Shotgun News, July 1, 2007
You know what happened at Virginia Tech in April. A college student named Cho Seung-Hui went on a rampage, murdering first two people in a dormitory, then mailing a video rant to NBC News—then murdering thirty more people in an engineering building across campus.
Gun control groups tried to argue for more restrictive gun control—but they didn't get very far. Seung-Hui's guns were a Glock 22 pistol, and a Walther P22, both legally purchased in Virginia from a licensed dealer after the federally required background check. Neither were “assault weapons,” and no one seriously believes that limiting his Glock to 10 round magazines would have made any difference. It might have mattered if someone had been shooting back at Seung-Hui, but that, alas, was not an option.
Gun rights groups pointed out that Virginia Tech is a “gun-free zone.” The Virginia legislature considered a bill last year that would have allowed those with concealed carry permits to carry on campus, after an incident in which a prison escapee killed someone on campus. Virginia Tech grad student Bradford B. Wiles wrote an eerily prophetic commentary in August of 2006 about why concealed carry permitees should be allowed to carry on campus. Virginia Tech's administration opposed it. As Larry Hincker, associate vice president for university relations explained, “The writer would have us believe that a university campus, with tens of thousands of young people, is safer with everyone packing heat. Imagine the continual fear of students in that scenario. We've seen that fear here, and we don't want to see it again.”
While I generally agree that the concealed carry bans on college campuses are wrong—especially since most of the likely carriers are going to be faculty and staff, just because most undergraduates are too young to get permits—I also wouldn't hold enormous hope for them to solve problems like this.
Widespread concealed carry works primarily because it deters criminals—most of whom want to go home at the end of a long day raping, robbing, and murdering people. A rational criminals looks at the fact that 3-5% of the population in most “shall-issue” states has a carry permit, and that perhaps 1% of the population at any given time is actually carrying, and says, “Hmmm. There's about a one in one hundred chance that my next victim is going to draw a gun on me. If I'm very lucky, I'll get to my victim before he draws his gun. If I'm just lucky, I'll be held for the police. If I'm not lucky, I'll go to the hospital, or the morgue. If I attack five people a day, there's perhaps a 1% chance of not making it home tonight. I think I'll do something else of a criminal nature, like run for public office instead.”
This is fine for the perhaps 5-8% of criminals who are capable of rational thought, but doesn't help much with the rest—and for someone like Seung-Hui, who intended to kill himself at the end of the day—it does not work at all. You can't deter a person who plans to shoot himself; the best that you can hope for is that one of his first victims is armed, and shoots a spree killer before the body count gets too high. If only 1% of the victim population is actually carrying a gun (and on a college campus, it probably would not even be that high), this is not going to make a big difference.
Now, there are situations where this has worked, such as at Appalachian Law School in 2002, where students used a handgun to stop Peter Odighizuwa's shooting rampage, or Pearl High School in 1997, where assistant principal Joel Myrick retrieved a pistol from his truck in the parking lot to subdue Luke Woodham, who had already killed two students and wounded seven others. But as say in the engineering business, instead of fixing the symptoms, can we do some root cause analysis on this problem?
Seung-Hui was schizophrenic. His connection to reality had been declining for several years. After some apparently harassing emails to fellow students and what can only be described as bizarre classroom behavior, he was briefly hospitalized. An examination revealed that he had some significant problems, and a judge who hears involuntary commitment cases decided that while he was a threat to himself, there were alternatives to locking him up in a mental hospital. One of his professors could tell that there was something seriously wrong him, and she was worried about her own safety when meeting with him. “She said she notified authorities about Cho, but said she was told that there would be too many legal hurdles to intervene. She said she asked him to go to counseling, but he never did.”
Part of the problem was that because the judge did not involuntarily commit Seung-Hui, Virginia did not forward his name to the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System—which is the gun background check system. I am under no illusions about this; if Seung-Hui could not legally buy that Glock and Walther from a dealer, he might well have bought them privately.
Could Cho have bought guns privately? Very probably. There are mental patients who are so obviously disturbed that a gun dealer would not sell to them—or even allow them into the store. Even the most opportunistic criminal would think twice about buying and reselling guns to someone who appeared to be crazy, both out of fear of the mental patient coming to the attention of the police (who would then want to find out where the guns came from), and out of fear of being injured by the patient. Seung-Hui's problems were not so glaringly obvious to make his gun dealer nervous.
All background check systems work at the margin. They don't work perfectly. If 2% of prohibited persons, because they can't buy from a dealer, decide not to buy a gun, or need to spend more money or time to find a private seller, this can be a good thing. They may not find a private seller. They may be delayed long enough to give up on their project. They find the cost prohibitive—or not have enough money left to buy the vast quantity of ammunition that Cho apparently used.
We have a choice on this: try to fix a significant hole in the system, even if it isn't perfect, or find ourselves confronting the same problem a few years down the road. I would rather not wait for another mentally ill person to buy a gun from a dealer, and murder 32 people.
It turns out that even where states should be turning over involuntary mental illness commitment information to the federal government—many are not doing so. Eighteen states have privacy laws that prevent them from turning over lists of the involuntarily committed to the FBI. Another ten have “inadequate communication between agencies, incomplete records or lack of resources.” I'm ashamed to say that Idaho is one of these twenty-eight states that isn't doing its job on this—and I scratch my head trying to figure out why. I rather doubt that it is because of privacy concerns—you can't get a concealed handgun license in Idaho if you are mentally ill, and they check those records when you apply for a permit.
I am also not naïve about the dangers of too loose a definition of “mentally ill.” California law in this area, for example, is a curious mixture of too loose and remarkably sensible. California's Welfare & Institutions Code 5150 allows psychiatric care professionals or peace officers to involuntarily hospitalize “upon probable cause” anyone that they believe to be a danger to themselves or others for up to 72 hours. Once you have been 5150ed, you lose your right to possess firearms for five years.
This can be, and has been abused. I know someone who got upset with a bureaucrat at the Sonoma County Planning Department some years ago, and made some rather stupid and rash statement along the lines, "If I have to do any more paperwork for this subdivision, I'll kill myself." The bureaucrat apparently was sufficiently displeased that he called the police. Within an hour, this guy had been picked up and taken to a mental hospital. Two hours after his admission, he was back out. The staff could see that this guy was no threat to himself or to others—but that two hours of observation was now a problem, and he had a bit of work to go through to get his firearms disability removed, including petitioning the court. Unfortunately, the burden of proof is on you to prove that there is good reason to remove that firearms disability. In some counties of California, where hostility to gun ownership by judges is widespread, that would be a high standard to meet, I fear.
There needs to be some minimum level of due process to cause a person to lose their right to possess firearms—and it should not be a lifetime disability. There are people who go through difficult times, especially teenagers and young adults, and then straighten their lives out. Five years does not seem unreasonable; if someone keeps getting locked up for observation or commitment more than once every five years, he either has a serious problem, or he needs to move to a less abusive locale. Most people suffering from serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, are hospitalized more often than that.
Still, the root cause of the failure we saw at Virginia Tech was not the background check system's lack of data. The root cause was a beautiful dream of the 1960s that did not work. Not only gun owners, but all Americans, are now paying an awful price for that dream which has turned into a tragedy. Next month, I will tell you a bit more about why we are no longer shocked by mass murders like Cho Seung-Hui—and what we need to do about it.
Clayton E. Cramer is a software engineer and historian. His sixth book, Armed America: The Remarkable Story of How and Why Guns Became as American as Apple Pie (Nelson Current, 2007), is available in bookstores. His web site is http://www.claytoncramer.com.
 Bradford B. Wiles, “Uarmed and vunerable,” Roanoke Times, August 31, 2006, http://www.roanoke.com/editorials/commentary/wb/80510, last accessed May 20, 2007.
 Larry Hincker, “Imagine if students were armed,” Roanoke Times, September 5, 2006, http://www.roanoke.com/editorials/commentary/wb/81277, last accessed May 20, 2007.
 Josh White, “Law School Shooter Pleads Guilty; Former Student Avoids Death Penalty in Deal on Va. Slayings,” Washington Post, February 28, 2004, B03, quoted at http://johnrlott.tripod.com/postsbyday/3-5-04.html, last accessed May 20, 2007.
 Angie Wagner, “Soldier of Fortune honors former assistant principal who subdued gunman,” Las Vegas Sun, September 24, 1999, http://www.lasvegassun.com/sunbin/stories/text/1999/sep/24/509347521.html, last accessed May 20, 2007.
 Ned Potter, David Schoetz, Richard Esposito, Pierre Thomas, “Killer's Note: 'You Caused Me to Do This',” ABC News, April 17, 2007, http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=3048108&page=1, last accessed May 20, 2007.
 Tom Breen, Associated Press, “Gun database omits many mental health records,” Lawrence [Kansas] Journal-World and News, April 26, 2007, http://www2.ljworld.com/news/2007/apr/26/gun_database_omits_many_mental_health_records/, last accessed May 20, 2007.
 Idaho Code § 18-3302, http://www3.state.id.us/cgi-bin/newidst?sctid=180330002.K, last accessed May 20, 2007.
 Cal. Welfare & Institutions §§ 5150, 8103(f).