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.

Posted by Michael Corones |  April 19, 2007; 1:00 PM ET
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Comments

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THIS WAS A HORRIBLE TRAGEDY! My prayers go out to the families of all the students and instructors including the gunman's family. I have read so much about how the university and police should have reacted; the problem is the need to be proactive. This country needs to improve its medical care for the mentally ill. At least 1 out of 5 persons suffer from a mental illness. The numbers are increasing and will continue to increase. Hospitals do not have enough beds to care for patients with mental illness. Also, so many people do not have heath insurance or appropriate coverage from their insurance to take care of the mental heath as well as physical health.
We all need to educate ourselves about mental illness and find ways to get help for those who are suffering. Events similar to this are in the papers on a regular basis. Why, because appropriate medical diagnosis and treatment were not give because of health insurance reasons.
We are a greedy country and are concerned more about the economic burden rather than the needs of the sick and afflicted. However this greed has cost many lives and will continue to until health care is addressed and taken care of appropriately.

Posted by: crazy | April 19, 2007 05:23 PM

I just don't like the way we glorify the killerin the media!! Then we have to deal with copy kat killers who try to top the last person and so on!!! My heart goes out to all the Families in this very sad time. I can't imagine what everybody is going through , but my prayers go out to each and everyone of you and your families, and may God bless you at this time of sorrow!

Posted by: CherJenks | April 19, 2007 05:51 PM

A real background check requirement for gun purchases would have stopped the crime he committed - he was evaluated for mental illness. The VA gun form requires you to identify that - he probably lied on the form. Because there is no database, and no real background check - there was no way to check the validity of what he put on the form.

Posted by: C. Stevens | April 19, 2007 07:50 PM

When the concerned professor went to the police she was told that they couldn't do anything because Cho Seung Hui had no criminal record.

There should have been a mental fitness list that gun dealers could check before selling a rapid fire and quick reloading gun to anyone, just as they need to check the criminal records of potential buyers.

There already is a law that requires a gun dealer to check the name of a potential gun buyer against a criminal history list. Also, gun dealers are prohibited from selling guns to mentally disturbed individuals. But there isn't a list of people to whom guns shouldn't be sold because of mental issues. It seems to me that if such a list had existed, Cho Seung Hui's name would have been on it.

Creation of such a list is a delicate issue because of privacy concerns and taking away someone's right to a weapon (is it a right, as the latest Supreme Court decision indicates, or a privilege?) without due process. But just because it is difficult doesn't mean that it can't be done. Legislators must find a way for gun dealers to check for accusations of mental instability, anger management problems, and antisocial tendencies. How many more massacres will it take to get this done?

Because accusations are not necessarily valid, the law would need to include a way for someone on the list to appeal and a procedure for removal. In doing this, society needs to consider what the standard of proof should be. Does someone belong on the list only if it is believed beyond a reasonable doubt that the person might become berserk,or should the standard be a preponderance of evidence? To get off the list does the person need to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he or she is not now dangerous or never was dangerous? These are issues upon which ethicists and legal scholars need to make a recommendation, and legislators need to act. But it should be simpler to create a law that merely lists those who should be denied ownership of rapid firing and quick reloading guns than to take away their liberty before they have committed a crime.

Posted by: Ed12340 | April 20, 2007 10:50 AM

Yes there is an answer, stop selling lethal weapons to any tom,dick or harry who walks in off the street!!!!!!

Posted by: Bill MacLeod | April 22, 2007 05:21 AM

Are you all RAVING MAD, STOP SELLING GUNS!!!!!!!

Posted by: Bill MacLeod | April 22, 2007 05:25 AM

Government - federal, state and local - cannot fully protect the individual. The right to life and to self defense is a basic human right. Why try to remove that with more ineffectual gun laws? Let people carry firearms to defend themselves.

Posted by: Segerrik | April 22, 2007 03:32 PM

There seems to me to be two areas that need responding to: protection and prevention. The issue(s) of protection need to be pragmatic and real. Issues of prevention need to be explored and defined with legal wisdom. As to protection, I think that a possible response to how to communicate with such a large community as a university campus at times of crisis should include the following aspects of public warning:
1. Each campus should have a public warning system that alerts all community members to danger through an auditory alarm. Such an "air raid system" would immediately alert all members that an emergency situation is underway. This old fashioned system is immediate and effective.
2. Integrated into this auditory alarm is the triggering of a text messaging system that sends a situation specific message to all pre-registered cell phones. In addition the campus should have a back-up system using campus cable TV, radio etc. With these 2 systems in place the entire community would have access to official information and could act as a coordinated community to avoid danger.
3. Each classroom should have an effective locking mechanism that would permit teachers to essentially lock down their classroom spaces and allow students to have an effective line of first defense. When coupled with the warning system describes above this would give unprotected people the things they need most: accurate information, collective action and physical protection. As to prevention, it seems that after every tragedy we hear from expert forensic psychologists who appear and analyze the carnage and the motivation of the person who committed the crime. I think that we need to ask colleges, communities and indeed corporations to consider cultivating forensics and the experts in this field to be active participants in
their mental health network. We need to include a "discovery" process that allows an expert to oversee the collection of mental health data that might reveal worrisome patterns of individuals. Yes this is behavioral profiling but what other choice do we have. And while we of course want to help people get better at some point we need to acknowledge that some aggressive tools are needed to protect others. Finally, I believe that we need to use this awful tragedy to move us towards a culture wide conversation about violence and the permissiveness that can often prevent us from acting with common sense. In essence I am suggesting a "manhattan project" of wisdom. The fact that we have held back on the expected type of politicking one could expect from this event is an indication that we might need new language, concepts and cultural will to make significant shifts in what is accepted. Should a definition of pornography be expanded to include gratutitous violence (yes, I do know what it looks like when I see it and so do you)?
What type of real background checks would really prevent mentally ill individuals gain control of weapons? Could we have an exceedingly high standard of background check that would result in only fully vetted citizens being able to carry concealed weapons? Would this make us all safer?

Posted by: Daniel Shafer | April 25, 2007 08:44 AM

There seems to me to be two areas that need responding to: protection and prevention. The issue(s) of protection need to be pragmatic and real. Issues of prevention need to be explored and defined with legal wisdom. As to protection, I think that a possible response to how to communicate with such a large community as a university campus at times of crisis should include the following aspects of public warning:
1. Each campus should have a public warning system that alerts all community members to danger through an auditory alarm. Such an "air raid system" would immediately alert all members that an emergency situation is underway. This old fashioned system is immediate and effective.
2. Integrated into this auditory alarm is the triggering of a text messaging system that sends a situation specific message to all pre-registered cell phones. In addition the campus should have a back-up system using campus cable TV, radio etc. With these 2 systems in place the entire community would have access to official information and could act as a coordinated community to avoid danger.
3. Each classroom should have an effective locking mechanism that would permit teachers to essentially lock down their classroom spaces and allow students to have an effective line of first defense. When coupled with the warning system describes above this would give unprotected people the things they need most: accurate information, collective action and physical protection. As to prevention, it seems that after every tragedy we hear from expert forensic psychologists who appear and analyze the carnage and the motivation of the person who committed the crime. I think that we need to ask colleges, communities and indeed corporations to consider cultivating forensics and the experts in this field to be active participants in
their mental health network. We need to include a "discovery" process that allows an expert to oversee the collection of mental health data that might reveal worrisome patterns of individuals. Yes this is behavioral profiling but what other choice do we have. And while we of course want to help people get better at some point we need to acknowledge that some aggressive tools are needed to protect others. Finally, I believe that we need to use this awful tragedy to move us towards a culture wide conversation about violence and the permissiveness that can often prevent us from acting with common sense. In essence I am suggesting a "manhattan project" of wisdom. The fact that we have held back on the expected type of politicking one could expect from this event is an indication that we might need new language, concepts and cultural will to make significant shifts in what is accepted. Should a definition of pornography be expanded to include gratutitous violence (yes, I do know what it looks like when I see it and so do you)?
What type of real background checks would really prevent mentally ill individuals gain control of weapons? Could we have an exceedingly high standard of background check that would result in only fully vetted citizens being able to carry concealed weapons? Would this make us all safer?

Posted by: Daniel Shafer | April 25, 2007 08:50 AM

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