The crossroads between tragedy and policy is a treacherous one. There’s harm in converting one’s immediate, gut-level emotions into law, but by the same token, it’s not smart to ignore a drastic turn of events, either.
So the Virginia Tech panel’s report to the governor, months after the rampage, is a necessary step, a document that state lawmakers should be able to look to for advice. Cho Seung-Hui murdered 32 people on April 16, and it’s important to prevent similar incidents. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine instructed the panel to find out what happened and why, and to suggest new policies based on those findings.
But regarding guns, the panel shirked its responsibilities. The report pronounces on policies that had nothing to do with the massacre, wildly speculates about what would have happened had given factors been different, and ignores entire bodies of evidence.
Perhaps the only genuine gun control lesson it contains is that firearms and the psychologically unbalanced don’t mix — states should keep and share better records on potentially violent mental health patients. But even the National Rifle Association already knew that.
IN MANY WAYS THE REPORT serves as little more than a platform for anti-gun talking points. Virginia Tech did not allow guns on its campus, and the massacre happened there anyway. The panel manages to warp these facts into advice that “guns be banned on campus grounds and in buildings unless mandated by law.”
The panel also recommends requiring background checks for private sales at gun shows. But again, the facts are that Cho didn’t buy his gun from a show, and he passed a background check. And only about 1 percent (pdf) of crime guns come from gun shows anyway. Not only would the policy not have affected the Virginia Tech shooting, it wouldn’t prevent many others, either.
When it comes to backing up its recommendations, the panel feels the need to play out alternate scenarios where its policies, or the policies of its opponents, are in place. Predictably, pro-gun laws create bad outcomes in the panel’s fantasies.
If innocent students had been carrying guns that day, “the possibility of accidental or mistaken shootings would have increased significantly.” The panel doesn’t provide any evidence for this statement, and it doesn’t point to a single case where a concealed carry permit holder tried to stop an attack but shot the wrong person. And it certainly doesn’t show how an accidental shooting, perhaps before an accurate shot at Cho or perhaps just distracting him, would have been worse than what actually happened.
If anything, John Lott’s research has shown (pdf) that attacks like Cho’s tend not to happen in the first place when concealed carry is in effect — a potential killer knows his victims might be armed. Instead, shootings tend to happen in “gun-free zones” like Virginia Tech.
Not content with its own imagination, the panel then invokes the cops’: “The campus police said that the probability would have been high that anyone emerging from a classroom…holding a gun would have been shot.”
It’s at least plausible that the police could have mistaken an armed student for the killer. But this assumes, again without evidence, a high probability that the armed student would have waited about five minutes (the time that lapsed between the first shot, a 9-1-1 call, and the police response) to act, and that he wouldn’t have noticed the police arriving before he barged into the hall brandishing a weapon. The whole point of concealed carry is that armed citizens can act immediately, and step aside when the police come.
Remember, too, the killer had little experience with firearms; he bought them within months of the shooting and, so far as the panel was able to ascertain, only practiced with them for an hour once. By contrast, one must prove competence with a handgun (typically through a training program) to get a Virginia permit, and gun owners tend to enjoy target shooting on their own. The most probable outcome, therefore, would have been for a permit holder to best Cho in a shootout.
EVEN WHEN THE PANEL is talking about what it’s supposed to and refraining from speculation, it comes up with ridiculous statements like this: “The panel knows of no case in which a shooter in campus homicides has been shot or scared off by a student or faculty member with a weapon.”
Considering this is a high-profile report to a governor, perhaps the panel might have tried reading some of the books available about gun control. The Appalachian Law School shooting is one such case, even if the precise details are a bit murky (some witnesses say the attacker put his weapon down before the armed students confronted him). The incident happened in the panel’s own state, and the report credits the school’s dean as providing “time and comments,” so the omission is particularly egregious. See also The Bias Against Guns.
The list grows if one includes non-college school shootings. In Pearl, Miss., a high school assistant principal retrieved a gun from his truck to stop a shooting. In Edinboro, Pa., a boy attacked a middle school graduation dance at a restaurant, and the restaurant’s owner apprehended him with a shotgun.
Discounting all of that, in deciding whether concealed carry could stop school shootings, it’s absurd to demand an example involving a “campus homicide”: Most campuses ban guns. The relevant question isn’t whether concealed carry already works on campuses, where it isn’t allowed, but whether it works elsewhere and thus might be expanded to campuses to prevent tragedies like this one.
The panel could reasonably have come down on either side of the concealed carry debate, but not without looking at the relevant research. Panel members could have started with the Centers for Disease Control and National Academies of Science reports.
The victims’ families deserved an honest report, one that presented both sides of the gun control debate and tried to make some sense of the evidence. Instead, they got a random smattering of anti-gun rhetoric.