- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 19, 2008

In my right ear is a friend, a minister, railing against the easy availability of guns in our society. She is also agitated that the District’s handgun ban may be overturned when the Supreme Court rules on the measure next month.

In my left ear is a friend, a 40-ish D.C. resident, railing against the fact that I have yet to purchase a gun and learn how to use it for my protection. He is only half placated that I recently had a home security system installed after his insistence.

“You still need to get a gun; you live in Virginia,” says this emphatic straight-shooter, referring to the open gun-carry laws in the Old Dominion.

As the daily body count rises from random acts of violence, the equally passionate arguments on both sides of the gun-control debate do little to stem the bloodletting.

In just two weeks, the Brady Campaign reported six incidents of multiple slayings, some the handiwork of deranged “suicide shooters.” Further, the control advocacy group’s figures indicate that 32 persons are killed with guns in the U.S. every 24 hours.

“That’s a daily Virginia Tech,” said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign.

The latest massacre to grab the headlines involves a 27-year-old University of Illinois graduate student, Stephen P. Kazmierczak, who walked into a 200-seat lecture hall at Northern Illinois University on Thursday afternoon, carrying a 12-gauge shotgun and three pistols, sprayed 50 rounds of buckshot and bullets, killing five students and wounding 16 others before turning a gun on himself. All this carnage without uttering a single word. He left no suicide note, though his girlfriend later reported receiving a farewell package.

Two other college campuses were hit within a month by mad gunmen. A nursing student committed suicide after she killed two women in a classroom at a technical college in Baton Rouge, La., last week. Also, the Seton Hall University campus in New Jersey was locked down when a man shot himself while searching for a student.

To arm or disarm? How to stop another cold, calculated killer, mentally deranged or otherwise?

Neither state nor federal legislators are able to pass the most minimalist of gun-control legislation — requiring background checks at gun shows — through the political firewall that gun-rights advocates doggedly defend. They argue for safety in numbers, as in a proliferation of armed citizens, to combat the criminal or insane.

The Virginia General Assembly, despite support from Gov. Tim Kaine, defeated proposals to enact measures designed to close the background check loophole even over the pleas of survivors of the Virginia Tech massacre. The latter have since taken their cause to Congress.

The Tech survivors may get some help from an initiative sponsored by a dozen East Coast mayors who are implementing a combination federal and local database that allows them to track illegal gun dealers along the Interstate 95 corridor.

Though he dressed in black garb, the Northern Illinois gunman, by all accounts, bore no other outward similarities to Seung-hui Cho or Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, whose bizarre behaviors were largely ignored or dismissed, too, before they unleashed their deadly personal demons on innocent people at Virginia Tech and Columbine High School respectively.

Kazmierczak, like his predecessors, harbored mental challenges he could not manage either if his recent disturbing tattoos are any indication.

Similarly, we must ask as we did when Cho killed 32 Virginia Tech students and teachers: How does someone with a history of mental illness manage to easily pass background checks and legally purchase an arsenal of high-tech firearms? Aside from the shooters’ personalities, the events leading up to the Valentine’s Day massacre on the NIU campus in DeKalb are uncannily familiar to the Virginia Tech campus in April.

At least the NIU officials, capitalizing on Virginia Tech’s failure, responded quickly enough to thwart the loss of even more lives on their 25,000-student campus.

Still, both suicide shooters developed an inordinate interest in guns before their deadly rampages. Both made purchases from the same Internet gun dealer. Both had histories of being treated for mental illness. Both stopped taking their medications. Both developed erratic behavior. No one thought to worry enough to make a connection between the lethal combination of guns and medication and the deteriorating mental state of either eventual killer.

The most troubling similarity between Kazmierczak and Cho is the same spot where they legally purchased some of their wares — a Wisconsin Internet gun dealer.

I can’t imagine why Eric Thompson, president of a licensed firearms dealer in Green Bay, sold Cho a .22-caliber handgun and Kazmierczak two Glock 33-round magazines the same day the NIU shooter picked up a Remington shotgun and a Glock 9 mm pistol from a Champaign, Ill., gun dealer having passed a five-day waiting period. Federal records reportedly indicate that he purchased two other pistols he carried at NIU earlier in the same store.

“I felt just shocked, like I had been hit by a truck,” Mr. Thompson was quoted as saying. “There’s over 90,000 licensed dealers in the U.S., and what are the chances that my company is involved with two mass murders inside of a year? I’m dumbfounded.”

Really? With 90,000 licensed dealers and no one knows how many more unlicensed dealers, I’m not.

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