April 27, 2007


Stopping the Shooter

By Thomas Firey

How could we have stopped Cho Seung Hui?

That question has crossed our minds countless times since last week’s horrific events. How could we have prevented the tragedy at Virginia Tech?

There is something reassuring in the question. It assumes that there is an answer, that if we are clever enough and politically resolved enough, we can thwart someone who is so bent on killing people that he’s willing to die in order to do so.

And the assumption is probably correct: there likely are combinations of weapons laws, security procedures, psychiatric interventions, information sharing and emergency protocols that would have frustrated Cho, or Charles Roberts at the Amish schoolhouse, or Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at Columbine, or the 9/11 attackers.

But would we be willing to adopt such policies?

The impulsive answer is, yes, of course - they would save lives. But consider: The gravest threat to Virginia Tech students —and all other high school and college students— is not a gunman, but riding in a car. There were 43,443 highway fatalities in the United States in 2005, as compared to 16,692 murders. Highway fatalities would drop to near zero if the United States were to lower its speed limit to 10 mph. But that policy seems too severe; we opt for higher speeds, knowing that they mean many more highway deaths.

There is, of course, a range of speed limits between 10 mph and 65 mph that we can adopt, just as there is a range of policies that we can adopt in response to last weeks rampage. What policies would have stopped Cho?

What if the university were to step up interventions on behalf of students’ mental health? But the university did intervene on Cho’s behalf; we now know that school police had him involuntarily institutionalized in 2005 and that he subsequently agreed to further counseling. Since then, his conduct had not merited legal attention, but his professors recommended additional counseling because of his bizarre prose.

What if the university were more aggressive in securing the campus in the wake of an incident like the first shooting that Monday morning? But Tech’s campus and downtown Blacksburg are perpetually bustling with students. A sudden lockdown would not have denied Cho of plenty of innocent victims in places other than the dorms and classroom buildings.

What if the nation were to adopt tighter gun control laws, or even an outright firearms ban? D.C. has had a de facto handgun ban for more than three decades; last year (a relatively peaceful year), there were 169 murders in the District. And bloodbaths dont require firearms the deadliest school massacre in U.S. history remains the 1927 Bath Township, Mich., disaster in which Andrew Kehoe’s bombs killed 43 people and himself.

To thwart Cho would have required far more rigorous mental health interventions, far stronger “community lockdown” provisions, far greater accumulation and distribution of personal health information, far stricter security procedures and far tougher gun control laws than anything we now contemplate. And those provisions would catch up many, many harmless people before they would halt one Cho.

Again, would we be willing to adopt such policies?

We can ensure that no one will ever visit a second tragedy on Blacksburg. But, in doing so, how much of what makes Virginia Tech so special would be lost? And what would be lost for the rest of us?

Thomas Firey, managing editor of the Cato Institute’s Regulation magazine, received a master’s degree in philosophy from Virginia Tech in 1999.

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