Thursday, April 19, 2007

Armed & dangerous at school

A disturbed young man, two handguns, a shooting spree on a school campus, and 32 innocent people are dead in what authorities are calling the worst shooting rampage in our nation's history.

Amid the chaos, law enforcement officials are trying to figure out why a 23-year-old college student at Virginia Tech became a mass murderer Monday. They're piecing together bits of information about who he was, what made him tick, and what was so terribly wrong.

It's not as if there aren't any clues. The depth of the man's psychological troubles was evident — to his roommates, to whom he barely spoke, to his classmates, who found him so "creepy" they dropped out of a class they shared, even to a teacher, who refused to continue to teach him, referred him for counseling and even reported him to the police.

Then there are the other "whys" about this horrific incident, the questions being asked of school and police officials: Why didn't the university administration take immediate action after two students in a dorm were shot dead at 7 a.m., hours before the rampage in an academic building? Why weren't students notified of a gunman on campus? Why didn't the administration implement a campus "lockdown"? People will continue to ask, especially the family members of the students who lost their lives — and inevitably, their lawyers. The university president's answer this week will not likely change very much: We did the best we could with the information we had available.

And they probably did. Which doesn't make the answer any more satisfying to the parents of children murdered in their classrooms Monday morning.

There are plenty of unanswered "whys" but the "how" is crystal clear. A 23-year-old man legally purchased two handguns in the last two months, according to police. He walked into a pawnshop and bought a .22 caliber pistol in February. In March, he bought a semiautomatic 9-mm Glock from a gun dealer — a gun similar to the handgun carried by police officers, capable of firing 15 rounds in rapid succession. He bought these guns pursuant to Virginia law. The dealers conducted the routine background check the law requires. He was clean. He walked out with the weapons — and ammo — in hand. In Virginia, you can buy one handgun every 30 days.

The ease with which people, even deeply disturbed people like Cho Seung-Hui, can legally purchase weapons in America is appalling. I don't understand the justification for selling semiautomatic and automatic handguns. These are not hunting guns. They are murder weapons, period. How could this even be a matter of debate?

How could anyone look at Monday's massacre and not think about gun control laws? Better still, how could anyone respond to what happened this week by accusing gun control advocates of "dancing in blood" and trying to politicize the massacre in an effort to "destroy the second amendment." That's exactly what Alan Gottleib, the founder of The Second Amendment Foundation, says in a press release e-mailed to me Tuesday. And Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, says in another press release, issued the same day as the attack, that gun bans are the problem, not the solution. He calls for an "immediate end to the gun-free zone law" in Virginia, which prohibits guns on school campuses. "[Criminals] don't like having their victims shoot back at them," says Mr. Pratt in the press release — sent to the media, offering him as a talk show guest. If other Virginia Tech students had been armed, they could have stopped the shooter, he says.

Give everyone a gun and we'll all be safer. Machine gun, anyone?

I doubt there's a parent in America this morning, still processing this week's events, and remembering Columbine, a similar tragedy that occurred eight years ago tomorrow, who doesn't have a heavy feeling in the pit of her or his stomach. It comes over me as I watch my daughters walk into Riverhead High School when I drop them off every morning. I think of the parents who said goodbye from behind the wheel of their car on April 20, 1999, unaware they'd never see their kids again, because of two deeply disturbed, heavily armed young men on a rampage. Most mornings, I whisper a little prayer. Keep them safe, Lord. Please keep them safe.

And that's the best I can do. Pray. Like the actions of administrators at Virginia Tech this week, it may not be enough. Only two things would stop a shooter like Cho: cure his sickness or keep a gun out of his hands. We can't seem to do either.