Monday, April 23, 2007

We need the facts before a debate can begin--Updated

Last week's tragedy at Virginia Tech funtioned as a kind of Rorshach test for Virginia's political bloggers. Some attempted to politicize the event within hours, if not minutes, after it occurred. Some were pro-gun, some were anti-gun. I think both were wrong. Simply put, we still don't have enough of a grasp of the facts to design good policy or write good laws (if indeed new laws are found to be necessary).

Given the dearth of information I think we should be asking questions now, not pushing knee-jerk "solutions" that in fact solve nothing.

Here are some of the questions floating around in my head:
1. What did Cho's family know and when? Should families be held responsible for the actions of a family member if they could have reasonably identified that individual as dangerous? What would be the standard? Could his family reasonably determine he was a threat?

Underlying issue: Could those who presumably knew Cho best have prevented the shooting?

2. I want to better understand the sequence and time of Cho's encounters with Virginia's mental health system. Were there red flags that should have been noticed and acted upon? Where is the balance between an individual's freedom from involuntary commitment and society's need to protect itself? Does that balance require adjustment?

Underlying issue: Is Virginia's mental health system flawed? What is the balance between individual rights and the right of society to be free of the threat posed by by those who are violently mentally ill?

3. What was the basis for the campus police and administration's decision not to lock down campus? I worry that the wrong lesson was learned from the incident last year when an inmate escaped and killed two people. Why did they fail to give a timely warning, even if they assumed the shooter had left campus after the first two killings? Do students and faculty have a right to know about such threats so they can make decisions related to their own safety, or should these decisions be made for them by the university administration? Did the decision to restrict guns from the campus place a higher duty of care on the university to protect its unarmed and largely defenseless students and faculty? Did the campus police and administration decide that they had over-reacted to the earlier incident? Did they believe that a lock down would not be worth the chaos and disruption it would entail?

Underlying issue: Did university policies and the reactions of key university employees contribute to the scale of the disaster?

4. Many Republican commentators have accused the victims of not fighting back, especially during the periods when the shooter was reloading. I do not think these criticisms of the victims have any merit, but I would like to better understand the precise nature of the weapons used by the shooter. How many magazines did the shooter have and what kind were they? How large? One of the weapons used by the shooter was a Glock 19 9mm pistol. The pistol comes with a 15-round magazine, but can also accept higher capacity magazines (17, 19 and 33-round magazines are available) designed for the Glock 17. UPDATE: NBC News and Democracy Now! have both reported that Cho had several of the very large 33-round magazines for his Glock 19.

The shooter also carried a Walther P22, a pistol chambered in the relatively small (but still lethal) caliber of .22 LR. The P22 accepts a 10-round magazine and there is not, to the best of my knowledge, a higher capacity magazine available. Did the shooter rely on the Glock 19 and keep the P22 in reserve as a backup, or did he use both weapons at the same time?

Underlying issue(s): Was the shooter using an ordinary pistol, or was he using an assault weapon with multiple high-capacity magazines?
Finally, a few observations. Most of the arguments I have seen posted so far are not only premature, they are too simplistic (i.e. ban all guns or make everyone carry a gun). This seems to me to be a tragedy with many layers, and I suspect that three or even all four of the groups of questions I have posed will need to be addressed. Families and health professionals will probably need to look at how we identify dangerous individuals and the kinds of actions we need to take once they are identified. University and school officials will need to re-evaluate what kinds of security they provide and when and how they choose to warn their students and staff about possible threats.

The one possible gun control issue I see here depends on the type and number of magazines used by Cho. If he had one or more 33-round assault magazines, then it could be a problem for the Republican Party, which allowed the ban on such high-capacity magazines to expire. UPDATE: NBC News and Democracy Now! have both reported that Cho had several of the very large 33-round magazines for his Glock 19.

Those gun enthusiasts who are trying to use the tragedy to argue for a better armed public are likewise out of step with reality. The Second Amendment provides a right to bear arms, not a responsibility to bear arms. Those of us who choose not to carry arms at all times have a right to be free from gun violence. The victims of these shootings are not responsible in any way for what happened to them.

These then are the issues to be discussed. Did I miss anything? Are there any other questions you think need to be addressed? Drop me a comment and let me know.

Note: One of the commentors to this story brings up the issue of Virginia gun dealers selling guns which are then taken out of state and used for criminal purchases. I agree that this issue needs to be addressed. I believe that the General Assembly ought to look at bringing Virginia's gun laws more into line with those of our neighboring states so that criminals won't look at Virginia as an easy place to get a gun.


AnonymousIsAWoman said...

You raise good questions. But please remember that hindsight is always 20/20 and every Monday morning quarterback can appear brilliant.

The thing is, we are able to have the benefit of seeing the complete picture including the tragic ending. Reporters, researchers and writers have put together the facts and put it into a coherent narrative for us.

The people who lived it often only had the few facts and bits of data that a limited vantage point allowed them to see.

In other words, they couldn't see the forest for the trees. We, meanwhile, have a wide angle view of the entire forest in retrospect. said...

Great site...I'm glad there are others out there who are still talking about gun control, since the MSM is likely to let it slide, along with most everyone in DC
Here is my contribution to the effort:
Arm Fratboys -or- Curb Straw Purchases?
I linked to your site on - hope you'll check it out and maybe reciprocate.
Peace - DI

The Richmond Democrat said...


Agreed, and that is why these are questions rather than answers. I guess an implied part of each question is the issue of reasonability and reasonable foreseeable.

In addition to asking the questions I listed above, I'm sure investigators will ask whether or not the various actors acted "reasonably."

The Richmond Democrat said...

Dead Issue:

Happy to oblige . . . said...

Thanks friend, I look forward to appearing on your blogroll! I've had the pleasure of visiting Virginia once in the past, for a string of concerts at the best indoor venue in America (in my opinion), the Hampton Coliseum.

In general the commonwealth of Virginia is a mixed bag of ideologies, which is certainly a good thing, but why the state's gun dealers haven't been checked on the issue of straw purchases should be of grave concern to all who live there.

The impact it has on the inner cities to its north cannot be understated. And now the anything-goes profit strategy has put the state on an historical map for reasons that everyone in America is horrified by.

As someone who has been questioning Virginia's lax oversight of gun sales for years now, I'm bothered by how ridiculous the press has become in getting to the root of a this case, for the most part they've missed the point entirely.

For me it is simple:

- Are we comfortable with same day gun purchases with so little background screening?
- Are we comfortable with ammunition being sold on eBay?

I'd answer "no" to both. The government seems to monitor more closely the purchase of alcohol and cigarettes than it does firearms. The result is what we saw at Virginia Tech.

Peace - DI