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Sydney Morning Herald / Australia

Politicians Duck for Cover at Talk of Gun Control

Gerard White

LOS ANGELES - THE response of America's political leaders to the deaths at Virginia Tech was so muted it was no louder than a sob.But the largest mass shooting in US history did force reluctant Democratic leaders in Congress to confront an issue that divides their party and holds considerable political peril: gun control.

Advocates of stricter gun laws met Democratic leaders on Tuesday, determined to resurrect an issue that has been dormant since the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999. 0419 03

Senator Barbara Boxer elicited a pledge from the Senate judiciary committee chairman, Patrick Leahy, to hold a hearing on the shootings.

"We need to stand up and do something," said Carolyn McCarthy, a Democratic member of the House of Representatives, whose husband was killed by a gunman's rampage on the Long Island Railroad.

But Democrats on both sides of the issue were sceptical that the 33 deaths at Virginia Tech would change a political equation that has turned in the favour of gun rights advocates.

Among two firearms used by Cho Seung-hui was a legally bought Glock 19, loaded with a high-capacity magazine that could hold 15 bullets at a time. This magazine was illegal until 2004, when a federal law controlling the possession and sale of semi-automatic assault weapons lapsed.

The lapsed gun law was back in focus on Tuesday. If Democratic leaders cannot muster the votes to reinstate the full assault-weapons ban, some suggested that at least the clip-capacity portion could be passed.

But the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, boasts of a favourable rating from the National Rifle Association, which lobbies against gun control. House Democratic leaders are in no rush to jeopardise new Democratic members of Congress elected from Republican-leaning districts in Indiana, North Carolina and Kansas.

The National Rifle Association last year spent $US5.1 million ($6 million) supporting some political candidates and attacking others. The independent Political Moneyline website reported that 85 per cent of that expenditure went to Republican Party candidates.

"The gun lobby in this country is very aggressive," said Tom Mauser, whose son Daniel died in the Columbine massacre. "They really punish people who don't vote their way."

So, in the absence of politicians, America's sorrowful history of mourning and burying the victims of these shootings generally includes a parent or a priest who will say what the civic leaders cannot.

Mr Mauser, a gun-control advocate, was on his way to a television interview when he spoke by phone. He said it was too soon to know whether this would be a defining incident for the gun-control movement, and whether someone, at one of those 32 funerals, would speak out.

The political sensitivity of the issue was demonstrated by the response by the Virginian Governor, Tim Kaine, a Democrat, to a question about gun control late on Tuesday.

"For those who want to make this a political hobby horse they can ride, I've got nothing but loathing for them," Mr Kaine said.

Earlier, he ordered an independent review of Virginia Tech's handling of the massacre after 24 hours of criticism that officials waited too long to warn students of the potential danger.

"Our focus is on the families and helping this community heal, so to those who want to try to make this into some little crusade, I say take that elsewhere," Mr Kaine said.

His words were read to Mr Mauser. "Oh boy," he said. "That's unbelievable. I don't know how to begin to react to that, other than to say I'm calling the Governor's office.

"It's not a crusade, it's about saving lives. The level of gun violence we have in this country is shameful. To think that easy-access laws are unrelated to that is just ludicrous. I'm very offended by that."

Copyright © 2007. The Sydney Morning Herald.

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