Ten years after the Virginia Tech massacre, those adamantly in favor of increased firearm restrictions and those strongly opposed seem uncommonly in agreement on at least one thing: The mass shootings had virtually no effect on the gun control debate in terms of legislation that would tighten existing laws.
In fact, the opposite occurred. Gun rights, not gun restrictions, have grown stronger.
Legislators passed measures that eased certain firearm restrictions over the 10 General Assembly sessions since Seung-Hui Cho’s rampage left 32 people dead — which at the time was the deadliest shooting by a single gunman in modern U.S. history.
“Sadly, very little ... has been done that would reduce gun violence, but there have been many bills passed that reduce the regulation of firearms,” said Andrew Goddard, legislative director for the Virginia Center for Public Safety, whose son, Colin, was shot four times in a French classroom at Virginia Tech but survived.
However, Goddard believes the tragedy, at least on some small level, “slowed down the progress of the other side in removing laws.”
Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League and Goddard’s ideological nemesis, said legislative roadblocks against more gun control show there was little appetite among Virginians to restrict gun rights further.
“If the General Assembly was hearing from tons of their constituents that they wanted gun control, that might have done it,” he said. “But that wasn’t the message out there. Whatever message they were getting on gun control, they were probably getting a far bigger message against it.”
Thomas R. Baker, a criminologist and former Virginia Commonwealth University assistant professor who has an interest in firearm-related issues and has written extensively on the topic, said that for many Virginians, the Tech shootings may have represented a watershed moment for gun control, and it did lead to an enhancement of mental health restrictions related to the purchase of firearms and to improvement of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
But aside from that, “it hasn’t really had a lot of impact on changing the way guns are bought and sold in Virginia or in the U.S.,” said Baker, who is now an assistant professor at the University of Central Florida’s Department of Criminal Justice.
“It seems many jurisdictions have come to recognize that mass shootings are very difficult to prevent, especially via broad policies that would have done little to prevent the actual event.”
“Rather, when such events occur, if particular flaws in the current system can be identified — such as the gap in mental health reporting that allowed the Virginia Tech shooter to unlawfully acquire firearms — they often have support from both sides of the political spectrum,” he added.
Baker said gun control measures seem to fail most often because their opponents “can easily identify that such controls would have done little to prevent the high-profile events that spurred their proposal,” and they are introduced “when fear and anger are high and evidence-based solutions are lacking.”
“Over the slow process of legislation, these angers and fears wane and the policies eventually lose the emotional momentum they initially had and end up failing,” Baker said.
“Alternately, many of the policies that have been implemented to relax restrictions come at times when tensions are low. And policies are not being proposed based on emotion but rather because they represent policies supported by the people or appear to provide additional rights whose restrictions do little to enhance safety.”
Then-Del. Joe Morrissey, D-Henrico, proposed banning assault-style rifles and large-capacity magazines in Virginia soon after a gunman used a similar weapon to fatally shoot 20 children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012. But the measures were scuttled quickly in legislative committees.
The most significant piece of legislation related directly to the Virginia Tech shootings enshrined then-Gov. Tim Kaine’s executive order on mental health records into law.
The legislation mandated that state agencies collect information about people who are required to undergo mental health treatment, whether on an inpatient or outpatient basis, and send those records to state and federal databases to ensure they cannot buy a gun.
Cho cleared background checks in early 2007 to buy the two semiautomatic pistols he used in the massacre despite having been found by a judge to be a danger to himself in December 2005.
He was ordered to undergo outpatient care, but that record was not shared with law enforcement. As a result, Cho’s history was not entered into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, and he was cleared to buy a gun.
Van Cleave said his group got behind the bill once language was added that created a mechanism that allowed people adjudicated mentally ill to get their gun rights back if they can prove to a judge their competency has been restored.
Before the rights restoration clause was added, “if they took away your gun rights for mental health issues, there really wasn’t a way to get your gun rights back,” he said.
But Goddard remains skeptical of that provision, particularly in cases in which someone has been found not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity.
“If a person is too insane to know the difference between right and wrong on one day, and then sometime in the future you’re going to be miraculously cured?” he said.
Legislation enacted that eased firearm restrictions in the decade after the massacre involved a variety of disparate issues. They included:
- allowing customers with permits to carry concealed guns in bars and alcohol-serving restaurants;
- allowing firearms to be kept in car glove boxes without penalty;
- eliminating the state’s one-handgun-per-month purchase law;
- and, more recently, allowing concealed-carry permit holders from all other states to carry concealed weapons in Virginia.
For the most part, Baker believes that many of those initiatives are irrelevant, especially when considered in terms of their impact on mass shootings such as Virginia Tech.
“Prohibiting other states’ concealed-carry holders from carrying concealed in Virginia isn’t going to stop mass shootings, nor will allowing them to carry concealed increase the risk of a mass shooting,” Baker said. “The same can be said of carrying firearms in car glove boxes or allowing concealed firearms in bars and restaurants.”
“The one law that may have had a promising impact is the one-handgun-per-month law, but this law was designed and may have actually impacted firearm trafficking from Virginia to more restrictive states along the I-95 corridor,” Baker added. “However, like the other provisions, such a law likely does little to deter or prevent a motivated mass shooter.”
Criminologist William V. Pelfrey Jr., an associate professor at VCU’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, said restricting gun rights is very difficult in a politically divided state such as Virginia, and the margin of difference between conservative and liberal voters is so narrow that significant changes in gun laws are almost impossible.
“Both the Virginia Tech shooting and the Newtown shooting, some of the most horrific acts of violence in recent history, generated a small amount of momentum for restricting weapons, but that faded quickly,” Pelfrey said.
“The gun lobby has convinced people that politicians who are ‘soft’ on gun laws are therefore ‘soft’ on crime, thereby inhibiting motivation to advocate for gun restrictions.”
Pelfrey said gun rights advocates will find flaws in almost any proposed change in gun legislation.
“Any change is viewed as one step towards an end which makes all guns illegal rather than viewing any individual piece of legislation on its face,” he said.
In one small victory, gun control advocates succeeded in blocking legislation that would have allowed students, faculty and staff at public universities to carry firearms on campus. “They didn’t get guns in colleges,” Goddard said.
At the time of the massacre, there was a bill in a legislative subcommittee that would have allowed firearms on school grounds, but it went nowhere. Various incarnations of the measure have been proposed over the years without success.
“We’re not going to give up on that,” Van Cleave said. “The college ban makes no sense,” because criminals and mass killers such as Cho ignore it.
While there’s no state law that prohibits a visitor from carrying a gun on the open grounds of a college campus, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that public schools can retain their authority to regulate or ban concealed weapons throughout the entire campus by faculty, staff and students. All public schools of higher learning have done so.
Van Cleave believes a public shift in attitudes has occurred, particularly regarding firearms and self-defense, and that could explain in part why more gun restrictions have failed in the wake of Virginia Tech.
“When people looked at this, they didn’t take earlier attitudes that were thrown out by people with gun control groups that, oh, if only guns weren’t there this couldn’t have happened,” he said.
Pelfrey, however, said he sees no such change. “The Virginia General Assembly as a whole is very pro-gun rights, so new restrictions on firearms are unlikely,” he said.
Baker said it’s certainly possible that having like-minded allies in the General Assembly results in policies being implemented over others. But, “in theory the General Assembly is filled with representatives of the people and, if members of the General Assembly weren’t upholding the will of their constituents, they wouldn’t remain in office long.”