Fresh Va. Tech tragedy renews political gun debate

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BLACKSBURG, Va. — Thursday’s point-blank slaying of a Virginia Tech campus policeman is sure to renew the gun control battle in all its fury before the General Assembly next month.

The debate had quieted somewhat in the nearly five years since a student on a murderous rampage shot and killed 32 people at Virginia Tech.

But with Republicans expecting House and Senate majorities and a pro-gun Republican governor, conservatives are taking aim at Virginia’s 20-year-old one-handgun-a-month law. Only three other states still have such a law.

“Our agenda is fairly active this year,” Philip Van Cleave said Saturday as students placed flowers at an impromptu memorial to slain officer Deriek Crouse in a parking lot beside Tech’s famed football stadium.

Mr. Van Cleave’s organization, the Virginia Citizens Defense League, and its gun-toting disciples who converge on Capitol Square each winter will lobby to prevent state agencies — including colleges — from banning guns on campus.

Also, prospects of closing Virginia’s so-called gun show loophole appear to have slipped from slim to nil.

The day before Crouse was killed, the Defense League rallied on the campus of Radford University, about 12 miles from Virginia Tech. That was the day Officer Crouse’s killer, Ross Truett Ashley, a quiet 22-year-old part-time student at Radford, staged an armed robbery across the street from Radford’s campus and stole the 2011 Mercedes-Benz that he abandoned on a road near Tech’s campus.

For Mr. Van Cleave, the issue is simple. Free, law-abiding people have a fundamental right guaranteed in the Constitution to carry firearms to defend themselves and their homes.

“Our belief is that you have to protect yourself from crime. It again just reminds everybody that there’s some awfully vicious people out there,” Mr. Van Cleave said.

Among the most forceful voices against Mr. Van Cleave and his group are those who lost loved ones at Tech in 2007. And they face their hardest session ever before a Legislature more beholden to the gun lobby than any in modern times.

Even when Democrats ruled the General Assembly, Virginia’s pro-gun laws were among the most permissive in the country. Reverence for the Second Amendment only increased with the burgeoning Republican dominance. And rural Democrats — a vanishing breed in Virginia’s Legislature — are still overwhelmingly pro-gun, a requisite for getting elected outside urban and suburban areas.

Besides the monthly single-pistol limitation and the guns-on-campus initiative, gun-rights forces hope to advance bills that would make it even easier to obtain permits to carry concealed weapons, eliminate state background checks, broaden the legal principle that allows people in their homes to shoot intruders and keep guns of unlimited firepower free of government oversight as long as they are wholly built in Virginia and never taken beyond its borders.

“All of these measures threaten law enforcement. They put law enforcement in danger,” said Lori Haas, whose relentless efforts to restrict gun access began after her daughter Emily was shot in the head during Seung-hui Cho’s one-man massacre at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007.

Little is yet known about what drove Ashley to shoot Officer Crouse as he wrote someone else a traffic ticket shortly after noon Thursday, then to use the same gun to kill himself minutes later.

Ms. Haas doubts last week’s events will change anything in the 2012 Legislature, no matter the circumstances behind Tech’s latest gun violence. House Speaker William J. Howell, Stafford Republican, agreed.

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