The following is the Epilogue from the February 11, 2017 re-issue of my book Virginia Tech: Make Sure It Doesn’t Get Out.
EPILOGUE: Where Are We Now?
“…morality ends where the gun begins.”
~Ayn Rand, American novelist, playwright, screenwriter
You cannot make people listen who have plugged their ears; you cannot make people see when they will not open their eyes. Following the Virginia Tech tragedy, a parent of a wounded student asked school president Steger at a meeting with the Administration in Owens Field House, “If you knew then what you know now, would you do anything differently?” Steger said, “No.” It was not enough that the families had been traumatized by the deaths and wounding of loved ones, Steger had to underscore that he had learned nothing from the tragedy. He would do it again, follow the same inadequate procedures and make the same poor judgment calls, because to do otherwise would mean that he had something to learn. His callous indifference defies description, but his answer still fits our circumstances: we know more now than we did before April 16, 2007, but we are not doing much to keep our schools and streets any safer than they were before that terrible day. Yes, schools have spent millions of dollars on warning and alert systems, but it takes human beings to activate those systems.
A warning system was in place on the morning of April 16, 2007 at Virginia Tech, but those who could have activated it in time to save 30 lives at Norris Hall procrastinated until it was too late. No one was held accountable for his or her failure to alert the Tech campus. Until there is accountability our schools will not be safe. I am not talking about revenge; I am talking about competence in crisis management. If you are not up to the job, and if you do not do your job, you should be removed and held accountable.
Prior to April 16, 2007, the warning signs in Cho’s behavior and faculty concerns were there. Those signs were ignored. School, police and mental health officials knew of Cho’s potential for violence, but because of ignorance of the law, incompetence, and a general unwillingness to take action, people in positions of trust and authority allowed Cho’s illness to fester until it burst in an orgy of bullets, blood, pain, and anguish. Again, until people are held accountable for turning their backs on signs of imminent violence, our schools will not be safe.
The far-right hysteria over gun control and the Second Amendment has all but doomed any chance of a calm discussion of the best way to keep guns out of the hands of those bent on violence. The Second Amendment should never have been part of the debate on school safety. The issue is not the rights of law-abiding mentally healthy citizens to own guns; the issue is keeping guns out of the hands of terrorists (school shootings are a form of domestic terrorism), convicted felons, and those who are a danger to themselves or others. However, there seems to be no limit to what these right-wingers will say. Backed by the National Rifle Association and gun manufacturers, these people will say and do just about anything in order to prevent a public dialogue over how to keep guns out of the hands of people who are bent on killing or wounding others.
As a nation we have the responsibility to mount an offensive against the gun violence that plagues this country. We need to move forward on many fronts: against the glorification of violence in the media, from bumper stickers to television shows and movies; against video games that glamorize gore and murder; against domestic violence. We have to reject violence as the first and best response to interpersonal conflict.
Following September 11, 2001 we came together and demonstrated the resolve and determination to root out the Al Qa’ida threat. We have spent billions of dollars on two wars and thousands of Americans have been killed or wounded on the battlefield to fight those who use terrorist tactics against us. We showed that, as a great nation, we have the will and determination to put political and philosophical differences aside in a common struggle for the good of all. We must to do the same now in a struggle that cannot be solved with soldiers and tanks.
Now, in this struggle against school shootings, it’s not a foreign enemy responsible for the killing, it’s ourselves. We are sacrificing little children, young adults and innocent bystanders everywhere because the multi-billion dollar gun industry is afraid that effective gun licensing will cut into their profits. Gun advocates use the second amendment to make sure that companies such as Smith & Wesson and Glock make profits by selling military-grade weapons to private individuals. But to quote Professor Bill Jenkins* from Dominican University, River Forest, Illinois: “We don’t use the First Amendment to keep newspapers in business.” The Second Amendment should not be used to ensure that gun manufacturers have healthy earnings.
Some sociologists have said that when you scratch the veneer of religion and civilization in which humans are wrapped, you expose a primeval creature capable of the most despicable crimes. You need look no further than the holocaust, the genocide in Bosnia, or the violence on the streets of America for proof of this assertion. The massacres at the Appalachian School of Law, Sandy Hook, the movie theater in Aurora, and at Virginia Tech are ample proof of these despicable crimes. Indeed, it is this primal, visceral instinct, as well as the fear it inspires, that gun manufacturers play upon in pressing for totally unrestricted gun ownership—the right to carry any gun, anywhere, at anytime.
The gun industry has a willing mouthpiece, the National Rifle Association (NRA), to engage in fear mongering saying that the government is coming to get our guns. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Supreme Court has confirmed that the Second Amendment guarantees the right of all American citizens to own handguns and rifles for protection. Furthermore, hunting is a way of life in the U.S.; no one is talking about taking guns away from law-abiding hunters. However, all of the rights granted us in the Bill of Rights have limitations. If you defend unlimited access to guns, including high-powered weapons, you are defending the rights of the Sandy Hook butcher, Adam Lanza, to use a Bushmaster Model XN-15-E25 rife on 20 elementary school children and six teachers and staff. No part of the Constitution was ever meant to give any citizen carte blanche to kill people. According to the research done by Professor Jenkins, 80 percent of Americans (this includes a huge number of hunters) favor tighter gun control laws.
Assault weapons and high capacity clips are designed for military and police use; they are designed specifically to kill people; they are not meant for untrained private citizens’ hands. Hunters do not use these weapons; private citizens do not need to protect themselves with an assault weapon. The NRA’s position that the Second Amendment guarantees that anyone can own any gun is nothing less than a full-scale distortion of the truth. Nowhere does the Second Amendment guarantee the rights of terrorists, convicted felons, or those who are a danger to themselves or others to own guns. Here is the Second Amendment: “Right to Keep and Bear Arms: A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” But when it comes to rights guaranteed all Americans in the Second Amendment, gun manufacturers see no limits. Their actions may be legal, but in pushing for unlimited gun sales, those actions are morally repugnant. Unlimited access to high-powered weapons means:
· --That it is much easier for felons, terrorists, criminals, and the dangerously mentally ill to get these weapons;
· --That criminals have a disposable commodity that is often hard to trace;
· --That unsavory elements of society can buy guns through private sellers without a background check; and,
· --That gun traffickers can buy in bulk without any check or explanation (frequently aided by complicit gun dealers who report their inventory “lost.”)
Money is at the heart of the gun violence epidemic in this country. Gun sales are profitable, and the gun industry wants to keep it that way. There is no money in limiting the sale of military-style assault weapons such as Bushmasters and high-capacity clips. Indeed, according to Professor Jenkins, “These weapons are the weapons of choice by criminals who want to bring warfare to the streets.” A lawyer, who was advising the Virginia Tech families, said to me something along the following lines, “It is the sad truth, but we will have no meaningful gun control in this country until someone finds a way to make a profit out of it.”
The NRA is methodically and deliberately dishonest in its efforts to make people think, “big brother is going to get your weapons.” In fact, there are only four federal gun control laws:
· The 1930s ban on machine guns
· The 1968 Gun Control Act codifying legal purchasers
· The Brady Background Check of 1993
· The Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 (expired in 2004)
Legally bought weapons were used by a troubled young man to kill children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012, and then a few days later by a deranged murderer to kill two firemen and wound two others in New York state.
The loopholes in the three remaining gun control laws are so wide that it makes it easy for anyone to buy a high-powered weapon. Here in Virginia, there is no background check if you buy a weapon at a gun show. Criminals taking advantage of the gun show loophole buy a large number of their weapons in Virginia and then use them in crimes in New York City, according to 2011 statistics released by New York City Mayor, Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly.
So-called patriots, who defend the Second Amendment to the exclusion of all other rights, are in fact defending the rights of a dangerously mentally ill person to have access to guns that could then be used to, for example, snuff out the lives of 20 children and six of their teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Is the fear of preserving one’s own employment, or the fear of not making a profit so powerful as to justify bending the rules or putting a twist on truth? I believe this question needs to be addressed in not just analyzing the Virginia Tech massacre, but in analyzing school shootings everywhere.
Virginia Tech seems to want to pretend their massacre never happened; the school wants to move on. There was no admission of guilt and no determination to do everything possible to try to ensure that there would not be a repetition of Cho’s actions. Tech President Steger and his old boy network* were alarmingly uncooperative and non-communicative in the wake of the April 16, 2007 shootings.
Even if you explain the bumbling mistakes of Virginia Tech on that awful day in April 2007, you cannot explain away the school administration’s insensitivity toward many of the grieving families in the weeks and months that followed. You cannot explain away school officials’ willingness to cover up. Virginia Tech apparently felt the families would just have to live with their loss, time would pass, they would die and the memories would fade.
But, where are we now? The average citizen who is haunted by the faces of the children at Sandy Hook and wants to do something to prevent future violence faces a gun industry consumed by greed. The gun industry that saturated the legitimate gun-owner market, and apparently looks the other way as sales to criminal elements soar, also appears willing to say anything to prevent tighter gun controls that would cut into those profits. The reality is that the gun industry wants to expand sales no matter what the cost in human lives. The gun industry is powerful, rich, shrewd, and formidable, so it is no surprise that it is succeeding.
Where are we now? We live in a country where there are 85 firearms-related deaths a day; where 30,000 people are killed and another 90,000 are wounded by guns every year. We live in country where there are an estimated 300,000,000 guns in private hands. These figures are from The National Center for Injury Prevention Control, U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Web-based Injury Statistics Query System (WIAQARS) Injury Mortality Reports, 1999-2006.
Where are we now? We live in a country where powerful people perpetuate the myth that more guns on the streets will mean less crime; where statistics are distorted by special interests; and where the gun industry relies on superficial,
visceral, and unfounded emotional arguments to promote its sales. When challenged, these lobbyists and promoters will hide behind the shield of the second amendment, thinking that it makes them invulnerable to criticism.
The truth, however, is that there are limits on all the amendments to the Constitution. In fact, there are whole books devoted to exploring how and when and why limits need to be placed on the amendments. There are limits on what a person
can say, so you can’t spread lies about someone despite the fact that the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech. There are limits on how one can go about “pursuing happiness,” so you can’t steal a car even if you think it the key to your bliss. It follows that you should not be able to possess an assault weapon if you aren’t on active duty in the military or with the police. You should not be able to purchase any gun if you have a history of mental illness. The fact that limits are not in place is due to individuals who willfully cloud the issues and obscure the facts surrounding mass shootings for their own benefit.
The truth that victims of the Virginia Tech tragedy desperately want is still lacking. Without the truth, they remain prisoners of their agony. Without the truth, we are doomed to more Sandy Hook-style massacres at elementary schools, high schools, and colleges; more shootings in movie theaters and grocery stores; more workplace murders, and more domestic violence. Where is the next target-rich environment where we will shed more tears, then leave flowers and cards to remember those mowed down by a madman?
The ripples of April 16, 2007 still interrupt lives of so many. Shortly before publication of this book I received the following from Virginia State Policeman Gary Chafin:
“I was a small part of that day. I feel I do not throw a shadow around most of that were there. But I will always hurt. I will never forget what I saw that awful day, I will run to Matt LaPorte and Reema Samaha. When my time here is done I will beg their forgiveness for being there first—before the very devil we fear got lose and walked among the young of Tech that would’ve been giants on earth in their time. Gary Chafin, nearly 7 years removed from the lowest ebb of my life.”
The shootings persist; they are a blight and stain on this country.
This situation will not change until all segments of society—priests, rabbis, ministers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, professors, politicians, blue and white collar workers, fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, everyone—say enough is enough. Individuals can make a difference by demanding that more money be spent on mental health care, holding people in positions of trust accountable when their actions and inactions result in the deaths of innocent people, and finally, by not reelecting who are in the pockets of the gun lobby.
Again, I am taking no money from the sale of this book. This book was written out of respect and love for the victims of shootings, their families, friends, and loved ones. (To be continued)
* On August 12, 1997, 16-year-old Will Jenkins was murdered in a robbery at the aptly named Richmond, Virginia fast-food restaurant, “Bullets.” It was Will’s second day on the job. A 23-year-old assailant killed him at closing time with one shot in the neck. He died instantly. Will’s father, Professor Bill Jenkins, who teaches at Dominican University’s Performing Arts Center, has become a prominent victims’ rights advocate, working for violence prevention.
* The following members of President Steger’s administration were graduates of the school’s class of 1969: University President Charles Steger himself; Frank Beamer, head football coach; Thomas C. Tillar, Vice President Alumni Relations; Ray Smoot, Chief Operating Office and Treasurer of the Virginia Tech Foundation; and Joe Meredith, Corporate Research Center President