Two weeks before he was killed in the Columbine High School shootings, Daniel Mauser asked his father a question that Tom Mauser now considers fundamental to the debate on guns and handgun violence in America:
"Dad, did you know there are loopholes in the Brady [Handgun Violence Prevention] Act?"
Mr. Mauser repeated that question yesterday at the National Symposium on Handgun Violence at Duquesne University's Power Center.
At the time, Mr. Mauser said, he didn't know much about handgun access laws, much less the Brady Bill, which was enacted in 1993 to create a background check system on gun purchases.
But since the April 1999 shootings that claimed the lives of 13 people at the Colorado high school, Mr. Mauser has become an advocate of stronger gun access laws and was one of the leaders of a ballot initiative to close the "gun show loophole" in Colorado.
That loophole allowed private individuals at gun shows to buy and sell firearms without going through background checks.
Speaking to about 700 people at the symposium on guns, gun violence and the right to bear arms, Mr. Mauser said he became an outspoken advocate of gun control "because I never imagined I would have my child murdered by another student at school."
A lack of proper mental health intervention contributed to tragedies like the shootings at Columbine, Virginia Tech University and Northern Illinois University, said Marisa Randazzo, a former Secret Service agent.
"These school shootings are preventable, at least some of them are," Dr. Randazzo said, citing evidence from her research of school shooting incidents from 1971 to 2001.
"The vast majority of students who carry out these shootings are suicidal and they hope to be killed during their attacks," said Dr. Randazzo, who formerly served as the chief psychologist for the Secret Service.
The attacks tend to be planned at least two years in advance, and the attackers often leave a trail of noticeable signs, she said.
"There is no useful profile of a school shooter because they vary in their motives, but they are rarely impulsive," she added.
For David Hemenway, director of the Injury Control Research and Youth Violence Prevention centers at Harvard University's School of Public Health, it's a question of access to guns.
Suicide, school shootings and homicide rates in the United States are exacerbated by a culture of "the most permissive gun laws," he said. By comparison, the United States far outpaces all the top 25 industrialized democracies in the world in the number of deaths by guns.
In the United States, children between 5 and 14 are six times more likely to be killed by a gun than in any other industrialized country and 10 times more likely to commit suicide by a gun, said Dr Hemenway, author of "Private Guns, Public Health."
"From a public health standpoint," he added, "we should be asking the question: 'Where did the gun come from?' "
But Alan Korwin, a Second Amendment advocate and author of "Gun Laws of America: Every Federal Gun Law on the Books," said the notion that guns are readily accessible in the United States is a fallacy.
"Guns are not as freely available in America as they used to be," he said. And what is more, gun crime in America is a social phenomenon, he added. Most crimes involving guns occur in inner cities and poor neighborhoods and are often related to drugs and gangs, he said.
"That is a component we don't want to address. The media does not want to talk about it, but we all know that gun crime mostly happens in certain parts of cities," he said. "We don't talk about it because it is a difficult subject."
Mr. Korwin, who also operates the Web site gunlaws.com, said he wanted to frame the debate in terms of crime control versus gun control.
He claimed that more than 700,000 people, including police officers, use a gun every day for defensive purposes, "and 98 percent of the time a gun is used defensively, the gun is not even fired."
But that was little consolation for Mr. Mauser and Dr. Diane Strollo, whose daughter was shot three times during last year's shootings at Virginia Tech University that claimed 33 lives.
Holding up a blue pair of Converse shoes, Mr. Mauser said: "These are my son's shoes. He was wearing them on April 20 . I wear them often when I talk about gun violence. I wear them so that none of you wear them. No parent should ever walk in the shoes of their murdered child."
Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl yesterday presented Mr. Mauser and Dr. Strollo with a lifetime public service award, which they received on behalf of former White House press secretary Jim Brady.
Mr. Brady, who was shot during an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in 1981, and for whom the Brady Act was named, was slated to be the keynote speaker at the symposium but could not make it because his wife was ill.
Karamagi Rujumba can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1719.