After the Arizona shooting: coming together for gun control

As President Obama and others try to unite the nation after the Arizona shooting, the country needs to come together for sensible restrictions on guns. A new film by a survivor of the Virginia Tech massacre may help.

As President Obama and other leaders try to pull the nation together in the aftermath of the Arizona shooting, Americans can also try to draw closer on a highly divisive issue related to the rampage: lack of gun controls in the United States.

Debate on this topic has long been polarized. And after every recent massacre by someone who should not have had a gun, little changes in the nation’s gun laws.

The gun lobby paints those who support reasonable gun restrictions as simply “antigun,” a posse come to take away constitutionally protected firearms. No significant national gun-control legislation has passed since 1994, when both the background check and assault-weapons ban went into effect.

Since then, the gun lobby has had the upper hand. The assault-weapons ban has been allowed to expire. Nationwide, guns are allowed in new places – on Amtrak trains and in national parks.

Meanwhile, the gun-control group is on the defensive. They’re fighting to preserve the status quo and to prevent new inroads by the gun lobby – for instance, bringing concealed weapons to college campuses (as proposed in Arizona), taverns, and workplaces.

If the nation wants to reduce gun violence (about 30,000 people are killed per year by guns), it has to find a way over the gun-debate chasm that separates the more regulatory-friendly coasts from the vast middle of America, and the cities from rural areas.

With many gun-rights activists convinced that any restriction is unacceptable, a way must be found to win over gun owners to reasonable restrictions. While a landmark Supreme Court ruling in 2008 established an individual’s right to bear arms, it did leave the door open for regulation.

One possible way around the gun standoff lies in a new documentary film about the life of Colin Goddard, who survived the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre that killed 32 people. Mr. Goddard was shot four times by a fellow student who was mentally ill. The 40-minute film, “Living for 32,” is shortlisted for an Oscar and will compete at the Sundance Film Festival later this month.

Goddard straddles two worlds. He has exercised his right to bear arms many times, passing basic rifle marksmanship in Army ROTC, hunting, and target shooting at the range. But now he works for a top gun-control advocacy group: the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

In a phone interview, the young Goddard pointed to the opportunity for a new generation to learn that steps can be taken to restrict access to guns that won’t in any way prohibit law-abiding citizens from owning firearms.

Those older activists fighting it out in today’s gun debate didn’t grow up with the Columbine school shooting, he said, and didn’t have “active shooter drills” at their schools. Conversely, “I don’t think our generation understands that there are things we can do” to head off tragedies such as Virginia Tech and the Arizona shooting.

Those steps include restoring the assault weapons ban, which would have prevented Arizona suspect Jared Lee Loughner from buying gun clips that could fire so many rounds at once. As a result, he may have hit fewer people (he hit 20) before he was tackled when he paused to change clips. Two legislators in Congress are calling for a law that would restore just one part of the weapons ban – a limit of 10 rounds on gun clips.

Another step is to close the so-called “gun show loophole” that allows people to purchase weapons at gun shows without undergoing a background check. Goddard is working this issue in Congress.

In ROTC training, Goddard learned about respecting his weapon and cleaning it, and muzzle awareness – not pointing it at people. But when it comes to buying guns, he’s amazed at how easy it is – like buying a TV or sofa. Mr. Loughner, for instance, passed a background check despite his history of mental problems and drug use.

Like buying a sofa. That’s plain language from a credible source – someone who knows what it’s like to tote a gun, and be at the wrong end of one. May America listen to this young man’s story.

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