Fineman: Gun Control? Don't Hold Your Breath

I don't know what I was thinking. It seemed to me that the gruesome tragedy at Virginia Tech might prompt a new wave of legislation—not just talk but legislation—to limit the sale of handguns in America. But a few calls and e-mails to people who know the politics of the issue led to a different conclusion: forget about it.

Whatever the rest of the world thinks, whatever Rosie O'Donnell thinks, whatever big city mayors, present and former, think—it remains unlikely that the murder of 32 innocents in Blacksburg will alter the basic guns-for-all equation of American life.

In the aftermath of the shooting, world leaders expressed condolences, but also took it upon themselves to comment on what Australian Prime Minster John Howard referred to as America's "gun culture."  The British Home Minister, who happens to hold a degree from Virginia Tech, said he hoped the event would "prompt a serious and reflective debate on gun issues and gun laws in this states…." Doesn't he have enough homegrown versions of mayhem to worry about without taking on ours?

Handgun Control Inc. was on the case immediately as well, calling for new federal and state restrictions on handguns and automatic weapons. They took special note of Virginia's paper-thin control measures, based primarily on an "instacheck" system designed to insure that a potential gun purchaser does not have a criminal record.

Former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, who spearheaded a lawsuit against gun manufacturers, was on the case again, too.

So I thought: this tragedy happened in Virginia, the home of the National Rifle Association and a bastion of purist allegiance to the Second Amendment. Maybe this would be such a shock to the Old Dominion system that it would lead to a paradigm shift in Richmond and, by extension, in Washington.

It only took a few calls to disabuse me. Top Democratic strategists agree on few things, but one of them is that taking on gun control as a defining issue is a bad—very bad—idea. They think it cost Al Gore in Florida and elsewhere in 2000, and Sen. John Kerry in Ohio (if for no other reason than it got Kerry to put on his neatly pressed camouflage hunting outfit).

I canvassed top leaders and aides of the Democratic establishment on the Hill and got a uniform response: are you kidding? Here's how one of them put it, bluntly: "The NRA still has a lock on Congress." A political consultant who works with the NRA seemed almost unable even to understand the question, so comfortable in his fortress did he seem.

And Virginia? No paradigm shifts in the offing, according to Larry Sabato, the well-known political scientist at the University of Virginia. It's not just the Republicans who would oppose any new restrictions (and there aren't many in Virginia); many Democrats would join them. "The prospects of new legislation are zero, absolutely zero," he said.

In fact, there's support in Virginia for the idea of MORE guns as a solution to the campus safety problem. Educators in the state years ago decided to ban guns on college campuses; there was a move in the legislature to reverse that by statewide law. Expect to see another such effort.

The beau ideal of Virginia is its junior senator, the volatile Jim Webb, a Democrat who wasn't hurt one whit when news got out that an aide was trying to carry one of Webb's pistols into the U.S. Capitol. Sabato says—only half-jokingly—that Webb's ratings back home went up after the incident.

The right to bear arms means more than its literal words imply: it means a way of life and thinking, involving independence, protection of land, and suspicion of federal—or all government—authority. Virginia is as close to the ground zero of that thinking as there is.

As a result, Sabato said, access to guns is easy—as the shooter in Blacksburg demonstrated. "Hell, I've got a clean record, only a few traffic tickets, so I could go out to Clark Brothers"—a famous gun emporium that always does a brisk business.

It's a way of life in Virginia, and much of America. And it isn't going to change anytime soon.