The Gun Lobby's Counterattack

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Chip Somodevilla / Getty

A Glock 19 handgun, like the one Jared Lee Loughner allegedly used in a Jan. 8, 2011, shooting spree in Tucson, Ariz.

Only two days after a 23-year-old student at Virginia Tech carried out the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, the perennial heated debate over gun control has already begun. While gun control advocates have been quick to decry the dangers of lax regulations in Virginia and the rest of the nation, their Second Amendment opponents are already going on a counteroffensive; rather than simply defend their constitutionally protected right to bear arms, many are already treating the campus massacre as a call to arms.

If history is any guide, no one should be surprised at the counteroffensive, which is sure to focus on broadening concealed weapons laws that allow Americans to carry guns beyond their homes or cars. That is precisely what happened in Texas 15 years ago after an unemployed merchant seaman crashed his truck into a Killeen cafeteria, took out his gun and killed 23 in what until Monday was the deadliest mass shooting in American history.

Carrying the banner in 1991 for gun owners' rights was Suzanna Gratia Hupp, a chiropractor, mother and horse rancher who was eating lunch with her parents when the gunman crashed his truck through the cafeteria's windows. The family barricaded themselves behind a table, but as the slaughter went on, Hupp's father said he had to do something and he charged toward the man. Her father was shot in the chest, and as he lay dying, his wife of 47 years crawled towards him to cradle his head. The gunman then shot and killed her. [an error occurred while processing this directive]

During the mayhem, Hupp had reached into her purse for her .38 Smith & Wesson, but realized she had left it in her car, afraid that carrying a concealed weapon in public — then against the law in Texas — might endanger her chiropractic license. Having watched helplessly as her parents were killed, Hupp lobbied relentlessly for a 1996 concealed weapons law, now one of 48 such state statutes on the books across the U.S.

Hupp went on to serve as a state representative for 10 years, but she now lays some of the blame for the Virginia killings at the feet of politicians. "I am saddened and sickened, my heart hurts for those people — I've been there," Hupp said. "But at the same time I am angry — even with the sadness — because this was largely preventable on the scale that it happened. The politicians haven't figured it out. They have created gun-free zones, and all of the dreadful things that have happened were in these gun-free zones."

Virginia, like Texas and other states with concealed weapons laws, prohibits gun owners with concealed weapons permits from taking their guns into certain public places — usually bars and restaurants where alcohol is sold, courthouses, schools and campuses; 38 states currently ban weapons on school campuses, and 16 on college campuses. By making some places off-limits, Hupp said, the government is preventing Americans from protecting themselves and their families and has "taken on the responsibility and liability that goes with it."

In fact, in January 2006 the Virginia General Assembly rejected a bill that would have allowed students with concealed weapons permits to carry their guns on campus. The bill was pushed by the Virginia Citizens Defense League after a Virginia Tech student with a concealed weapons permit was disciplined in 2005 for bringing a gun on campus. The bill, opposed by Virginia police chiefs and the university itself, never made it out of committee. "I'm sure the university community is appreciative of the General Assembly's actions because this will help parents, students, faculty and visitors feel safe on our campus," Virginia Tech spokesman Larry Hinckner told the Roanoke

Hinckner words are now echoing around the web, highlighted on gun rights websites and in e-mails, including one Texas State Senator Glenn Hegar received Tuesday morning. Hegar, a Houston-area Republican, is the author of a bill that would allow Texans with concealed weapons permits to leave their guns in their cars at work — something many employers now forbid. The bill is moving through the state legislature and, despite the opposition of the influential Texas Association of Business, may pass thanks to support from another major player, the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA). "There are two types of people who carry guns — those who believe in following the law and those who don't," Hegar said. His bill would give workers with long commute times or late-night hours the protection they want, Hegar said.

Gun control advocates are concerned about the bill. " This is not about personal freedom — getting shot in the workplace by someone who has retrieved a gun from the parking lot is the opposite of freedom, " said Paul Helmke, President of the Brady Campaign. " This is about preserving the ability of companies to make workplaces as safe as they can be, and free from gun violence. "

The Hegar bill is just one arrow in the NRA's quiver in a national campaign that has focused on state legislatures in recent years. The powerful lobby group has found fertile ground in state capitols where rural and conservative legislators often come from both parties. University of Utah officials just lost their battle with the state's legislature over the geographic scope of its concealed carry law — they had sought to ban weapons on campuses, but the state supreme court said they had to comply with the state law, effectively blocking them from banning permitted guns. By contrast, in Kansas, Gov. Kathleen Sibelius just this week vetoed a law that sought to override local authorities who could put restrictions on carrying concealed weapons at local parks and other public venues.

The gun rights lobby, which has so far refused to comment on the Virginia Tech massacre or its fallout, has been particularly successful in pressing for so-called "castle doctrine" laws, which allow homeowners to shoot intruders, in many cases as long as they simply believe they are in danger of being attacked. Sixteen states have adopted the "castle doctrine," and eight more have it under consideration. The Texas Legislature overwhelmingly adopted the new law last month, which not only allows a homeowner to defend his or her home, but also their vehicle and their workplace.

NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre laid out the group's mission in a message to members last week as they got ready to gather for their annual convention. "When we gather in St. Louis, we're pushing back. We're pushing for Castle Doctrine laws across the country. We're pushing for legislation that ensures the gun confiscations in New Orleans will never be repeated in this country. We're pushing to protect our rights to protect ourselves, even against anti-gun employers who want to leave you defenseless to and from work," LaPierre wrote in the message. "When we gather in St. Louis, we're pushing to protect and promote our freedoms, and we won't stop pushing until we've won."

Both sides of the gun debate expressed their sorrow over the Virginia Tech killings, but when the political debate begins anew proponents of gun ownership feel they will have the momentum. "I think it's a little early," Hupp said, "but my guess is the public has had enough and will demand changes."