Virginia Tech anniversary creates difficult moment on gun control for lawmakers

A confluence of events related to gun violence — including the fifth anniversary of the Virginia Tech massacre — is creating an uncomfortable situation for congressional leaders when they return to Washington from their long spring vacation.

A large group of shooting victims has challenged a handful of leaders in both parties to meet on Capitol Hill next week to discuss ways to keep firearms out of dangerous hands — an uneasy topic for many members who will be forced to balance their sensitivity for the victims with their support for gun rights and the powerful gun lobby.

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The victims are citing a long list of current events — the Virginia Tech anniversary, the February shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin and last week's fatal rampage at a religious college in Oakland, to name a few — to pressure lawmakers to confront a question that's been all but ignored by this Congress: Does current law do enough to keep firearms from those who might illegally use them against others?

Colin Goddard, a survivor of the Virginia Tech shooting, visited Capitol Hill last week to hand-deliver invitations to the offices of eight lawmakers on that very question.

"As individuals who have lost loved ones to gun violence, or have survived a shooting, we hope you will agree that we add an important perspective," wrote Goddard, now a spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

But if the silence emanating from Congress this week is any indication, many lawmakers targeted by the gun reformers would prefer not to broadcast any imminent meetings on the issue.

The offices of both Senate leaders — Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — for instance, could not say if the two gun-rights supporters will meet with the shooting victims. Pressed on the issue, both offices clammed up.

They weren't alone. The offices of GOP Sens. John Thune (S.D.) and David Vitter (La.), sponsors of new legislation loosening state gun laws, did not respond to repeated requests for comment this week, even as the Brady Campaign said Vitter has agreed to meet with the victims next Monday.

Even the office of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a longtime supporter of stronger gun laws, declined to comment for this story.

Several gun-rights supporters aren't being so silent. Both House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Sen. Mark Begich (D-Ala.) have scheduled meetings next week with the gun reformers. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) will not meet directly with the victims, but will send a member of his staff, spokesman Michael Steel said Tuesday.

Gun reform is a timely topic for Boehner, who was moved to weigh in on the issue in February following the shooting death of three students at Chardon High School, not far from Cleveland. At the time, the Speaker rejected the call for new gun laws, suggesting tougher rules would not keep criminals from obtaining firearms. Instead, Boehner called on gun owners not to shoot other people.

"Let's be honest, there are about 250 million guns in America," he said. "So they are out there, but people should use them responsibly."

Meanwhile, Virginia Tech is planning a long list of events, beginning Saturday, to commemorate the campus's April 16, 2007, shooting rampage, in which Seung-Hui Cho, a 23-year-old student with a history of mental illness, killed 32 people before turning a gun on himself. The university has scheduled everything from barbecues to baseball games, from candlelight vigils to a 3.2-mile "run of remembrance." But Mark Owczarski, spokesman for the school, said this week that no lawmakers at any level have yet shown an interest in participating.

"I'm talking about the mayor right up to the president," Owczarski said Tuesday.

Less than two months after the Virginia Tech massacre, the House unanimously passed legislation providing financial incentives for states to report mental illnesses and other red-flag cases to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), an FBI database that screens potential gun buyers to weed out those ineligible to purchase firearms. The Senate followed suit six months later, and President George W. Bush signed the bill into law in January of 2008.

Supporters of the law, which was backed by both the Brady Campaign and the National Rifle Association (NRA), contend it's working in some states, but the voluntary nature of the program leaves enormous holes in the screening system.

Jared Loughner, for instance, the man charged in last year's assassination attempt on then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), had been expelled from community college for disturbing behavior and denied entrance to the military for a history of drug abuse. Yet he was able to buy a firearm from a local, licensed gun dealer.

Many gun reformers argue that the 2008 law designed to strengthen NICS reporting is grossly underfunded. While the law has authorized a total of $1.125 billion to improve record sharing over the last four years, they note, Congress has appropriated only $51 million toward that end.

Even the NRA, which declined to comment for this story, has said it wants Congress to provide more money to NICS.

Mayors Against Illegal Guns (MAIG), a gun-reform group headed by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, issued a report last November finding that 17 states have reported fewer than 10 mental health records and four states — Alaska, Delaware, Idaho and Rhode Island — have submitted none.

Bloomberg spokesman Marc LaVorgna this week characterized the funding discrepancy as "classic Washington."

"In the rare instance they pass a smart gun law to keep weapons away from dangerous people, they don't provide the funding to make it work," LaVorgna said in an email. "The data is clear: when states don't have local or federal resources available, records aren't entered and the system is Swiss cheese."