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Aiming High for Gun Control

Advocates against gun violence mobilize for stricter laws.

Joe Samaha has not watched the video clips that his daughter’s killer put together in rage. Watching the footage won’t bring his daughter back, and it certainly won’t answer his questions about why Seung-Hui Cho murdered 32 people at Virginia Tech, Monday, April 16, before turning the gun on himself.

Samaha is turning into an advocate for gun safety, though. He did not know much about the subject before his 18-year-old daughter, Reema, became a victim, but now, he said he’s becoming somewhat of an expert.

That’s why Samaha agreed to join a panel of experts on mental health and gun laws on Wednesday, May 16, at Robsinson Secondary School. The Parent Teacher Student Association and Robinson’s Young Democrats hosted the event and invited parents, students and community members to listen in on the town hall-style meeting about the prevention of school gun violence.

Evan Collins, president of Robinson Young Democrats, said the Virginia Tech incident hit close to home for many students. Reema Samaha was a Westfield High School graduate in nearby Chantilly, and several other victims were also Fairfax County high school graduates.

Panel members produced statistic after statistic to argue their case that more guns are not the answer, whether those guns are legal or illegal. If Virginia Tech students had legal permits to carry firearms on campus, the panel agreed it probably wouldn’t have mattered. If anything, they said, it would have made things worse. Terry Hartnett, a member of the Million Mom March of Northern Virginia, said it would be difficult for police to determine who started the shooting if they entered a room full of gun-toting students.

"If you open fire in a school, you will be eliminated," said Frederick Rappina, a Fairfax County police officer with the youth services division, and a Robinson Secondary school resource officer.

A GROUP OF STUDENTS at George Mason University disagree, however. George Mason University Students for Concealed Carry (GMU-SCC), an organization not yet recognized by the school, mobilized about two weeks after the Virginia Tech shooting. Concealed carry permit-holders are not currently allowed to bring their guns onto college campuses in Virginia, and the 30 or so GMU-SCC members want to change that law.

"[The Virginia Tech victims] should have had the chance to defend themselves," said Andrew Dysart, a GMU junior and the president of the group.

But more guns equal more violence, according to Martina Leinz, of the Million Mom March. "It’s just a fact," she said.

Guns are available everywhere, regardless of a lot of purchasing laws, said Bob Ricker, an advocate for sensible gun laws and the former chief lobbyist for the National Rifle Association of America. He said there are more than 200 million guns in America.

"Just because of the sheer numbers, there are all these other interventions we need to look at to keep people protected," he said.

One of those interventions deals with the mentally ill. A state hospital deemed Cho as a threat to himself, but he was never involuntarily committed to a mental health facility. That fact is what kept him out of a background check database and allowed him to walk into a store and legally purchase a gun, just weeks before his deadly rampage. Ricker said if he had been denied, "it would have been a huge deterrent."

"People with psychological illnesses just don’t need access to a gun," said Melanie Green, a psychiatric nurse at Inova Fairfax Hospital and a panel member at the Robinson event.

A lack of information was part of the problem with Cho, she said. Since he was never involuntarily committed, health officials didn’t report him to the same database that would have alerted gun retailers to prohibit his purchase. Mental illness is never an excuse for violence, though, said Green. "We hold people accountable for their actions," she said.

The mentally ill are not necessarily mentally incapable, said Rappina. Temporary Detention Orders, court orders that detain individuals who are deemed a threat to themselves or others, for up to 72-hours, are not fool-proof. Mental health professionals ask a series of questions to determine if the person is a risk, but it’s impossible to tell if the individual is manipulating the system, Rappina said.

"Once you’ve played the game once, you know how to play every single time," said Rappina.

Gov. Timothy Kaine (D) issued an executive order that requires "all agencies to report any mental health adjudications leading to involuntary treatment, premised upon a danger finding, whether or not such treatment is to be received in an inpatient or outpatient setting." The order will remain in effect until legislators meet next session to determine ways to fix some of the problems with the laws.

While the mental health issues with relation to gun violence seem to be more prevalent, it is not a new concern. Neither is the problem with school gun violence. Rickers said guns in schools are everyday problems in America.

That’s why Samaha wants to educate young people. Young people are the future, and they can elect the candidates who will tighten the laws.

"We need to educate the youth to affect the vote," said Samaha. "The paradox in the laws are just ridiculous; the discrepancies are so vivid."

Ricker said people should mobilize and build a grassroots organization to make changes. Powerful gun advocate lobbies like the NRA are not invincible, he said. Grassroots organizations were able to close a gun show loophole in Colorado just five months after the Columbine High School shooting massacre there that left 15 people dead, including the two gunmen.

"Citizens have rights to change things," said Rappina. "The [local candidate] signs along the road are real people; they represent you. They represent you more than President Bush. If their views represent you, vote for them. If not, vote for the other guy."

LOCAL POLITICIANS are already making gun control a campaign priority.

Janet Oleszek, a Fairfax County School Board member running for the 37th District State Senate seat this year, attended the panel at Robinson. She said her opponent, incumbent Sen. Ken Cuccinelli (R-37), "is so wrong on these issues." About one week before the panel, Cuccinelli addressed Burke Centre residents on about the flaws in Virginia’s mental health laws and regulations on the release of patient information — areas he said he has been diligently working on for years. Both candidates have made it clear that the issue is a hot one this November.

More than 130,000 Virginians have concealed carry permits. Rappina said the Fairfax County Police Department is trained to treat everyone as if they are armed. Dysart, a legally registered concealed carrier, said he wants the limitations lifted. He carries his firearm in everyday life for protection. The Virginia Tech incident proves that he also needs that protection at school, he said.

"In today’s society, you can’t always rely on the police," said Dysart. "By the time they get there, it may be too late. I’d rather take my chances with a cop [by the time they get there and see my drawn firearm], than have to be unarmed and be pray to an armed madman."

Concealed carriers are not the ones causing the problems either, he said. In theory, he said it’s not the permit holders who go around "shooting up places."

But until proved otherwise, a 2001 study by the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research determined that "the best science indicates that more guns will lead to more deaths."