In April of 2007, a mentally disturbed student showed up at the campus of his school, Virginia Tech, brandishing two semi-automatic pistols, and murdered 32 students, teachers and school employees and wounded 17 others. Then he took his own life.
It was the one of deadliest mass shooting incidents in American history.
The nation was in shock, as it is now following the December mass murder at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
The press and public outcry was the same then as now. How can we stop horrors like this from occurring? We’ve got to stop criminals and nut cases from getting their hands on guns.The tragedy spurred passage of the first major piece of federal gun control legislation since the assault weapon ban was passed in 1994.
The new law, signed by President George W. Bush in January of 2008, appropriated $1.3 billion for states to get the names of those deemed mentally ill into the FBI national data base used for gun-purchase screening. This supposedly would solve the problem of lax state compliance and make the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) more effective.
If only this had been the law of the land a year earlier, commentators opined, the Virginia Tech tragedy might not have happened.
Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-NY, a co-sponsor of the legislation, said it would “close the wide gaps in our nation’s firearm background-check system to ensure violent criminals and the mentally ill no longer slip through the cracks and gain access to dangerous weapons.”
But a more sober message came at the time from the now late professor, American Enterprise Institute scholar and presidential Medal of Freedom recipient James Q. Wilson.
He wrote then: “The tragedy at Virginia Tech may tell us something about how a young man could be driven to commit terrible actions, but it does not teach us very much about gun control.”
Even if there were tougher background checks, Wilson continued, “access to guns would be relatively easy … many would be stolen and others would be obtained through straw purchases by a willing confederate. It is virtually impossible to use new background-check or waiting-period laws to prevent dangerous people from getting guns. Those they cannot buy, they will steal or borrow.”
Now, five years after Bush signed the NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007 into law, we have “déjà vu all over again.”