Legal Lessons From Virginia Tech: A Time For Common Sense

Tuesday, May 1, 2007 - 01:00

Karen J. Mathis

President, American Bar Association

The pang of Virginia Tech cuts deep now. Yet we know, from other incidents of blinding horror, that the pain we feel today will dull. The living, except for families and survivors, will gradually adapt and move on.

It's important, therefore, that we as a nation pause now - and fix in our minds the questions of what we can learn, and what we must change, to prevent the next senseless bloodbath in a school or workplace.

It's time to consider Virginia Tech's tragedy through the prism and value that have characterized our nation from its earliest days: common sense.

As president of the American Bar Association, my perspective is rooted in the law. Do our laws concerning guns, mental health and privacy work effectively? Or do they create a protected zone that helps the discontented and damaged to become killing machines?

There are no perfect answers in an open society where guns are plentiful. But, we owe it the victims to ask these common-sense questions:

Why does a society of ordinary consumers need rapid-fire weapons that were designed for war?

Why can we not have more effective background checks for those buying guns? Is there really anyone in our country who wants the mentally ill to bear arms?

Do privacy and disability laws unduly paralyze law enforcement officials and educators, until talk of violence becomes a tragic, irreversible reality?

Ironically, Virginia is one of just 17 states that includes mental health history in its background checks. But was even that law sufficient?

The ominous fact that a court ordered the Virginia Tech killer to undergo psychiatric evaluation for possible suicidal tendencies did not register on his background check. In Virginia, only actual confinement in a mental hospital is recorded.

One valuable start would be for Congress to pass the National Instant Check System Improvement Act. This bipartisan legislation, supported by the NRA and the Brady Campaign, would strengthen the background check system, including how mental illness is reported.

Almost every element of the Bill of Rights - including freedom of speech, the right to bail, and rules governing police searches - has undergone some reshaping or compromise as our nation has evolved.

The Second Amendment is no exception. In cases involving sawed-off shotguns and machine guns, to name two, courts have found since 1939 that gun ownership may be limited for purposes of public safety.

For 10 years, federal law prohibited high-capacity ammo clips that load more than 10 bullets. This restriction imposes no hardship on the law-abiding but slows down determined killers, and makes it less likely that they can take multiple lives. It is a common-sense measure that Congress should reinstate.

Given our nation's embattled history over gun regulation, and of the rights of the mentally ill, there are no easy solutions.

But in our hearts, wherever we stand on gun control, no one wants a disturbed, suicidal young person prowling a college or high school campus with enough casually purchased firepower to end dozens of lives.

When we talk of rights, surely the rights of young people to be safe from random violence must count for more, whether they live on a college campus or in an inner city. We cannot accept carnage as a regrettable norm.

The ABA has looked at firearms policy many times over the years. In the wake of Virginia Tech's tragedy, we will examine our laws again. And we will work with other Americans to find common-sense ways to stop the unforgivable killing of our children.

Karen J. Mathis, a Denver business and estate lawyer, is president of the American Bar Association.