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Gun Control Debate Revisited on Anniversary of Virginia Tech Shooting

April 16, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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On the second anniversary of the nation's deadliest mass shooting at Virginia Tech University and approaching the tenth anniversary of the Columbine massacre, analysts examine the ongoing public debate over gun control laws.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We’ve heard about Mexico, but we know gun violence has long been an issue on this side of the border. It was highlighted today by the anniversary of the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Hundreds of balloons sailed into a clear, sunny sky on the campus of Virginia Tech, as thousands gathered to commemorate the victims of the shootings that took place here two years ago.

Thirty-two people were killed by a fellow student, Seung-Hui Cho, who fired hundreds of rounds from two pistols he had bought, despite questions about his mental state.

Over the past month, there’s been a rash of mass shootings in the United States, which have left 57 people dead, seven of them law enforcement officers.

Two weeks ago, in Binghamton, New York, a 41-year-old Vietnamese immigrant, Jiverly Wong, killed 14 people, including himself. He fired 98 shots in a little over a minute from the 9 millimeter and .45-caliber pistols he carried.

Prior to the shooting, Wong mailed a letter to a Binghamton television station that included his New York state permit to own the handguns he used in the murders. Most states do not require such authorization.

On March 22nd, four police officers killed were in Oakland, California, gunned down by a man pulled over for a traffic violation.

One week later, at a North Carolina retirement home, eight were shot dead.

And across two Alabama counties in early March, Michael McLendon shot and killed 10 people before turning the gun on himself.

All these recent shootings come in the midst of a national spurt in gun sales that began in November. This buying spree has led to an ammunition shortage for some of the most popular guns, and requests for background checks ahead of gun purchases have increased by 25 percent.

WITNESS: I saw the man with the weapons inside the school.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next Monday, there will be a remembrance of the massacre at Columbine High School near Denver, where two students murdered 12 schoolmates 10 years ago with handguns and semiautomatic weapons.

Buying and selling guns

Robert Levy
Cato Institute
These mass killings get high profile, but bear in mind that they account for a small fraction of 1 percent of all the murders in the United States.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For two different views on the guns issue, we turn to Daniel Webster. He's co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.

And Robert Levy, he's chairman of the Cato Institute's board of directors. He joins us from Naples, Florida.

Gentlemen, thank you both for being with us. And, Mr. Levy, I'm going to start with you. There were two more people killed today in a shooting in California.

We don't know about this incident, but we do know in most of these shootings we've been talking about these guns were legal. They were legally purchased. Is that something that we should be concerned about?

ROBERT LEVY, Cato Institute: Well, of course we should be concerned about it. I think that I'm called upon to defend gun rights on anniversaries of mass shootings like this, but conspicuously missing from the reporting is all of the crimes that would be deterred because the would-be assailants suspected that there would-be victims might be armed. Guns are used for self-defense.

These mass killings get high profile, but bear in mind that they account for a small fraction of 1 percent of all the murders in the United States. As a matter of fact, mass killings are much more prevalent in Europe, in countries that have much stricter laws than the United States, countries like Germany and Finland and Switzerland. Most of these mass killings occur in areas where the guns are absolutely banned.

So it is the case that eliminating guns by law does not prevent these killings from occurring. And if it were so easy, we would have seen different results in Washington, D.C., where they had an outright ban on all firearms for all people in all places at all times for all purposes since 1976, 33 years. And Washington, D.C., was the nation's murder capital.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dan Webster, that being the case, what does this say about whether the laws that exist that are on the books today about guns should be looked at again? Or should they?

DANIEL WEBSTER, Johns Hopkins University Center for Gun Policy and Research: Oh, we have a long way to go with our laws. I think that the fact that some people who commit some violent acts purchase them legally doesn't change the fact that, really, we have two kinds of problems.

One is, in my opinion, we don't have strict enough standards for who should possess a gun, can legally possess a gun. But maybe more importantly, we really don't have systems that hold gun sellers accountable to make sure that they are only transferring guns to truly law-abiding people who are mentally competent.

The government's role in regulation

Daniel Webster
Johns Hopkins University
Many individuals might have a string of violent misdemeanors they've been convicted of and have a very violent past. And research has shown they're incredibly high risk to commit more and more crime.

JUDY WOODRUFF: When you say we don't have strict enough standards for who should own a gun, what's an example of that? What could be done?

DANIEL WEBSTER: Sure. Well, felons are prohibited from possessing firearms. However, many individuals might have a string of violent misdemeanors they've been convicted of and have a very violent past. And research has shown they're incredibly high risk to commit more and more crime. Many of those crimes were originally brought as felonies and pled down as misdemeanors.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Robert Levy, what about tightening the rules and making it harder for individuals who, as Dan Webster just said, have had a string of violent misdemeanors, didn't rise to the level of a felony, but there were still questionable, this concerning behavior in their background?

ROBERT LEVY: The Supreme Court in June of last year confirmed that the Second Amendment secures an individual right to keep and bear arms. Now, the important part of that decision is that it switches the burden to government to prove that its regulations are justified.

I am certainly in favor of regulations that keep guns away from crazy people, from violent felons, from underage persons. No one would contend that we have a Second Amendment protection for suspected terrorists to be carrying weapons of mass destruction.

Clearly, some people have to be prevented from having guns. Some guns have to be prevented from being held by anyone. And some circumstances should be regulated.

But the important point is that government has to show us that these regulations are, first of all, necessary; second of all, they're going to work; and, third of all, the same ends couldn't have been accomplished by means that didn't compromise our right to defend ourselves by possessing arms. I don't believe government has met that burden.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dan Webster, is the burden on the government? Is that the way it should be?

DANIEL WEBSTER: No, I think the burden is on the government to do things that are prudent in the interest of public safety. And that's what many of our gun laws are designed to do. They're designed to keep guns away from dangerous people.

The fact that they don't work perfectly -- and in the case -- the example of Washington, D.C., having a problem with murders, that's not because they banned handguns. It's because, generally speaking, in states and really all states around, our laws are too weak.

The guns were not coming from Washington, D.C. They were coming from Northern Virginia and other places where the laws were too weak.

Better restrictions, enforcement

Robert Levy
Cato Institute
The deterrent purpose of guns, the possession of guns by people who want to defend themselves, is what we have to preserve and what now the Supreme Court has hold us the Constitution does, in fact, preserve.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me read you something, Robert Levy, from a -- last week, a New York Times editorial, which I'm sure you saw. It said, "Inside Washington's bubble, it's as if the shootings in Binghamton and elsewhere never took place. The NRA's ability to intimidate grown men and women in the House and Senate remains undiminished." They're calling for more regulations, more restrictions.

ROBERT LEVY: Well, that's because they haven't examined the data. The data shows that guns are used in the commission of violent acts about 500,000 times a year. Guns are used defensively about four times that number, about 2 million times a year. And quite often, they're merely brandished, not even fired.

The deterrent purpose of guns, the possession of guns by people who want to defend themselves, is what we have to preserve and what now the Supreme Court has hold us the Constitution does, in fact, preserve.

A mere declaration by the New York Times that more regulation is necessary flies in the face of regulations that exist all across this country in cities that have very high rates of violent crime.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In essence, Dan Webster, he's saying the restrictions are there; they're just not enforced.

DANIEL WEBSTER: Well, that's true. We should have better enforcement. But that doesn't mean we don't need better restrictions.

Just to comment on some of the numbers being thrown around about defensive gun use by civilians, that research has really been discredited. I think it's not very believable or credible.

To think that criminals who are planning their acts would be far less likely than someone who isn't necessarily expecting to be attacked to use a firearm in the incident, it just doesn't really make sense or line up with anything we know about violent crime.

Automatic weapons laws

Daniel Webster
Johns Hopkins University
We're really not talking about whether someone should be able to defend themselves with a gun. What we're talking about is, what can we do as a country to have more sensible gun policies to keep guns from dangerous people?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me ask you both about -- the Binghamton shooter, we know, used a weapon that fired repeatedly, Robert Levy. What's the rationale for permitting somebody to have two guns that fired 98 rounds in a little over a minute?

ROBERT LEVY: Automatic weapons -- that is, weapons that continue firing with one pull of the trigger -- they have been heavily regulated and they continue to be heavily regulated since 1934.

As a matter of fact, if they were manufactured any time after 1986 -- and we're talking about 23 years -- there's an outright ban on such weapons.

But with respect to semiautomatic weapons -- that is, one fire each time the trigger is pulled -- those weapons are used for self-defense. They're used for hunting. They're used for target shooting. They're even used for Olympic competition. And this is by tens of millions of Americans.

We can't prohibit guns from being used for self-defense merely because there may be a misuse of the guns that results in violence.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dan Webster, final comment?

DANIEL WEBSTER: Well, I think that it's getting at the wrong issue. We're really not talking about whether someone should be able to defend themselves with a gun. What we're talking about is, what can we do as a country to have more sensible gun policies to keep guns from dangerous people? We can do that and still allow law-abiding citizens access to guns.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You're saying if the laws are changed?

DANIEL WEBSTER: If the laws are improved, yes, and enforced.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, gentlemen, big subject, and we're going to leave it there. Thank you very much, Dan Webster. And thank you, Robert Levy. We appreciate it.

ROBERT LEVY: Thank you.

DANIEL WEBSTER: Thank you.