Toal: Sensible gun laws only way to secure a safe future for US


Toal: Sensible gun laws only way to secure a safe future for US


This is a piece written by Gerard Toal, the NOVA-based Virginia Tech Professor. It was published in the Irish Times 28/04/07.

The Irish Times
Author: Gerard Toal
Title: Sensible gun laws only way to secure a safe future for US

The majority of students of Virginia Tech are doing something ordinary yet also remarkable this week: they are studying hard for their final exams. Working through the horrific murders of 27 of their fellow students and 5 of their faculty at the hands of a disturbed class mate, Cho Seung-Hui, the Virginia Tech community is refusing to be defined by a violent rampage that has shocked the United States and caused sorrow across the world. Virginia Tech is an institution of higher learning, a place where young people can realize their potential and, as the university slogan puts it, 'invent the future.' The return of students in large numbers after such a terrible crime is re-affirming this to the world.

The loss of so many young lives on April 16th has shaken us all. A flotilla of media decamped to our main university campus in Blacksburg and recorded our shock and our tears. It has also encountered, in conversations with our students and faculty, our capacity to rally and persevere. As a Virginia Tech faculty member for eighteen years, I was gratified by two aspects of our response. First, Virginia Tech faculty and students correctly challenged the widespread use of the multi-media images produced by Cho Seung-Hui himself which were integral to enacting his fantasy of heroic 're-masculinization' through brutal violence. The complicity of the media in producing murder as fascinating spectacle is widespread across the globe. Second, amidst our pain, there was also human empathy for Cho's family and for those beyond our campus who suffer from structural and direct violence every day. The death toll in Baghdad last week was horrific. The Iraq war continues to claim the lives of young American soldiers, some tragically former Virginia Tech students.

The daily death toll from gun violence across the United States is also horrific. In 2004, the New York Times reported this last weekend, an average of about 81 people per day died from gunfire across the United States. Some were suicides, others 'accidents' and the rest classified as homicides. In Washington D.C. in 2005, according to public statistics, there were 195 murders, the lowest number in recent years yet still a grim total for a city of only 550,521 people. Look for a rise in the future if the staunchly conservative US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has its way. Last month, it struck down the District's restrictive handgun law opening the door to a broad roll-back of gun control laws across the United States, especially in its major cities (the decision is on appeal, and may come before the US Supreme Court).

Marginalized by last Monday's horror at Virginia Tech was a large demonstration in Washington DC for congressional voting rights. Despite having a population almost as numerous as states like North Dakota (636,677), Alaska (663,661), South Dakota (775,933), and larger than Wyoming (509,294), this overwhelmingly African-American city has no Senators or Representatives with political voting power in the Congress seated within it. This matters significantly when it comes to gun control laws to promote public safety and freedom from random acts of madness. All of the states comparable to DC in population are power centers for those forces glamorizing guns and undermining existing gun control laws. National Rifle Association constructions of 'tradition' and 'rights' (words familiar to Irish ears) are blended with frontier mythology to sell guns, and lots of them, as necessary accessories of a supposedly 'free' lifestyle. Paranoid fantasies revolving around government conspiracies and invading outsiders are used to mobilize gun owners into political projects as single issue voters backing NRA-endorsed candidates. Gun laws are for sissies; real men pack heat. But there is no conspiracy, only the organized effort of the gun lobby, deeply entrenched in Congress, to thwart cities suing gun manufacturers for the devastation caused by their products, and to let the Clinton era assault weapons ban lapse. Under the Bush administration, a plethora of semi-automatic assault weapons are now available for sale to the general public.

Last Friday, in the wake of the Virginia Tech rampage, the Democratic controlled House of Representatives passed a bill creating a new Congressional seat for Washington DC and, to attract Republican support, for Republican-leaning Utah also (most Republicans still voted against the measure). The measure was previously stalled by Republican efforts to attach a provision formally overturning the District's 31 year old ban on hand guns. The bill moves forward into the Senate where the over representation of rural states and the under representation of the interests of America's cities is most pronounced. It also faces a potential White House veto.

Beyond this modest gesture, the Virginia Tech massacre has generated no serious political response. Politicians have run from the issue rather than face it, blaming university officials and campus security rather than their own complicity with making deadly semi-automatic weapons easily available. The Virginia Tech community reacted strongly against an initial media-driven desire to blame the university and its police force for the absence of a 'lockdown' of campus (as if an open campus should be like a prison). Petitions of support for the university president and police chief made it clear we were not accepting this easy 'blame-the-local-officials' strategy. Contrast this to how the Australian government reacted in 1996 to the massacre of 35 people in Port Arthur Tasmania by a deranged killer using a semi-automatic rifle. Within 12 days, the federal and state government agreed a ban on semi-automatic rifles and placed strict controls on other guns. The government also launched a large gun buy-back program. The result? Suicides and homicides have declined. In the decade before Port Arthur, there were 10 separate mass-shooting incidents; since, zero.

The United States faces many difficult challenges today. Can the US state extract itself with dignity from Iraq and rebuild its international standing to more effectively thwart terrorism? Can it meet the challenge of global climate change after ignoring it for so long? Can the federal government create legislative solutions that provide adequate health care for all its citizens, as its population ages? And, while its leading politicians may not want to acknowledge it, the Virginia Tech killings renew the question: can the federal government establish meaningful control on handguns and assault weapons? These are profound challenges for the future. My hope and feeling is that some of those students studying hard at Virginia Tech, in the wake of a horrible tragedy, will be involved in inventing a better future for the United States of America, one where security is grounded in sensible gun laws and Virginia Tech is the name of an excellent university not a citation in a continuing list of murderous rampages.


Archived with permission of the author.


Gerard Toal




Nicholas Kiersey




Gerard Toal, “Toal: Sensible gun laws only way to secure a safe future for US,” The April 16 Archive, accessed December 11, 2023,