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Shooter’s Purchase of Handguns Raises Questions About Gun Control Laws

Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho's ability to purchase two handguns despite a history of mental illness has raised questions about American gun control laws. Gun control and gun rights advocates discuss the regulations for background checks.

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  • MARGARET WARNER:

    The Virginia Tech shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, used two firearms to kill 32 people and himself in the Monday massacre. The gun purchases were legal.

    On March 13th, he bought a Glock 19 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol at a Roanoke gun shop about 30 miles from campus. The store's owner is John Markell.

  • JOHN MARKELL, Owner, Roanoke Firearms:

    There were no red flags kicked up in any way. He got a clean bill of health from the state police. There was just no reason for me not to have sold him the gun.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Cho's other gun was a .22 caliber Walther semiautomatic pistol. He bought that online February 2nd and picked it up at a pawnshop just minutes from campus. In both cases, he presented identification and passed a computerized background check by state police. There was no waiting period.

    Virginia law makes it illegal to own a firearm if someone has been: acquitted by reason of insanity and committed to a mental institution; subject to a protective order issued pursuant to stalking; or adjudicated legally incompetent or medically incapacitated or involuntarily committed.

    In 2005, two female Virginia Tech students reported being stalked by Cho, but they chose not to press charges. Yet after talking to him, campus police recommended he be detained for mental evaluation.

    Cho was evaluated at a local psychiatric hospital. A doctor there found him depressed, but said Cho denied being suicidal. The next day, a state magistrate found Cho "presents an imminent danger to himself as a result of mental illness," but did not find he was a threat to others.

    The magistrate recommended outpatient treatment as opposed to involuntary commitment. It's unclear what follow-up treatment Cho had.

    The director of Virginia Tech's counseling center said the matter was not reported to any other authorities.

  • CHRISTOPHER FLYNN, Director, Virginia Tech Counseling Center:

    This is not a law enforcement issue. He had broken no law that we know of. The mental health professionals were there to assess his safety, not particularly the safety of others, and so there is no necessity, perhaps, that they would notify everybody, whether it be the police or the university.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    A newly appointed state commission will look into all this as part of its investigation.

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