While proper enforcement of existing laws would have kept weapons out of the hands of the student who killed 32 others at Virginia Tech last month, three legislative priorities of gun control advocates would surely have prevented that tragedy, the head of the nation’s most visible gun control organization told the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Tuesday.
Former Republican Mayor of Ft. Wayne, Indiana, Paul Helmke, the new president of the Brady Campaign and Center to Prevent Gun Violence noted that the killer at Virginia Tech had been “adjudicated mentally ill and dangerous” by a court, and that based on a law passed in 1968, should have been prohibited from purchasing a gun. But, he said, “Virginia, like most states, didn’t send the court orders about his mental health to the police.”
Moreover, Helmke said, the killer, 23-year-old student Cho Seung-Hui, apparently utilized “high capacity magazines” that were prohibited under the Assault Weapons Ban that Congress and President Bush allowed to lapse two years ago.
Helmke said that his organization is now redoubling its push for three reforms: 1. Comprehensive and effective application of the Brady background check system, 2. reduced access to weaponry that is not for sport or self-defense, and 3. added tools and resources for police and the federal law enforcement to fight gun crimes, including illegal gun trafficking and corrupt gun dealers.
He hailed steps taken by Virginia Governor Tim Kaine this week, in the wake of the Virginia Tech killings, to stiffen background check databases used to permit acquisition of firearms.
Helmke, whose organization is named for former Presidential Press Secretary James Brady, seriously wounded in the 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan, said that he is heartened by comments in the wake of the Virginia Tech killings by the National Rifle Association’s Wayne La Pierre. “We just don’t think it’s really gun control to try to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally defective,” La Pierre was quoted saying.
“I’m encouraged to see Mr. La Pierre agree that we should do more to prevent the wrong people from getting guns,” Helmke said, adding, “I am reaching out to Mr. La Pierre and the NRA. Let’s set aside past attacks and sit down to see if we can find common ground on some steps to make our communities safer.”
Helmke was invited by the National Press Club’s Speakers Committee to make a formal luncheon address, carried live on C-SPAN TV and radio Tuesday. As a Virginia newspaper reporting on the Virginia Tech tragedy, the Falls Church News-Press was included at the head table. Press Club officials announced they also plan to invite a spokesman for the NRA to a future luncheon.
During an extensive question-and-answer period, Helmke was asked to respond to the claims by some gun advocates that, if guns were allowed on campuses and students carried them, the Virginia Tech incident could not have occurred.
“I have been the mayor of a large U.S. city for 12 years,” Helmke replied. “I know how much training our professional police officers have to get before they’re allowed to handle a gun. They need to know how to shoot them, and more importantly, how to judge when and how they should be used. It takes a lot of training. Even at that, they make mistakes.”
Helmke opened his remarks with stunning statistics about death from gunfire in the U.S. on a daily and weekly basis. “Thirty-two people were murdered at Virginia Tech. That number, in and of itself, was not extraordinary,” he began. “Every day in our country, on average, about 32 people are murdered with guns. When you add suicides and unintentional shootings, the death toll from guns in America each day is about 80 people. And for every death, there are another two or three seriously injured.”
He added, “Since the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, while about 3,700 of our soldiers have died overseas, over 162,000 of our citizens have died from gunfire here at home.”
He cited a different approach in other industrialized nations. “The rest of the industrialized world, after all, has figured out how to respond. After dangerous people used guns to kill people, these countries decided that they should keep dangerous people from getting guns. And guess what? Gun restrictions work.”
He noted that “more people are murdered with guns every day in America than in a year in England. We suffer as many deaths every 16 hours as the Virginia Tech killer’s native country, South Korea, suffers in a year.”
He also presented stunning documentation on the ease with which anyone can get their hands on countless guns, including assault rifles.
He urged a mobilization to get lawmakers to act. “No one lost a single race on the gun issue last November,” he remarked, and in 2000, Bush “ran for the center” on the gun issue and got elected.
While there have been plenty of alarms about the need for better gun control, with repeated instances of lethal school and workplace gun violence, the reaction to date, he quipped, has been “to hit the snooze button.” That has to change, he said, or the Virginia Tech tragedy “will be compounded if we don’t do something about it.”