Friday, April 20, 2007

A Poll

Yesterday, after logging off from hotmail, I saw a poll at MSNBC claiming that while Americans don't think more guns are the answer, most of them don't think stricter gun control would have prevented the Virginia Tech massacre.

I went to look for it this morning and it took me quite a while to find again. It was tucked way back in MSN's Men section. That oddness aside, what kind of answers did they expect? They polled people immediately after a horrible tragedy. It's a terrible time to take statistics. Seeming level headed and metered tends to be very important to people after something like this.

The truth on how Americans feel is likely much muddier than a poll taken immediately after the worst mass shooting in our history indicates. As detailed in this piece, polling is all over the place. Gun advocates have theirs and advocates of gun control have theirs.

A poll isn't necessary to answer whether gun control laws would have prevented the Virginia Tech shooter from having two semi-automatic weapons and potentially high capacity magazine. First, if he had high-capacity magazines, it's because the 1994 federal ban on assault weapons was allowed to run out in 2004. Next, he had been found mentally ill, by a court. That should have been enough to prevent him from purchasing the weapons. Lax enforcement and a gross loophole allowed authorities to give him a pass to get his guns:

Since Cho was never “committed to a mental institution”—but rather was only briefly detained for evaluation—Virginia officials continued to insist today that even this incident was not a barrier to his buying a gun. "An individual who is detained for evaluation under a Temporary Detention Order" but who is referred for outpatient care "is not prohibited from purchase under the applicable state laws," said Donna Tate, manager of the Firearms Transaction Center for the Virginia state police.

But Kristen Rand, an analyst with the Violence Policy Center, a gun-control advocacy group, points out that the other criteria in the 1968 federal law—whether the gun applicant has been “adjudicated as a mentally defective”—seems to apply to Cho’s circumstances. The definition of "mentally defective" under a federal regulation states that it applies to anybody who has been determined by a “court, board, commission or other lawful authority” to have been a “danger to himself or others.”

“I don’t think it could be any more clear cut. He was not eligible to buy those guns,” says Rand.

But Rand and others—including federal officials—say that enforcement of the provision in the law barring the mentally ill from buying handguns has been erratic at best. More than 20 states don’t report any mental health records—including court records of mental commitments—to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), the central federal database for background checks on firearm purchases, according to Paul Bresson, a FBI spokesman. Other states, including Virginia, do report some records, but officials acknowledge that the state and federal databases are complete. Asked
if Virginia should have submitted a record of the Temporary Detention Order on Cho to the bureau, Bresson responded: "We rely on the state to submit the data to us. We don't interpret the law. All we're doing is providing a database for them." Still, Bresson added, "based on what we now know, it would seem that it would have been a record that should have been in the NICS.”

In general, Virginia is a state where it is very easy to get and carry guns. For example, police there aren't even allowed to require training for people wishing to carry a concealed weapon. You're entitled to a concealed permit if you own a handgun.

Like it or not, if laws on gun ownership and use were stricter, and regularly applied, Cho would have had a harder time getting the guns that killed so many.

I'd add to this that I don't think turning campuses into police states with security at the ridiculous level of airports is the answer. Sick people find ways to do sick things.

Yesterday, April 19th, was the 12th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing. Cho may have been able to find another way to inflict the kind of mass damage he did without guns, but being able to walk into a store, lay down a credit card, and walk out with a semi-automatic weapon seems frighteningly easy. The system in place for background checks obviously failed.

A fact related to this is that the Oklahoma City bombing and 9-11 were the results of highly-coordinated efforts by groups of sick people. Columbine, the DC sniper, the Amish Schoolhouse shootings, and the Virginia Tech massacre were all small-scale, sick operations carried out using guns.