By Eric Ferreri
RALEIGH, N.C. _ In groups of 32, protestors around the nation will lie on the ground for three minutes Wednesday, an attempt to bring light to gun laws they say are too lax.
This will occur at least 80 times in 33 states, and the choice of the day _ one year after a mentally ill gunman on a murderous rampage killed 32 people on the Virginia Tech campus _ is a matter of some disagreement.
Some lie-ins are coordinated by friends or families of gun violence victims at Virginia Tech or elsewhere. But some gun rights advocates say the timing is in poor taste. At Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, a lie-in Wednesday organized by the friend of a shooting victim was met with opposition but is expected to take place.
At each event, the 32 protesters symbolize the 32 Virginia Tech victims and do not include the shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, whose suicide ended the carnage a year ago. Protestors will lie prone for three minutes because that’s about how long a licensed gun seller takes to conduct a computerized background check on a customer.
No such backgrounding is required at gun shows, a central complaint of the protesters.
Each of Wednesday’s lie-ins can be traced to Abby Spangler, 42, who one year ago was an apolitical mother of two living in the Washington D.C. suburbs. Horrified by the Virginia Tech shootings, she threw together the first lie-in on April 22 of last year in Alexandria, Va.
The snowball picked up pace as others latched onto the idea. Bethesda, Md., May 13. Falls Church, Va., May 19. In late May, the lie-in movement hit Times Square in New York City. Mayor Michael Bloomberg attended.
Suddenly, Spangler, a cellist with the Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic, went from political neophyte to the unlikely leader of a national cause. Prior to the Virginia Tech shootings, she knew essentially nothing about gun control.
“I’m just a mother who doesn’t like to see other mothers and fathers lose their child because a dangerous individual can buy a gun in three minutes,” said Spangler, who is the daughter of C.D. Spangler, the billionaire businessman and former University of North Carolina system president. “This movement has overtaken my life.”
Spangler’s protest was just one of many reactions to the Blacksburg shootings. Across the nation, universities are changing the way they monitor students who show signs of serious mental illness. Campuses have also revamped emergency response plans to notify students with cell phones, text messages and campus sirens.
In Virginia, mental health information is now part of background checks for gun purchases. In North Carolina, Attorney General Roy Cooper has recommended a similar law.
The fallout from Virginia Tech comes at a time when the gun control debate has reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which will rule soon on whether Washington D.C.’s ban on handguns is constitutional.
Spangler wants to strengthen laws governing the purchase of guns at gun shows, and says she does not oppose gun ownership by law-abiding citizens. Still, her movement has earned some detractors.
An organization called Students for Concealed Carry on Campus believes Spangler’s lie-ins exploit a day of remembrance for political means. The organization, which has 25,000 members across the nation, will not conduct any public displays Wednesday out of respect for memory of the Virginia Tech victims, according to its Web site.
Scott Lewis, a spokesman for the organization, believes Spangler’s movement at times relies on faulty data to support its claims. He picks at many of those on a Web site he created _ www.protesteasygunsLIES.com _ and emphasizes that the background check loophole that allowed Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho to buy two handguns was quickly closed.
“There was a gap in the system; that gap has been filled,” said Lewis, 28, who lives in Austin, Texas. “But they’re trying to use it to make inroads into other gun legislation.”
In Blacksburg, Virginia Tech officials were reluctant to grant the lie-in group a permit to protest Wednesday but eventually acquiesced, according to reports in the Virginia Tech student newspaper.
An editorial last week in that paper, The Collegiate Times, said in part: “This is not the day to push an agenda, even if it has relevance to Tech.”
But Spangler says she has the support of one important constituency _ the families of many of the victims and some survivors of the shootings. Many participate in lie-ins and some have organized them. The friends of 15 Virginia Tech victims are leading lie-ins Wednesday, Spangler said.
“They are strongly supportive of me, personally, and of the social movement,” she said.
Matt Foreman, a Virginia Tech senior from Durham, N.C., isn’t sure Wednesday’s lie-in planned for his college campus makes sense. People have dealt with grief at their own pace and in their own ways, Foreman said, and Wednesday’s anniversary and planned memorials are personal, he said.
“I think adding a protest is beyond the scope of what anyone at Virginia Tech is concerned with,” said Foreman, a graduate of Durham’s Jordan High School. “I think it kind of misses the point.”
© 2008, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.).
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