The Virginia Tech Shooting Should Have Resulted In Stronger Gun Laws. It Didn't.

Nine years ago, a student at Virginia Polytechnic Institute went on a shooting rampage, killing 32 students and wounding 17 more. After the shooting, there was hope among gun control advocates that the tragedy would compel Americans to enact significant stronger gun laws. Even one woman was spurred to become an activist, saying, "Then when I found out the Virginia Tech shooter got his gun in a matter of minutes, I was outraged. I decided that someone had to speak out and say this is unacceptable." But the Virginia Tech shooting didn’t lead to stronger gun laws.

Gun control advocates tempered their expectations after Virginia Tech more than they have in the aftermath of subsequent shootings, like those in Sandy Hook and Aurora, Colorado. For one, George W. Bush was still the president, and he was unabashedly pro-gun. There was also a presidential campaign going on at the time, and because gun control is an extraordinarily divisive issue, none of the leading candidates were particularly inclined to talk about it.

Still, there were calls for stronger gun laws after the shooting, and it was soon reported that the shooter had a well-documented history of mental illness. Because of this, federal law should have prevented him from buying the weapons he used to carry out the assault. This put a spotlight on loopholes that reportedly allow the mentally ill to purchase guns, and that created enough momentum to move lawmakers to action.

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Two months after the shooting, the House of Representatives passed a bill that USA Today called “the most important gun control act since Congress banned some assault weapons in 1994.” The bill was intended to strengthen the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, increase record-sharing between states and the federal government, and generally close loopholes that allowed "mentally unstable" individuals to buy firearms.

But the bill changed quite a bit in between its conception and January 2008, when it was signed into law. In order to get it passed, the bill’s advocates agreed to significant revisions and concessions from pro-gun lawmakers, and even solicited the input of the National Rifle Association. Needless to say, this significantly watered down the legislation.

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The final bill did authorize funding to help states share mental health records with the federal government. However, it also carved out broad exceptions to the prohibition on mentally ill people buying guns, in effect shrinking the definition of who counted as “mentally ill.” The result was a piece of law that divided gun control advocates. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence tepidly praised it, explaining that “an imperfect bill is better than no bill,” but the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence concluded that “overall, the bill creates new loopholes that may allow dangerous individuals to gain access to firearms.”

The saga of the 2007 gun bill is a prime example of something that’s become increasingly more obvious over the last nine years: It’s really, really, really difficult to push significant gun laws through Congress. We saw a similar situation play out after the Sandy Hook shooting, when a modest, bipartisan Senate bill to strengthen gun control fell victim to a filibuster. It would be encouraging if horrific shooting tragedies were enough to put this legislation into action, but as Virginia Tech and subsequent massacres have shown, that simply isn’t the case.