In the wake of the tragedy at Virginia Tech on Monday, April 16, many asked how such a thing could have happened. It was the deadliest shooting spree in American history, and already there seems to have been several moments where the incident could have been avoided. The killer, Cho Seung-Hui, himself said in a manifesto mailed to NBC News “You had a hundred billion chances and ways to have avoided today.”
While there probably weren’t “a hundred billion chances and ways” to have avoided the massacre that claimed the lives of 33 people including Cho, but there were several common sense things that could have been done.
It’s important to recognize that this horrific incident didn’t happen just anywhere: the shootings happened in Virginia; a state known for having some of the most relaxed firearm regulations in the entire country. In fact, critics and safety advocates had complained for years that VA firearm regulations were wholly inadequate and substandard when compared with the rest of the country.
Here are a few ideas that the Virginia state legislature ought to consider implementing. I’m not holding my breath since it’s made up of staunch NRA types and has been controlled by Republicans for years. But tragedies like these force everyone to reconsider their ideologies.
First, how about a law that says if you’ve been classified as mentally unstable and an imminent threat to yourself or others by doctors and a court– then you’re not allowed to walk into a store and walk out with a gun and enough ammo to kill dozens of students?
This might sound like a no-brainer, but there is currently no mechanism in place in Virginia to stop mentally unstable people from buying as many deadly weapons and ammunition as they like. In this case, the shooter Cho Seung-Hui was diagnosed with mental disorders, had been taken antidepressants and been checked into a mental hospital in 2005.
But that didn’t stop him from buying deadly weapons. He had also been referred to Virginia Tech’s counseling service after he wrote disturbing violent plays about killing people. Through a loophole in the law, Cho wasn’t added to a list of mentally-unstable people not allowed to purchase firearms even after the mental hospital episode because although all the doctors who examined him agreed that he was mentally unstable, he didn’t formally get committed and left a short time afterwards.
Next, how about a law that says that if you’ve been accused of stalking people, you don’t get to walk into a store, point to a small, easily hidden powerful handgun behind the counter and get it along with 50 bullets to use for “self-defense” in a matter of minutes.
Also, what about a law that requires background checks to be done for every firearm purchase in Virginia? Oh, you thought that sort of thing was already required? Nope. Turns out there’s two other loopholes in the Virginia state law: one allows people who buy firearms at gun-shows to forgo the background check process entirely.
The other loophole allowed Cho to forego a Virginia state background check on one of the weapons he purchased because he bought it from an out of state gun dealer over the internet and picked it up at a local pawn shop for a 30 buck fee. The out of state internet gun dealer was supposed to handle the background check, although it’s hard to tell whether they did it or not.
Here’s another idea. How about a law that says if a gun dealer sells five weapons to murders who use those guns to kill people, then they’re not allowed to sell any more guns? Call it the “five-strikes-and-you’re-out rule.” A gun dealer that Cho bought a glock and 50 bullets from had been responsible for selling similar weapons to at least five other murderers in the past. Did Cho hear about the dealer’s reputation for being easy to get guns at?
Another thing that’s gotten criticism recently is Virginia Tech’s reaction to the shootings, including their lack of prompt action to warn students. I won’t join the group of rabid idiots blaming Administrators for deaths because I feel sorry for everybody involved at Virginia Tech. At the same time, I think in the future there could have been more done to warn students, especially since the whole incident happened over a span of several hours.
Call this the “better safe than sorry” law. Require all educational institutions (from elementary up to college) to revamp their procedures on what to do if there’s a school shooting or something like that. The government can pay for consultants to help poorer schools figure out a better plan, cost doesn’t matter. But the plans have to include detailed procedures about how to warn students that an incident could be ongoing. At Virginia Tech, students and staff were sent a series of short, sometimes confusing emails updating them on the situation. That’s okay, but what about people in classrooms who weren’t their computers while the massacre was ongoing?
If the school had used their indoor and outdoor PA system throughout the morning to provide updates, it is almost certain that more students and teachers would have been warned. True, they did turn it on after a couple of hours as the incident was ending, but it should have been used immediately and continuously.
If educational institutions do not use every tool they have to warn students that a violent incident is occurring, a law should be put in place that would punish them. And although a punishment shouldn’t really be needed, if heavy enough it would act as a motivation for schools to develop new warning abilities and actually use the ones that they already have. Better safe than sorry.
Some people have suggested that SMS messages over cell phones could be used to warn students. That’s an interesting high-tech possibility, but there are a few problems with it. For one, school safety experts say that ring-tones and all other types of audio phone sounds should be stifled when schools are in lock-down– for obvious reasons. If a student is hiding in a janitor’s closet (purely hypothetical) and there’s a gunman on the loose, the last thing that’s needed is for them to get a text message and their phone to start playing some obnoxious ring-tone betraying their location.
And I’m no expert. To me, this isn’t a question of banning guns, and I think the conservatives who say the debate is between having guns and not having guns are rather disingenuous. This is a matter of common-sense pro-active safety regulations that make the country safer. And these types of changes (and all the ones we haven’t thought of yet) can’t just be implemented in Virginia– they have to be put in place nationwide. There’s no excuse to have some places in the country safer because the laws in those places were designed better. We should have learned that in Columbine in ’99, and I’ll be damned if we don’t learn it now. Once and for all.