On Columbine school shooting anniversary, focus on gun 'loophole'

Three of the guns used in the Columbine school shooting 11 years ago came from a gun show where checking the buyer’s background wasn’t required. Activists want the law changed.

Ed Andrieski/AP
Michelle, who declined to give her last name, of Denver reads the inscriptions on plaques at the Columbine Memorial in Littleton, Colo., on Monday. April 20 is the 11th anniversary of the Columbine school shooting, in which two teen gunmen killed a teacher and 12 students before killing themselves.

When Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold embarked on their shooting spree at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in 1999, three of the four guns they used were purchased at a gun show by a friend who wasn’t subjected to a background check.

Now, on the 11th anniversary of the Columbine school shooting where Harris and Klebold killed 12 classmates and a teacher and injured 23 others before shooting themselves, gun-control activists are focusing on the so-called “gun show loophole” that allows people to purchase guns from private sellers without the normal paperwork and background checks.

“This is such a simple fix for an important transfer point for crime guns,” says Josh Horowitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

Gun-rights advocates counter that the law is would do little to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and would add yet more red tape for many law-abiding citizens trying to purchase guns.

On Monday, Mr. Horowitz’s organization paid for a full-page ad in the Denver Post in which Daniel Mauser, the father of a slain Columbine student, urged Colorado Sen. Mark Udall (D) to support a federal bill that would expand criminal background checks at gun shows. (A Colorado bill requiring background checks for all sellers at gun shows in the state was passed in 2000.)

Mayors Against Illegal Guns – a national coalition started by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino – used the Columbine anniversary Tuesday to announce a new TV ad campaign targeting the loophole, appealing in particular to key senators in five states.

“Eleven years after Columbine – it’s time,” says the ad, which the group is airing in Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Virginia as well as some national stations.

What about the Second Amendment?

“This has nothing to do with the Second Amendment; this has everything to do with public safety,” says Jake Sullivan, a member of Mayor Menino’s staff who works on coalition issues. “These anniversaries are important reminders of the need to close these loopholes and to do our best to keep our communities safe.”

He points to statistics from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives showing that 30 percent of guns involved in federal illegal gun-trafficking investigations are tied to gun shows. And he notes that the man who shot and wounded two police officers near the Pentagon last month also obtained one of his weapons from a gun show, despite the fact that he was barred from owning a gun because of mental problems.

Family members of slain Virginia Tech victims also published an open letter to Virginia senators on Monday, calling on them to pass the gun-show legislation.

While Seung-Hui Cho, the shooter who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech three years ago, did not obtain his gun from a gun show, victims’ family members have noted that new laws incorporating mental-health records into background checks would be less effective if mentally unstable people could simply bypass the check at a gun show.

Gun-rights lobby fights restrictions

The gun-rights lobby vehemently opposes the law.

“It seems [the mayors’ group] is continuing the crass strategy of other gun-control groups of trying to exploit tragedies for political purposes,” says Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for National Rifle Association.

Mr. Arulanandam says that the checks are particularly onerous since they can last 72 hours and most gun shows take place over two days.

“The intent here is to drive gun shows out of business,” he says.

Gun-control activists refute this characterization, saying that 92 percent of all background checks are resolved immediately – and are already conducted without problems by all licensed dealers selling at gun shows.

Arulanandam, however, sees the law a matter of misplaced priorities. “The whole idea of this is to try to make it as difficult as possible for law-abiding people to go to gun shows,” he says. “Essentially they’re leaving the criminal element alone.”

Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, goes even further, saying that all background checks should be abolished. “It’s only an imposition on the good guys,” he says.

While people on both sides of the gun debate focused on gun shows Tuesday, those closer to the Columbine massacre largely remembered the tragedy more quietly. Columbine High School was closed, and many in the area were visiting the memorial dedicated in 2007.

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