Stopping the Va. Tech Shooter
By Tom Firey
The Cato Institute
The question has crossed our minds countless times since Monday's horrific events: How could we have prevented the tragedy at Virginia Tech?
There is something reassuring in that question: It assumes that there is an answer, that if we are clever enough and politically resolved enough, we can thwart someone who is so bent on massacre that he's willing to die in order to carry it out.
And the assumption is probably correct: There likely are combinations of weapons laws, security procedures, psychiatric interventions, information sharing and emergency protocols that would have frustrated Cho Seung Hui, or Charles Roberts at the Amish schoolhouse, or Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at Columbine, or the 9/11 attackers.
So, what combination would have stopped Cho?
What if the university had intervened on behalf of the young man's mental health? But the university did intervene; we now know that Cho was involuntarily institutionalized in 2005 and had agreed to continuing outpatient counseling. Since then, his conduct had not merited legal intervention, but his professors recommended additional counseling because of his bizarre prose.
What if the university had acted more aggressively and locked down the campus after the first shooting, early Monday morning? But Tech's campus and downtown Blacksburg are perpetually bustling with students, and the sudden lockdown would not have denied the shooter of plenty of innocent victims in places other than the dorms and classrooms.
What if there were tighter gun control laws, or even an outright firearms ban? D.C. has had a de facto handgun ban for more than three decades; last year (a relatively peaceful year), there were 169 murders in the District. And bloodbaths don't require firearms -- the deadliest school massacre in U.S. history is the 1927 Bath Township, Mich., disaster in which Andrew Kehoe's bombs killed 43 people and himself.
To thwart Cho would have required far more rigorous mental health interventions, far stronger "community lockdown" provisions, far stricter security procedures, and far tougher gun control laws than anything we now contemplate. And those provisions would catch up many, many harmless people before they would ferret out one Cho.
Would we be willing to adopt such policies?
Consider: Despite Monday's horror, the gravest threat faced by Virginia Tech students -- and all other high school and college students -- is riding in a car. There were 43,443 highway fatalities in the United States in 2005, as compared to 16,692 murders.
Highway fatalities would drop to near zero if the United States were to lower its speed limit to 10 mph. What policies would produce the same protection against massacre that a 10 mph speed limit would produce against traffic deaths?
There is, of course, a continuum of less-invasive policies that could be adopted in response to Monday's rampage, just as there is a continuum of speed limits between 10 mph and 65 mph. But, what we now know of Cho suggests that it would have required severe intervention -- a speed limit of 10 mph if not 5 mph -- to have prevented his rampage.
We can ensure that no one will ever visit a second tragedy on Blacksburg. But, in doing so, would we take away much of what makes Virginia Tech so special? And what would it take away from the rest of us?
Thomas Firey received a master degree in philosophy from Virginia Tech in 1999. He is managing editor of the Cato Institute's Regulation Magazine.
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