WASHINGTON — A few days before the Virginia Tech massacre, a headline caught my eye: Suicide rates are highest in states where guns are most likely to be kept in the home. I barely glanced at the story.

A few years ago, I would have read it thoroughly, and might have written about the Harvard University research that confirmed just about everything we already knew about the love affair so many Americans have with their guns: Where there are guns, there is death. But this particular week in this particular year, I wasn’t moved to write. The gun issue seemed so beside the point, so much an artifact of another era — like a top-40 hit now heard only on oldies radio stations.

This is, in essence, the position our political leaders have taken.

Guns were yesterday’s news, yesterday’s worry, yesterday’s political cause. The rationalizations for not pursuing even minimal new requirements for owning a gun — say, requiring criminal background checks on purchasers at those notorious gun shows the country became so distraught about after the 1999 Columbine murders — are coldly cynical. And they are an especially ugly scar on the Democratic Party.

Republicans from the president on down will not move against their powerful allies in the National Rifle Association. The party is owned — lock, stock and barrel — by the gun lobby, which believes law-abiding individuals have an inalienable right to own unlimited arsenals.

The gunman in the Virginia Tech shootings purchased his weapons legally. The high-capacity magazines he used, which enabled him to fire repeatedly while limiting his pauses to reload, had been prohibited under the old federal assault-weapons ban. The Republican-controlled Congress allowed that ban to expire in 2004.

Democrats took the lead on gun control on behalf, they said, of all the victims, whether they were cut down on the mean streets of the nation’s cities or amid the false sense of security in a suburban high school. Then political reality trumped principle.

Some blamed Al Gore’s 2000 presidential loss on his support for gun control. In 2004, Howard Dean ran for president as a politician who had received NRA backing while he was governor of Vermont. He said that guns should be regulated only by the states. The argument contradicts years of research showing that gun trafficking across state lines yields violence in other states and cities. Dean now chairs the Democratic National Committee.

By the 2006 midterm congressional campaigns, some Democrats openly crowed about their candidates in pro-gun states. They were suitably pro-gun, we were told, and so would not be sunk by that nettlesome issue. In October, while the campaign was at full throttle, five little Amish girls were slaughtered by a mentally distraught man who barged into their country schoolhouse armed with several weapons and 600 rounds of ammunition. The political system reacted with a bipartisan shrug.

Which brings us to the sad state of Virginia, known for its loose gun laws. Former Gov. Mark Warner is a darling of state and national Democrats. He is widely promoted as a possible vice presidential nominee, in part because he refused to antagonize the NRA. His successor in Richmond, Gov. Tim Kaine, is another pro-gun Democrat. A new Democratic star, Sen. Jim Webb, boasts of carrying a concealed weapon, a privilege Virginia grants to anyone who legally owns a gun. A Webb aide was arrested last month when he tried to enter a Senate office building in Washington while carrying an unlicensed, loaded pistol that apparently belongs to Webb.

Also in March — 24 days before the Virginia Tech calamity — Kaine signed three measures favored by the gun lobby. One is known as the “anti-Bloomberg” law. It was prompted by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s use of private undercover agents to make illegal gun purchases in Virginia and transport the weapons to New York, the better to demonstrate the link between cavalier out-of-state sales and bloodshed on his city’s streets. The anti-Bloomberg law bans such operations.

This Thursday night in Annandale, Va., home to Mary Read, a Virginia Tech freshman who was killed in the rampage, a gun-rights group had intended to celebrate enactment of the anti-Bloomberg law by honoring the winners of a gun-giveaway drawing. “We’re going to have cake and everything else,” says Philip Van Cleave of the Virginia Citizens Defense League. After initially resisting rescheduling the celebration because it has “absolutely nothing” to do with the Virginia Tech shootings, the group just announced the event is postponed until next month.

Correction: This column implies that the Virginia Citizens Defense League planned to hold a meeting at the home of a victim of the rampage. The meeting was to be held in the hometown of the victim.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at symbol)washpost.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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