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Rampage horror may not mean tighter controls

FT.com | April 17, 2007
Guy Dinmore

Politicians raced to voice their horror at Monday's Virginia campus massacre, said to be the deadliest single gun rampage in US history. But if history is anything to go by, expressions of outrage will lead to little in terms of tighter gun control.

President George W. Bush was “horrified”, his spokeswoman said. Gun control advocates pointed out, however, that a 1994 federal ban on assault weapons expired in 2004 but has not been renewed under Mr Bush's watch.

“There is no ban on assault weapons. It is depressing that we could not even take that action,” commented a spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, expressing the hope that Democrats who won control of Congress last year would reintroduce the ban. “But not much has been seen of that.”

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The National Rifle Association (NRA), guardian of the second amendment that protects the right of Americans to bear arms, has just completed its annual meeting in St Louis, Missouri. Its website on Monday ran a commentary describing the well-attended event as “both a celebration of freedom and… a show of force by gun owners to the enemies of freedom everywhere”.

Last month, the NRA celebrated a court ruling that overturned a ban on gun ownership in Washington DC. The NRA national headquarters in Virginia did not return calls yesterday.

The Columbine, Colorado, high school massacre of April 20, 1999, when 12 students and one teacher were gunned down by two students, also stunned the US in the midst of a presidential campaign.

Congress under then president Bill Clinton sought to pass several gun control measures in response, but the pro-gun lobby got to work and even took credit – as many other single-issue lobby groups did – for the 2000 defeat of Al Gore by Mr Bush.

Laws were eventually passed that made it a crime to buy guns for criminals and minors. ”How many more people have to get killed before we do something?” Mr Clinton once asked.

After Monday's bloodbath, gun control is sure to become an issue on the 2008 presidential campaign trail. In contrast with 2000, when the pro-gun lobby had a clear favourite in Mr Bush and his hunting-fishing partner, Dick Cheney, this time the NRA is not over-enthusiastic about the candidates lining up.

Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner in opinion polls, is most firmly in the sights of the NRA. In 2000 she voiced her support for a proposal that would establish a national registry for every new handgun sale.

“I realize the NRA is a formidable political group but I do believe the American people are ready to come together as a nation and do whatever it takes to keep guns away from people who shouldn't have them,” she said in 2000.

Barack Obama, the Illinois senator who is her closest contender for the Democratic nomination, also said in his autobiography that America's leaders must defy the gun manufacturer's lobby and keep guns out of inner cities.

Rudy Giuliani, former New York mayor and a leading candidate in the Republican race, says the government should not deny the right to bear arms but that all gun owners should have to pass a written exam first.

Mr Giuliani has been targeted by John Velleco, spokesman for Gun Owners of America, as a major force behind Mr Clinton's gun control efforts in the early 1990s, which has also been cited as backfiring in favour of the Republicans' in regaining Congress in 1994.

Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts and also a Republican presidential hopeful, recently got into hot water by reportedly assuring gun owners he is on their side in an apparent effort to courting the pro-gun lobby, following some years of backing tighter controls.

The agony is particularly acute in Littleton, Colorado.

“I can imagine what they're going through,” Frank DeAngelis, Columbine High principal for almost three decades, told Bloomberg news. “You're hoping there would be lessons learned from Columbine but that's obviously not the case.”

According to Department of Justice figures up to 2004, more than 10,000 homicides a year were committed with guns this decade, down from more than 17,000 in 1993.

Dana Perino, a White House spokeswoman, noted that Mr Bush co-hosted a conference on school gun violence last October after a gunman killed five girls in a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania.

“As far as policy, the president believes that there is a right for people to bear arms, but that all laws must be followed,” she offered. Asked if there was a need for further control laws, she added: “If there are changes to the president's policy we will let you know.”

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