If Only Virginia Were More Like New York


It's hard to have a fruitful discussion of whether gun laws should be changed in light of the Virginia Tech massacre without knowing what they currently require. But if you're hoping to bone up on the subject, do not rely on The New York Times, which yesterday reported:

Virginia is what those in the gun world call a shall issue state, meaning anyone who is not excluded under certain restrictions can obtain a gun. But in more restrictive states like California, New Jersey, New York, Hawaii, Massachusetts and others, people are first referred to local police departments for an extensive vetting process. In some cases, references must be provided; there is usually a waiting period.

"This kid never would have gotten a gun in New York, New Jersey or any state that does that in a million years," Mr. Everitt [a spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence] said. "There's just no way."

As it has before, the Times is conflating permits to carry handguns with licenses to purchase them. Virginia, like most states, has a nondiscretionary, or "shall issue," carry permit law, meaning that anyone who meets certain objective criteria (which always include a background check and may also include fingerprinting and firearms training) can obtain a permit. California, New Jersey, New York, Hawaii, and Massachusetts, by contrast, have discretionary, or "may issue," carry permit laws, which give police wide authority to decide who gets to carry a gun. But as far as I know, Cho Seung-Hui did not have a carry permit, and it's hard to see how it would have mattered if he had: All guns were prohibited on Virginia Tech's campus, with the exception of those used by police and security guards, and mass murderers do not worry much about such legal niceties in any case.

When it comes to buying a handgun, Virginians have to pass a background check, but they don't need a license. In New York and the other states mentioned by the Times, residents must have a license to legally purchase a handgun. So the question is whether the requirements imposed by these states would have stymied someone like Cho. According to the summaries compiled by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence (which the Times could have consulted if the idea of visiting a site aimed at gun owners was too distasteful), it takes less than a month to get a handgun license in New Jersey, more like six months in New York. The New Jersey license expires after 90 days, while the New York license is good until revoked, except in New York City and three counties near it. Both states require a background check and fingerprinting. My sense is that it's very difficult to legally have a handgun in the New York City area, not as hard upstate, but I'd welcome a more definitive assessment from someone with more expertise.

Is Everitt right that "there's just no way" Cho could have legally purchased a handgun in New York or New Jersey? If so, why? After all, he passed Virginia's background check, which, despite all the recent talk about the state's laxness, the Brady Campaign describes as "the best system since it includes checking both state and federal records to prevent criminals and other prohibited people from buying guns."

It's worth keeping in mind that even if Virginia had copied New York's gun laws in every particular, and the extra requirements stopped Cho from buying handguns, he still could have obtained rifles and/or shotguns and used these more powerful weapons in his attack, which might have resulted in even more deaths. In a shooting rampage like this one, the concealability of handguns does not seem to be a crucial consideration.