RICHMOND (AP) — People on both sides of the gun control debate clashed yesterday as families and friends of Virginia Tech shooting victims and survivors of the tragedy flooded the Capitol in support of legislation designed to prevent criminals and the mentally ill from buying firearms at gun shows.
Tensions escalated as about 100 supporters of a bill that would close the so-called gun-show loophole lay on the Capitol lawn to honor victims of gun violence. About 200 opponents surrounded the group holding signs that read, “Here Lie Disarmed Victims,” both sides jostled for turf and one gun rights advocate posed questions to a survivor of the April 16 Virginia Tech shootings.
“Today, united with the families of our fellow Virginians whose loved ones have been lost forever, we fight back for change!” protest organizer Abigail Spangler told supporters, many wearing ribbons in Tech’s colors of maroon and orange.
At issue is legislation that would require unlicensed sellers at gun shows to run criminal background checks on buyers. Such checks now are required only of federally licensed gun dealers.
Seung-hui Cho, who killed 32 students and teachers at Tech before committing suicide, passed a background check and bought one gun from a store and a second online, despite having been deemed mentally troubled by a Virginia court. Gov. Tim Kaine afterward signed an executive order requiring that anyone ordered by a court to get mental health treatment be added to a state police database of people barred from buying guns.
Colin Goddard, who survived despite being shot four times by Cho, was taken aback when a member of the Firearms Coalition approached him and said students could have stopped the rampage if they were allowed to carry handguns on campus.
“I would have stopped him,” Jeff Knox, director of operations for the Manassas-based group told Mr. Goddard. “Because when I went to school, I carried a gun. It was legal, I did it.”
Mr. Goddard responded quickly.
“I feel sorry for you — the fact that you feel you need to protect yourself in every situation,” the Virginia Tech senior said. “You’re afraid of crazy situations happening. I’ve lived through this, and I know that I can’t continue in my life afraid of things. Things are going to happen out of my control.
“There are people within our society who we deem capable and correct, our police forces who are supposed to protect us — and I put my full trust in them.”
Mr. Goddard and fellow survivor Lily Habtu, both strong supporters of closing the loophole, watched the lie-in but did not join those on the ground.
“I was one of the people who were lying down when [the shootings] happened,” Mr. Goddard said. “So I’ve done my lying down.”
Earlier in the day, families and friends of the Tech shooting victims packed the Senate Courts of Justice Committee’s public hearing on the gun-show loophole legislation. Bill supporters were outnumbered 3 to 1 byopponents with buttons reading “Guns Save Lives.”
Sen. Henry L. Marsh III, Richmond Democrat and committee chairman who sponsored the bill, said the panel will vote on the measure tomorrow. He said he wants to give the public a couple more days to be heard on the issue. Similar legislation was killed quickly and with little explanation Friday by a House committee with a long history of resisting gun control.
Several law-enforcement officers spoke in favor of the bill, but senators seemed most captivated by the testimony of Tech families.
“The heartache for these families will never, ever end,” said Lori Haas, whose daughter Emily survived two bullets fired into her head.
Opponents of the bill noted that Cho did not buy his weapon at a gun show, but supporters said that doesn’t matter. The idea, they said, is to be assertive and reduce the possibility of similar tragedies in the future.
“You can no longer say you have not been forewarned,” said Joseph Samaha of Annandale, whose daughter Reema was among those killed. “By voting ‘no’ you are doomed to relive history.”
Gun rights advocates said the bill would be burdensome for law-abiding citizens and gun-show promoters. Philip Van Cleave of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, responding to assertions that a criminal background check takes no more than five minutes, said he recently bought from a federally licensed dealer at a gun show and had to wait until the next day to get his gun.
That brought a sarcastic “Awwww” from the audience and a sharp response from Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax Democrat.
“How onerous do you think this deal has been for that family sitting there,” Mr. Saslaw said, referring to one of the Tech families sitting behind Mr. Van Cleave.
Among those from law enforcement supporting the bill was W. Gerald Massengill, the former state police superintendent who headed the panel appointed by Mr. Kaine to investigate the shootings. The panel unanimously recommended closing the loophole.
“There’s another Cho out there,” Mr. Massengill said. “Where is that Cho … going to get his weapon? I don’t know. But I know where he can go get it easily, with no questions asked.”
Miss Habtu, 22, who was critically injured by bullets to her head and arm in the Tech shootings, said the issue is not about taking guns away from law-abiding citizens, it is about keeping weapons away from people like Cho.
“I’m still suffering now, and I still have a long way to go. I haven’t even begun my healing process,” she said after the lie-in. “So knowing all this, I do not want another person, another family, to go through this.”
• AP writer Larry O’Dell contributed to this report.