Monday, April 20, 2009

Ten Years After Columbine, It's Easier to Bear Arms

Monday April 20 marks 10 years since Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold permanently etched the words Columbine High School into this nation's collective memory. What happened that day in 1999 also seemed to wake America up to the reality that it had become a nation of gun owners - and too often a nation of shooters.

The carnage in Littleton, Colorado - 12 classmates and a teacher before the killers offed themselves - and the ease with which the teenagers acquired their weapons (two sawed-off shotguns, a 9-mm semiautomatic carbine and a TEC-9 handgun) seemed to usher in a new era of, well if not gun control, then at least gun awareness. (See pictures of crime in middle America.)

In the decade since, massacres perpetrated by deranged gunmen have continued - including the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre in which Cho Seung-Hui killed 32 people and wounded many others. But something odd has occurred. Whatever momentum the Columbine killings gave to gun control has long since petered out. (See pictures of America's gun culture.)

This spring, for example, Texas lawmakers are mulling a new law that would allow college students to carry firearms to campus (Utah already makes this legal). "I think people weren't concerned about it first," says University of Texas graduate student John Woods, who has emerged as a spokesman for campus efforts to defeat the bill. "They thought, 'It's a terrible idea. Why would the government consider something like this?'" But as the debate on campus has heated up, that complacency has vanished, Woods explains to TIME. Students opposed to the bill plan a big rally on Thursday at the Capitol, he says.

But efforts like Woods' are up against powerful headwinds - and not just because of the powerful gun lobby that often strangles gun-control laws. Americans in general have cooled significantly to the idea of restricting gun rights. A poll released last week by CNN showed that support for stricter gun laws was at an all-time low, with just 39% of respondents in favor. Eight years ago that number was 54%.

Woods concedes that getting help to the psychotic, would-be killers of the world would probably be an even better fix. But he has a personal reason to take the issues seriously. Two years ago, he was in his apartment in Blacksburg, Virginia, listening to sirens sounding across the campus outside his window. A half-dozen friends of his were in the classroom where Cho Seung-Hui opened fire, and the names of some of the dead belong to people he knew. "The idealist in me is shocked and angry," Woods says, that restrictions on guns have eased rather than tightened in the wake of tragedies like the one at Virginia Tech. "But the cynic in me is not surprised at all. I think if this was peanuts or pistachios causing all these deaths, then we'd be all over it. But there is no amendment about peanuts or pistachios in the Bill of Rights. People on both sides just simply won't compromise." (See pictures form the Virginia Tech massacre.)

Indeed, the debate seems to be almost one-sided nowadays, with an ongoing backlash against gun control. Another law up for debate in Texas, for example, would prohibit most companies from barring employees from keeping guns in their cars in company parking lots. In Montana, only last-minute dealmaking between the House and Senate stripped a new law of language that would have given residents the right to carry concealed weapons with or without a permit.

Since 2003, at least eight states have either passed new laws giving most residents the right to carry concealed handguns or changed existing laws to make it harder for state officials to deny those permits, according to a 2008 study in the Yale Law & Policy Review. In the past couple of years, another trend has taken root, too: the expansion of the so-called Castle Doctrine, a legal theory enshrined in common law. It is used to justify deadly force in the defense of one's home, although it's usually interpreted to include a duty to try to avoid confrontation if one can. But in the past three years, the National Rifle Association has encouraged states to write the doctrine into statute, without imposing the attendant obligation to flee for safety. Many have done so, including Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi and South Dakota. In 2007, Texas took things a step farther, and expanded its law to protect shooters who act in self-defense or act to stop certain crimes anywhere the shooter has a legal right to be - such as at work, in his car or the like.

Other legal responses have been more creative still. A year after Columbine, Kentucky lawmakers agreed to repeal a law that two years before had given every preacher, priest or minister a special legal right to carry arms to the pulpit, with a handgun in the holster underneath the frock. Still, lawmakers refused to ban pistols completely from the pews. Instead, they left it up to churches to decide for themselves whether anybody, preacher or layman, can go to church carrying a piece.

The biggest change of all came last year at the Supreme Court, when the justices struck down what had been the strictest gun-control ordinance in the country - the ban on handguns in murder-plagued Washington, D.C. Taking only its second gun-rights case in 70 years, the court established for the first time that the Second Amendment, like the First, enshrines fundamental rights that belong to each citizen, not just the community as a whole. The implications for state and local gun-control laws haven't yet been fully understood - and probably won't for years to come as lower-court cases work out how to interpret the ruling.