRGINIAN Republicans regularly join Democrats from the region to vote in favor of gun-control bills. During the 2007 session, Dels. Dave Albo (R-42), Joe May (R-33) and Tom Rust (R-86) joined several Northern Virginia Democrats in voting against a bill that would have permitted hunting within a half mile of subdivisions and other populous areas.

All of Northern Virginia's representatives in the House of Delegates also voted to support a bill introduced by Scott that would prohibit people who had their parental rights terminated because of torture or abuse from purchasing a gun.

Scott's bill passed out of the House of Delegates with an 86 to 14 vote but failed in the Senate's Courts of Justice committee in a 6 to 9 vote. Northern Virginia committee members Howell, Saslaw and Sen. Toddy Puller (D-36) supported the bill but Cuccinelli sided with the committee's majority and voted against it.

Cuccinelli is a notable contrarian to the Northern Virginia delegation when it comes to guns.

AS A MEMBER of the Courts of Justice and Local Government senate committees, he is given a chance to vote on all bills regarding gun laws that come before the senate. With two exceptions, Cuccinelli has always voted against gun control and in favor of gun owner's rights during the past four years.

In 2003, Cuccinelli proposed a law — which eventually died in committee — that removed a requirement for those with concealed weapons permits from out of state to comply with Virginia's concealed weapons regulations when traveling in the commonwealth. He also introduced another bill that would have lifted the prohibition on concealed weapons in restaurants and clubs that serve alcohol as long as the person carrying the weapons was not imbibing alcohol or taking illegal drugs.

The senator also voted against Senate Bill 939 in 2003, which would have prohibited all people voluntarily committed to a public or private mental-health facility that present a danger to themselves or others from purchasing a firearm. The bill died in the senate’s Courts of Justice Committee with a 5 to 9 vote. All other Northern Virginia delegates sitting on the committee — Saslaw, Howell and Ticer — supported the bill.

CUCCINELLI did support a proposed law prohibiting citizens from bringing weapons into secure law-enforcement areas, such as the restricted parts of a police station, when it was proposed this spring. The bill — introduced by Saslaw — was in direct response to the shooting of two police officers by a troubled teen at the Sully police station in Cuccinelli's district.

Cho and two of his victims — students Reema Samaha and Erin Peterson — also attended Westfield High School in Cuccinelli's district.