None of us were immune to being rattled by the event at Virginia Tech due to its reordering of the nature of life. A college campus can be many things in the warm glow of personal memory, in the hopeful light of the present and in the promise of tomorrow. It is never a mass homicide location, except that last week it was.
However, it was this upside-down reality that LA Times media commentator Tim Rutten suggested in an April 18 Calendar column that was now capable of producing a “well-conditioned response” in media processing because of a “been here before” familiarity with the event of a school shooting. Rutten posited that our awareness of the school shooting template possibly caused us to pass over deeper contemplation of the critical question of “Why?”…even if that understanding was unknowable and unanswerable.
Rutten is right to remind us that we may be avoiding the toughest question regarding the psychological roots of campus shootings. But I wonder if we have a more immediate chore ahead in responding, on behalf of the victims, to the questions that do have answers.
In the following, please allow me to avoid conferring celebrity onto the killer by not using his name.
How did the killer obtain the tools for murdering those people?
He legally obtained his guns without complication and in accordance with Virginia’s firearms laws. The gun merchants did everything required of them by Virginia law before selling the weapons to the killer. They ran the background checks they are required to run. They confirmed that the killer wasn’t a felon previously, and that he wasn’t in violation of any other conditions. Then they took his money and he was out the door with his guns.
Was there any mechanism in place that might have kept separate a troubled student and guns?
It was widely reported that one instructor at Virginia Tech pursued counseling for the student who became the killer, but that there was no means of compelling him to comply. In 2005 the killer was taken to a mental health facility after two female students complained that he had approached them inappropriately. Authorities were told he might be suicidal. Let’s not hammer this; there were indications. But I am reminded that when I attended college, I knew students who seemed suicidal and realize in hindsight that many who were labeled “party monsters” were in fact alcoholics. Is there some way to pull students like the VTC killer into a system that would at least inhibit their access to weapons? Not that I’m aware of.
Do we agree that America’s experiment with gun freedom for all is at a crossroads?
It does not appear that the legacy of Columbine included gun control measures that worked as a preventative at Virginia Tech. While the weapons deployed by the killer at Virginia Tech were not assault rifles, one might reasonably ask why we’re still dithering with controlling that type of weapon when even semiautomatic handguns were capable of expediting the carnage at VTC.
Would a waiting period for all gun sales prevent Virginia Tech scenarios?
The killer waited out a Virginia-mandated 30-day period between the purchase of one gun and then another. Put another way, he complied with state regulations so he could have a variety of killing devices.
Is Virginia in any way ashamed of having provided the weapons that were later turned on its own children?
Individually, you’d have to ask the citizens. Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, however, was quick to position his office in reference to that question. When asked about the VTC killings reigniting a battle over gun control, Kaine responded that he had only “loathing” for people who wanted to make the murders a “political hobbyhorse to ride” and added, “To those who want to make this into some little crusade, I say take that battle elsewhere.” Kaine then asked that everyone “let this community deal with grieving individuals….” – individuals who were grieving over those slain with guns obtained in his state by a troubled 23-year-old.
We are not facing critical aspects of America’s gun crisis, such as the almost narcotic effect guns have on those with troubled personalities who we often learn later are consumers of our violent entertainments and violence-reactive news media. I’m not qualified to answer Tim Rutten’s critical question of “Why?” with any level of satisfying completeness. But we can partially respond to “Why?” with the observation that the killer was able to act on his horrific fantasies: He was able to obtain the weapons he needed to carry out his dark plans. That’s not me riding a hobbyhorse. That’s just the current status of gun sales in Virginia.