Virginia Tech shootings spark questions, debate

The massacre has many students questioning why they weren't better informed; debate of American gun laws flares up.

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In the aftermath of Monday's shootings at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech), in which at least 33 people died including the gunman, questions and anger remain concerning the school's reaction and communication during the crisis, and debate has ensued over America's gun laws and perceived culture of violence.

The Associated Press reports that after two people were killed in a 7:15 a.m. shooting at a campus dormitory, students weren't warned officially about any danger on the campus until 9:26 a.m., when the school sent an e-mail saying there had been a shooting and that police were investigating. By then, however, a second attack had begun in an academic building, where most of the day's carnage took place. CNN reports that authorities initially thought the first shooting was an "isolated incident," and that they had a "person of interest" they were questioning.

"I don't think anyone could have predicted that another event was going to take place two hours later," [Virginia Tech university president Charles] Steger said, adding that it would've been difficult to warn every student because most were off campus at the time.

Bloomberg reports that police believed the shooter had left the campus grounds after the first shooting. Virginia Tech police chief Wendell Flinchum said "You can second guess all day. We acted on the best information we had."

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However, many students felt that the university didn't do enough to quickly warn them of the gravity of the situation. ABC News reports that students questioned the school's decision not to cancel classes immediately after learning of the first shootings.

"I have no idea why they didn't cancel classes," said [freshman Alexandra] Mengel. "If I had known of the urgency, I would have been more cautious. You would think that when a killer is on the loose, that there would have been more warning." Some students who received the e-mails didn't realize the gravity of the situation.
"I got the e-mails, but my impression was it was [a] prank or nothing serious, hadn't heard anyone was apprehended or actual bombs were found," said Josh Wargo, an engineering student at the school.

The Baltimore Sun reports that because more than half of the 25,000 Virginia Tech students live off campus, it was difficult for school officials to determine whether students should have been secured in dormitories or in classroom buildings. "The question is, where do you lock them down," President Steger said at a news conference. "It takes 20 minutes to walk from some parts of campus to the classroom, so people are already in transit."

Fox News reports that not all students blame campus authorities, and some – like Sibi Genanasunbaran – say the shootings haven't changed their sense of security at the school.

"As much as this happened here and it's scary, I think this could happen anywhere. I can understand why people feel afraid. I've always felt safe at this university. They can do it anywhere and any place and at any time and you can't stop it. It's not like I'm going to transfer out of this college. I still feel safe at Virginia Tech."

An editorial in The Washington Post notes the "heartbreaking" scale of the devastation "even [in] a nation numb to violence and inured to recurrent school shootings." The Post also raises many questions related to the shootings.

The atrocity at Virginia Tech sparked instant and fierce debates, online and elsewhere, even as survivors were fighting for their lives. Under what circumstances, and where, did the gunman obtain his weapons? Would the university have suffered the same tragedy if Virginia law did not prohibit the carrying of guns on campus? Should metal detectors be ubiquitous in American classrooms and dormitories? And why are gunmen so apt to carry out their lethal rampages at American schools?

An editorial in The New York Times with a headline "Eight Years After Columbine" argues that the Virginia Tech shootings prove why tougher gun control laws are needed.

Yesterday's mass shooting at Virginia Tech – the worst in American history – is another horrifying reminder that some of the gravest dangers Americans face come from killers at home armed with guns that are frighteningly easy to obtain.
Not much is known about the gunman, who killed himself, or about his motives or how he got his weapons, so it is premature to draw too many lessons from this tragedy. But it seems a safe bet that in one way or another, this will turn out to be another instance in which an unstable or criminally minded individual had no trouble arming himself and harming defenseless people.

The Associated Press reports that US presidential candidate Sen. John McCain said that the shootings did not change his views on the rights of US citizens to own guns. "I do believe in the constitutional right that everyone has, in the Second Amendment to the Constitution, to carry a weapon," he said. "Obviously we have to keep guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens."

An editorial in The New York Sun points out that in January, a bill in Virginia's legislature did not pass that would have given students a right to carry handguns on college campuses. Following Monday's shootings, the Sun wonders if the Virginia Tech campus "would have been safer had the students and others been permitted to keep and bear arms."

John M. Snyder, public affairs director of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, writes that the shootings show "the need for the carrying of guns on campus by qualified law-abiding students and faculty," and that an armed student or teacher could have prevented the massacre.

It's about time university officials and politicians left their dream world and saw reality as it really is. Good people, and that includes good students and teachers, need to be able to carry guns in order to protect themselves from deranged madmen and other criminals.

Reuters reports that many of the reactions internationally to the news of the shootings were not of surprise, but were rather just another indictment of America's "gun culture."

In The Times of London, columnist Gerard Baker writes that, as Europeans try to make sense of tragedies in the US like the Virginia Tech shooting, "it is [America's] gun culture that foreigners find so hard to understand."

But why, we ask, do Americans continue to tolerate gun laws and a culture that seems to condemn thousands of innocents to death every year, when presumably, tougher restrictions, such as those in force in European countries, could at least reduce the number?

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, James Alan Fox, professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University, looks at some societal reasons why incidents of mass killings in the US seem to have increased in the last 25 years.

So what has changed? For one thing, the United States has become much more dog-eat-dog, more competitive in recent years. We admire those who achieve at any cost, and it seems that we have less compassion for those who fail. (Just look at how eager we are to vote people off the island or to reject them in singing competitions.) This certainly increases frustration on the part of losers.
Then there's the eclipse of traditional community: higher rates of divorce, the decline of church-going and the fact that more people live in urban areas, where they may not even know their neighbors. If mass murderers are isolated people who lack support, these trends only exacerbate the situation.

Finally, in an opinion piece in the National Review, Eli Lehrer writes that the move away from "campus security" toward "campus police" may be part of the problem in preventing and responding to violent incidents on college campuses, and that colleges, which don't have the same need for a police force as cities do, should return to the "security" model.

Instead of a police mindset devoted to protecting the community from crime, campus police would do better to develop a security mindset devoted to controlling access. They should go back to being "campus security." Good security guards can play an important role in preventing trouble: at their best, they can know all "regulars" by site, question outsiders firmly but well, and pay special attention to those who behave suspiciously. Good security also involves planning for both shelter-in-place — "everyone, stay inside and lock your door" — and evacuation plans. College campuses can do these things. Cities, for the most part, can't. Although some of the planning requires a good mind for logistics, most of this is simpler than ordinary police work.
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