Friday, August 31, 2007

The Elephant in the Room: The Guns at Virginia Tech

The thoughtful, well-written report on the massacre at Virginia Tech was released in Richmond, Virginia yesterday. The review panel was convened by Virginia Governor Tim Kaine to investigate the killing of thirty-two students and faculty and the wounding of 17 others on April 16 by Seung Hui Cho, a student who died by his own hand on that day.

The review panel, with experts from an array of fields, did a fine job examining the warning signs from the shooter that were observed by so many over a period of years. Despite the warnings, no decisive action was taken to intervene to stop Cho from setting out on his day of hatred and vengeance. The panel found grave fault with the failure of campus authorities to warn the university community following the first shootings which killed two people before the second and much more deadly wave of shootings that came two hours later.

There is one great lacuna in the centre of the review. It concerns the elephant in the room: the easy availability of lethal weapons in Virginia and across the United States.

The authors of the report were not unaware of the problem. When it investigated the role of firearms in the tragedy, the panel reported that it “encountered strong feelings and heated debate from the public. The panel’s investigation focused on two areas: Cho’s purchase of firearms and ammunition, and campus policies toward firearms. The panel recognizes the deep divisions in American society regarding the ready availability of rapid fire weapons and high capacity magazines, but this issue was beyond the scope of this review.”

The statement is realistic. It is also poignant and defeatist.

The review spells out the facts about Cho’s purchase of two weapons with which he carried out the massacre. Cho placed an order online for a Walther P22 pistol with TGSCOM Inc., a company that sells guns via the Internet. He picked up the firearm on February 9, 2007 at a pawnbroker’s shop in Blacksburg, located adjacent to the Virginia Tech campus. On March 13, a month later, in accordance with a Virginia law which allows people to purchase only one handgun every thirty days, he bought a Glock 19 9mm pistol from Roanoke Firearms in Roanoke.

It appears that Cho’s purchase of weapons was in violation of Federal law which does not permit the purchase of firearms by a person who “has been adjudicated as a mental defective or who has been committed to a mental institution.” A special justice of the General District Court in Montgomery County, Virginia found him to be a danger to himself in 2005.

Under federal law, therefore, Cho was not permitted to buy firearms. While the Virginia statute on gun purchases is less clear in the case of persons suffering from psychiatric problems, the point becomes moot when we consider how easy it is to buy guns in Virginia. When Cho purchased the two guns, he filled out the Federal and Virginia forms. The dealers carried out the background check, and since his name did not come up in the databases, the sales were completed. Even if this cursory system had blocked Cho, he could easily have purchased firearms in any case. Under Virginia law, no background checks are required for firearms transfers in the form of gifts. More important, sales by private collectors of guns and sales by private collectors at gun shows require no background checks. Anyone can go to a gun show, pay in cash, and walk out with a weapon. With a weapon in hand, the purchaser can then go anywhere in the US, and the more stringent laws in Massachusetts or other states are bypassed.

In the case of the Virginia Tech shooter, as the review reported: “Minutes after both checks, Cho left the stores in possession of semi-automatic pistols.” Unlike an automatic weapon, with which the trigger is pulled once to unleash a stream of bullets, a semi-automatic pistol requires the trigger to be pulled to fire each shot.

The weapons Cho purchased could be loaded with 10 or 15 round magazines. This would allow a shooter to rapidly fire these shots and then to quickly eject the spent magazine and reload the gun with a fresh one. In October 2004, with the expiry of the federal Assault Weapons Act of 1994, which had banned clips or magazines with over 10 rounds, it became possible to purchase 15 round magazines.

In the weeks and months prior to the massacre, Cho purchased five 10 round magazines for use in the Walther on the Internet from eBay. He bought several 15 round magazines and ammunition from Wal-Mart and Dick’s Sporting Goods stores. By the day of the killings, the shooter had two highly lethal weapons and almost 400 bullets in magazines and loose ammunition.

Ludicrous as it may seem, during its public hearings, the review panel heard from gun advocates that Virginia Tech and other campuses would be safer if those legally armed with concealed weapons were on site to respond to a shooter such as Cho. The review reported that it could not find evidence of a single case, anywhere in the United States, where an armed citizen had ever intervened to challenge a campus shooter.

Virginia Tech, prior to the massacre, had mounted a ban on the carrying of weapons on campus. The review reported that it was not altogether clear whether this ban could be enforced to prevent a person with a Virginia permit to carry a concealed weapon from doing so.

The review recommended that Virginia extend background checks, the kind that Cho passed, to the purchase of firearms sales at guns shows. (Don’t hold your breath for even this mild change in a state the prizes guns as much as Virginia.) It also called on the state to clarify whether universities have the right to ban guns on campus at all.

There was not a word in the review calling on the state or the nation to curtail the sale of semi-automatic weapons that can be used to carry out massacres on campuses, in office buildings or on the streets.

What is striking is the painstaking reconstruction in the review of every development in Cho’s life en route to the massacre. Americans always do this with remarkable precision, in the investigations of the four presidential assassinations in their history, and in the recapitulation of massacres and other high-profile murders. This review has opened a debate about privacy laws and the right of institutions to share information about potentially dangerous individuals. But the review has done nothing to reopen the debate about gun control in the United States.

Guns and the gun culture constitute the elephant in the room. For the foreseeable future, the elephant is staying put. Guessing which weird person could become a killer is the American alternative to gun control.

As long as our neighbours believe that it is OK for people to purchase weapons to hunt other people, Canada needs more customs officers at the border, and those officers need to be much more vigilant in checking for weapons entering our country.

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