Massacre Confronts Presidential Candidates With Gun-Control Issues They've Dodged

Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - Gun control has been treated with a mix of silence and discomfort in the presidential campaign, a stance that may become insupportable once the nation finds its voice in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech mass murder.

Democrats have been deliberately muted for months on an issue that, by their own reckoning, contributed to and perhaps sealed their defeat in the 2000 presidential election. That's when Al Gore's call for gun registration cost him votes in rural America and dulled the party's appetite for taking on the gun lobby.

Top Republicans in the race are trying to close ranks with their party's conservative base on a variety of issues, making gun control an unusually sensitive one for them, too, thanks to their liberal views in the past.

Enter the massacre at Blacksburg, Va., an attack so horrific it froze the presidential campaign in place. Candidates called off events and expressed only sorrow, not opinion, in the first hours.

Advocates of any stripe raised their gun agenda at their peril.

"I think that people who want to take this within 24 hours of the event and make it their political hobby horse to ride ... I've got nothing but loathing for them," Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine said. "To those who want to try to make this into some little crusade, I say take that elsewhere."

But the bloodiest shooting rampage in modern U.S. history, with 33 dead, is certain to set off a debate that those who would be president can hardly sit out in the days and weeks ahead.

Rudy Giuliani waded gently into it Wednesday, a day after GOP rival John McCain said that the attack did not throw him off his support for constitutional gun rights.

"Obviously, this tragedy does not alter the Second Amendment," Giuliani said in a statement. "People have the right to keep and bear arms and the Constitution says this right will not be infringed."

His emphasis on state-by-state solutions to gun control in the GOP primaries contrasts with his past enthusiasm for a federal mandate to register handgun owners - an even stiffer requirement than registering guns.

Giuliani, as New York mayor and former Senate candidate, and Mitt Romney, as Massachusetts governor, supported the federal ban on assault-type weapons, background checks on gun purchases and other restrictions reviled by many gun-rights advocates.

The other New Yorker in this race, Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, also supported proposals for state-issued photo gun licenses, as well as a national registry for handgun sales, in positions laid out for crime-weary New Yorkers in 2000.

In this campaign, candidates in both parties who've ever taken a shot at a prey are playing up their hunting credentials. Others are highlighting their allegiance to the constitutional right to bear arms or avoiding the question altogether.

Now such questions are unavoidably in their face.

"Not talking about an issue may be successful in the short term but it's never a successful long-term strategy," said James Kessler, policy and gun-control specialist at Third Way, a Democratic centrist group. "I don't think that a candidate will be punished for supporting gun safety measures this time around."

But, he said he thought that after Columbine, lawmakers could pass legislation requiring background checks on weapons bought at gun shows "and we didn't."

Mass shootings have often been the catalyst for legislative action on gun control, with mixed results.

And with Democrats controlling Congress partly on the strength of new members from rural parts of the country, few lawmakers were expecting the Virginia Tech assault to revive the most far-reaching gun-control proposals of the past, such as national licensing or registration.

In 1999, after the Columbine High School killings in Colorado left 15 dead,lawmakers unsuccessfully introduced dozens of bills to require mandatory child safety locks on new handguns, ban "Saturday night specials," increase the minimum age for gun purchases and require background checks on weapons bought at gun shows.

A month after the Columbine shootings, then-Vice President Gore cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate to advance a juvenile crime bill that included gun show restrictions. But the bill died in negotiations with the House.

McCain has a long record of voting for gun rights in the Senate but changed some of his views, sponsoring legislation to support the gun show restrictions he once opposed.

And Democratic candidate John Edwards, despite recently highlighting his boyhood outings hunting birds, rabbits and deer as well as his respect for gun ownership rights, backed his party's main gun control measures when he was in the Senate.

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, as a state lawmaker in the 1990s, supported a ban on semiautomatic weapons and tougher state restrictions on firearms.

Gun control seemed far from the minds of voters before the murders Monday. In an AP-Ipsos poll taken last week in which respondents were asked to name the most important problem facing the country, few if any spontaneously mentioned guns or gun control. That's likely to change in response to the Blacksburg rampage.

The Virginia Tech senior and Korean native identified as the gunman, Cho Seung-Hui, was a legal permanent resident of the U.S., meaning he could legally buy a handgun unless he had been convicted of a felony. The campus killings were carried out with 9 mm and .22-caliber handguns.

"I think when a guy walks in and shoots 32 people it's going to cause there to be a lot of policy debate," President Bush said. "Now is not the time to do the debate until we're actually certain about what happened and after we help people get over their grieving."
Associated Press writers Liz Sidoti and Ann Sanner contributed to this story.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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  • by Bgb Location: Richmond on Apr 20, 2007 at 05:56 AM
    Chris, I don't know what I would have done in this situation, and neither do YOU. It's easy to boast about the nerve you would have had to confront this guy, but you know, you weren't sitting in a room when someone burst in and started mowing people down with a gun. To insinuate that the people that were killed, injured or escaped were "wimpy" is ridiculous. But since you know exactly what YOU would have done in this situation, it's too bad you weren't there to take control of the gunman and save a lot of lives.
  • by rob Location: london on Apr 20, 2007 at 05:20 AM
    I feel we need stricter investigations into who can legally own a gun with not only criminal checks but checks for any kind of mental illness. We are repeatedly hearing about troubled individuals with weapons. I believe a mental background check would have helped in the present case. We should attempt to insure that all gun owners are responsible enough to own one but banning all fire arms isnt the answer.
  • by Chris Location: Right Here on Apr 20, 2007 at 05:09 AM
    Excuse me for hitting a nerve with you Bgb, I am sorry you feel like sitting on the sidelines. I don't think there is anything wrong in my posing the question of why someone did not do something instead of waiting for the Police. I don't think it is wrong at all to wonder if we have become a nation of wimps. Excuse me.
  • by Ronny Location: Pikeville on Apr 19, 2007 at 07:29 PM
    Hand guns and automatic weapons should be banned. They are not used for hunting.
  • by SB Location: Land of the Free on Apr 19, 2007 at 05:28 PM
    Come on people everybody has opinions.If you don't know how to use or safely handle a firearm then you should'nt have one.If you want one then take a class or learn from someone who does.How many constitutional rights are we gonna abolish?Criminals sure have rights why do the responsible citizens keep losing theirs?My firearms are just a hobby and to me they are a work of art and they are always under lock and key.We live in a world that is getting crueler by the day.If we pull from Iraq and they reach our soil will we be able to protect ourselves? Could you honestly set back and watch your neighbors die and do nothing but hide?Our police and military are overburdened now what could we do to help them?Throw stones?
  • by Larry Location: Lexington on Apr 19, 2007 at 11:28 AM
    Some of you who are so certain that more gun- control is the answer might want to check out They have compiled facts about guns and gun ownership into a handy- dandy PDF file that can be saved and printed out. They document their source material and include copious footnotes, which is more then Bgb and some of the others who posted below bothered to do.
  • by Bgb Location: richmond on Apr 19, 2007 at 11:21 AM
    Guns are here to stay because the NRA contributes vast amounts of money to the politicians...period. You know, it's really easy to be a big guy from the sidelines, kinda like the armchair quarterbacks who expend all the effort they've got reaching for a bud lite. Actually being there is a little different and perhaps the confrontation of a man with 2 guns was a little difficult at the time. I do wish someone as big and bad as Chris had been there so no one would have been hurt. Or perhaps if the cops could know beforehand where they're needed then they could do "what we have them for". This was a very unexpected event and I would never be so arrogant as to say who should have done what because you have NO idea what you would have done or had a chance to do. It has nothing to do with being wimpy and that statement just makes me sick for the people's families who might read this and feel like somehow they're dead sons, husbands, daughters, whomever, were failures for not stopping this. We are a nation of HUMANS and until you are in another human's shoes, it's probably a good idea to stfu.
  • by Chris Location: Right here on Apr 19, 2007 at 10:02 AM
    Face it people guns are here to stay......period. They will never be taken away or outlawed because gun owners will not agree to it under ANY terms. What I want to know is this.......have we become a nation of wimps? Why in the world did no one confront this guy? He was one man, did no one have enough nerve to take him on and hope someone would join in to subdue or kill this guy? Oh....that's right, we don't need to do that, that is what we have the Police for.
  • by Herb Location: Newport on Apr 19, 2007 at 09:34 AM
    How many laws did this man break on that day. If the law of murder 32 times is not enough. then maybe we need more gun laws.Maybe 32 different gun laws would keep us safe.Then there would be no need for the politians security. After all the passing of more gun laws,would protect everyday citizens.
  • by ray Location: kentuck on Apr 19, 2007 at 08:51 AM
    when Cain kill Abel what weapon did he use the devil tell people when to kill if the dumb people want to stop the killing then why don't they teach the wimps that kill other people about GOD LOVE
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