Monday’s mass murder at Virginia Tech was the worst shooting rampage in American history. As the investigation continues and details of the crime continue to emerge, we strain to comprehend what drove Tech senior Cho Seung-Hui to slaughter so many of his peers — and we face hard questions about how to prevent such eruptions in the future.
Tuesday morning, I was returning to New Haven from a weekend in Washington, D.C. As I drove, my car radio picked up a succession of local stations, sampling in series many early reactions to the tragedy. DJs and talk radio hosts of all political stripes grappled with the same awful information, salvaging facts from the mess to shore up familiar positions. As for what lesson to take from the killings, everyone, it seemed, had a different view.
Some blamed Tech president Charles Steger for mishandling the unfolding tragedy, and demanded his resignation — but university presidents are not selected on the basis of their comfort with violent crime, and this is as it should be. Others accused the campus police, claiming they fumbled the initial double homicide by failing to notify students immediately of the missing shooter. That issue is beyond the ambit of pundits (or columnists) to decide, though it will surely be vigorously debated in the weeks to come.
Everyone agreed on a need for societal response, to assure us that such a tragedy will not be repeated. But what can universities really do to prevent a recurrence? The best anyone could come up with was air-raid sirens on campus, and a plan to text-message students in an emergency — neither of which would have helped those already trapped in Norris Hall. In this case, Cho Seung-Hui alerted authorities early with the dormitory murders; but whether or not we believe police squandered that lead, we surely cannot count on such foreshadowing again. Thus, we are left with the grim reality that a determined gunman is free to strike virtually at will, leaving police to react much as they did on Monday.
A more proactive idea was pitched as I drove past Philadelphia. That commentator argued ardently and in apparent seriousness that what campus police really need is shoulder-fired rifles, to neutralize students at 60-plus yards. Faced with a madman brandishing two pistols, it is conceptually satisfying to engage in this form of hypothetical arms race, arming the good guys with superior firepower; but what of a killer with automatic weapons? Surely we should equip Yale Security with bazookas, just in case.
More seductive in these heightened circumstances is one commentator’s contention that, had every student in the building been packing a pistol, Cho’s rampage could have been aborted. Granted, this is perhaps true, and if slaughter were an everyday occurrence at colleges, we might do well to outfit students like soldiers. However, rational minds will recognize that arming college students is unlikely to increase campus safety — rather, it is likely to precipitate shootouts where none would otherwise occur.
Moreover, that entire premise hinges upon good, law-abiding citizens carrying weapons to combat “evil” criminals. The former sail through background checks and purchase their firearms legally; the latter are lifelong scum and obtain their guns through illicit means. Notwithstanding the false dichotomy of this conception, we must remember that until this week, Cho Seung-Hui belonged to the first group: His guns were legally bought, his record clean.
We have heard, these past few days, of the countless warnings this deranged proto-criminal shed like chaff around campus. The fact that a student with a demonstrated history of harassment, depression, extreme antisocial behavior and unspeakably disturbed writings nonetheless aced a Virginia background check should speak for itself. To those who champion current gun laws, we need no further rebuttal.
Despite all efforts, society has proven largely unsuccessful at defusing ticking time bombs like Cho; it is evidently impossible to identify or corral potentially dangerous individuals with any consistency. It makes sense, then, to reduce their eventual impact by complicating the acquisition of firearms.
America might begin by following the lead of other nations faced with similar tragedies.
In a 1996 school shooting in Dunblane, Scotland, an ex-scout leader armed with four legally owned pistols killed 16 primary school children and their teacher. A petition led by parents secured several hundred thousand signatures and successfully lobbied the Conservative government into banning handguns in the U.K. Anyone caught with one today faces five years in prison.
Just weeks after the Dunblane massacre, an unemployed man shot and killed 35 tourists in Port Arthur, Australia. This too spurred significant government action, virtually outlawing assault rifles and instating strict limits on gun ownership. Similar restrictions are commonplace worldwide.
Over 40,000 people die each year from gunshot wounds in the United States. Per capita, this is nearly five times more than Australia, and a staggering 34 times more than the U.K.
But those who characterize shooting sprees as uniquely American are only half correct: As these examples demonstrate, no nation is immune from gun violence, but smart governments react swiftly to prevent such tragedies from occurring again.
The right to bear arms is a cherished American liberty, anchored in a fairly recent constitutional interpretation and bolstered by a powerful gun lobby. Periodic slaughter may well be the price of such liberty. If so, Americans should retire these perceived freedoms and with them, their increasing, awful and heart-rending cost.
If only this most recent tragedy were enough.
Michael Seringhaus is a post-doctoral associate in the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.