Lessons from Blacksburg (the one year anniversary)

I was an opinion columnist for University of Maryland’s student newspaper The Diamondback for three semesters before I graduated. The columns I wrote are still up on the web archive, but I’d rather not depend on The Diamondback to host them indefinitely. Thus, I have decided to repost them on this blog, not only to archive them in a place under my control, but also so you readers here can have an idea of my writing in college. Here is my 18th and penultimate published opinion column, Lessons from Blacksburg, originally published April 19, 2007.

On Monday morning, the Virginia Tech community witnessed the worst civilian shooting spree in United States history. One of Tech’s students, South Korean national Cho Seung-Hui, killed 32 others before turning the gun on himself. As we at this university continue to witness the horrors unfolding on television, we feel a special bond with the students of Virginia Tech. Even if we don’t know any of them personally, they too are college students, and they’ve faced an unexpected, extreme tragedy that could just as easily have happened in College Park.

There are some lessons to be taken away from the events of Monday morning, and I hope the administrations of both Virginia Tech and this university are learning them. For one, if there is a deadly homicide on the campus and the perpetrator isn’t caught, it may make sense to take drastic actions such as bringing in dozens of police officers for a manhunt or locking down the campus. One who has killed already and is still on the run is a uniquely dangerous individual, as Monday unfortunately taught us.

We also now know there was significant evidence that something just wasn’t right with Cho. His writings consistently showed signs of psychopathy; in one particular play a teenager is killed by the stepfather he falsely accuses of molesting him. He also wrote poetry so disturbing that it creeped out the majority of his poetry class, causing him eventually to be removed from it. His classmates openly questioned whether he could become a school shooter. The police were even contacted multiple times regarding his disturbing writings and the multiple times he stalked women on the campus. Clearly, all the warning signs were there; now many will live in perpetual regret that more was not done.

The point is this wasn’t just some random deadly shooting. It didn’t come out of the blue; it could have been prevented. The burden rests with everyone to prevent another such massacre. Students and teachers, if you know of someone with psychopathic tendencies, it is time to do something about it. Even if you do not prevent a shooting spree, you may still provide a deeply troubled individual some much-needed counseling.

I am also afraid that gun rights advocates will exploit this tragedy to try to make some cheap point about how more people should be able to carry firearms. Better counseling and intervention would have prevented this tragedy – more weapons would not have. Even if one did have a concealed-carry permit, who would think to bring weapons into class? If you have a gun and are sitting in class, and someone with a gun comes running into the room, do you open fire? How do you know whether he is a shooter or merely another student like yourself?

Guns are not some magic crime-prevention device; they are dangerous and deadly weapons in their own right. If more people are carrying them around, there will be more accidental shootings and more trivial altercations that suddenly turn deadly. Guns are dangerous, and an ideal society would not require everyone to be carrying them around, so why do so many pretend otherwise?

And there is one more point to be made about gun control. Cho purchased the handguns he used to carry out his rampage legally. What’s to say that if gun control laws had been tighter, he might not have been able to get his hands on deadly weapons so easily?

I figured today was an appropriate day to republish the column, this being the one year anniversary of the shootings after all. I have all sorts of additional comments that didn’t fit into the column and comments on the column itself.

In the weeks after Virginia Tech, I developed a sort of irrational fear of being caught in the cross-fire of a similar type of school shooting at University of Maryland. Virginia Tech was so close to us, so it touched me in a way that, say, reading about people getting killed in far away lands doesn’t. The fear subsided over time, but until it did, I would glance over at the door anxiously every so often during my classes in large lecture halls.

This column was a rush job. I had another idea I was developing for my column that week that got discarded in favor of this story (my editor specifically wanted me to write about this topic). So I only had a day to write the column, which was a bit less than I normally had. The logic suffered somewhat. Here, I’ll point out one of the major flaws in the argument:

I am also afraid that gun rights advocates will exploit this tragedy to try to make some cheap point about how more people should be able to carry firearms.

Of course, by playing devil’s advocate in favor of gun control in this article, some could argue that I was effectively exploiting the tragedy to make some cheap point in favor of gun control (My personal views on gun control are actually a bit more murky than as presented in this column). There were many vehement arguments in subsequent letters to the editor and in the comments on the online post, but no one brought up this issue, which I knew was the largest flaw in the column as I was writing it.

Guns are dangerous, and an ideal society would not require everyone to be carrying them around, so why do so many pretend otherwise?

I still stand by the statement that in a perfect society no one would be carrying around weapons, but of course, arguments that rely on impossible antecedents aren’t very convincing.

What’s to say that if gun control laws had been tighter, he might not have been able to get his hands on deadly weapons so easily?

Of course, it would’ve also been a lot tougher for thousands of people to legally obtain handguns that wouldn’t go on to be used in crimes. There’s definitely a trade-off here. Keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally deranged is obviously a good idea (and Virginia recently passed a law to that effect), but you don’t want to put unreasonable burdens on completely legitimate hunting and target-shooting purposes.

5 Responses to “Lessons from Blacksburg (the one year anniversary)”

  1. drinian Says:

    In a perfect society, no-one would care whether others were carrying around weapons. But we’re not perfect beings.

  2. Cyde Weys Says:

    I think you misunderstand my point. The reason no one would carry around weapons in a perfect society is that, since there was no need for them for self-dense against others with weapons, there would be no reason to unnecessarily put everyone at risk of accidental shootings. Weapons are deadly implements designed to kill people. No matter how many safeties you put on them, there’s always the chance that they will do what they were designed for, even accidentally.

    So yes, I do care about whether others are carrying around weapons, even in a perfect society, because those weapons are putting me at an increased, unnecessary risk of injury or death.

  3. drinian Says:

    See, I imagine that a perfect society with perfect people would also have perfect weapons.

    It would also be perfectly boring, but that’s a whole other point.

  4. Cyde Weys Says:

    A perfect society and perfect machines are two completely different things. I was only positing the former in my completely unrealistic example.

    I think this just helps to further illustrate the futileness of arguing from impossible antecedents.

    (But in a perfect society with perfect guns, why would you ever carry a gun around when you knew you would never need it? It’s added weight, it’s bulky, and it’s completely incompatible with many fashion styles, especially most kinds of women’s clothing.)

  5. William Says:

    I can imagine guns being accessorized in much the same way that other things are, though, with certain models going in and out of fashion, or clashing with certain outfits.
    “Are you kidding? The 92FS in .45ACP is so last Tuesday! 10mm is where it’s at now, honey.”
    “Actually, I rather like it with that dress. A 1911 might work better, though, especially in frothy pink, slung just slightly higher.”
    Annnd, that hurts write. But you get the idea, I suspect.

    I’ll have to admit that I’m against gun control in principle, though I don’t personally own any firearms, so I doesn’t have really strong feelings either way. Being in Japan has definitely reinforced that feeling, though. It’s illegal to carry any kind of weapon here, since the “Ban on guns, swords, and knives”. Seriously, you can’t even carry a Leatherman here. It’s stupid and it’s frustrating. I have a feeling this has had a fairly large effect on the Japanese people in a negative way, but I haven’t found a way of saying that doesn’t involve the word “sheep”.