04 January 2011

Gun control at VT

Yesterday, Colin Goddard penned an op-ed piece for CNN. Mr. Goddard is a graduate of Virginia Tech University and an assistant director of legislative affairs at the Brady Campaign. He was also shot, apparently three times, during Seung-Hui Cho's shooting spree at VT back in 2007. In his op-ed, he attempts to make the case for keeping guns off campus, but he also raises a number of other issues that should be given a second look.
The mental health response also failed at Virginia Tech, as it has in other multiple shootings elsewhere. In almost every case, there have been friends, teachers and others who knew the shooter was troubled and likely dangerous. In many cases, including the Virginia Tech shooting, the shooter had sought help, then fell through the cracks due to weaknesses in the system. No one in a position of authority to act listened to and properly reported the warnings.
The shooter was apparently mentally unstable; however, he had the presence of mind to seek out help for his condition. The VT review panel that investigated the incident found that Mr. Cho had a history of mental problems but that none of them were shared between his high school and the college or even within the college due to officials' concerns that to do so would violate federal and/or state privacy laws. The panel's report also cites failure on the part of the Cook Counseling Center to "provide needed support and services" to Cho in 2005 and 2006.

Mr. Goddard points to Mr. Cho's mental health issues and the fact that the National Instant Criminal Background (NICS) Check System, the FBI check mandated by the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993, should have prevented Mr. Cho from purchasing his weapons.
Seung-Hui Cho was the subject of a court order finding him a danger to himself or others because of mental illness. That court order was not submitted, allowing him to pass two background checks, purchase two guns and kill 32 people and himself.
Mr. Cho purchased his guns via the legally approved method. He would have had to lie on his ATF forms, but the NICS check cleared him. In spite of Mr. Goddard's calls to "do more to keep guns from dangerous people in the first place", the NICS database check that he points to actually worked exactly as it was supposed to work. It's only as good as the information contained in the database, though, and the government (via the court that adjudicated Mr. Cho mentally ill) failed to properly populate said database.

Mr. Goddard then goes on to rail against the so-called "gun show loophole":
Also--startlingly--felons, the dangerously mentally ill and just about anybody can buy firearms without the background check or any paperwork at all. I'm not talking about on the streets or from the "black market," but in public from "private sellers" at advertised events, such as gun shows and in newspaper and catalog ads. In the transactions in which NICS background checks have been done under the Brady law, 1.9 million purchases of guns have been stopped since 1994.
The word "loophole" in this situation a misnomer. What Mr. Goddard refers to is the legal sale of firearms from one private party to another. The fact is, that in most of the country, private parties can sell firearms to each other without any kind of paperwork or records in much the same way you would sell old furniture or a refrigerator. To combat this problem, Mr. Goddard implies that this law should be changed to require NICS checks for all sales. Wait a minute. Didn't Mr. Goddard a few paragraphs back point out that the NICS check doesn't work? Mr. Cho, after all, underwent a background check and passed.

Then there's the statistic that 1.9 million gun sales have been stopped since 1994. According to the Brady Campaign's own website, 4.5 million new guns are sold each year. That means that 2.6% of gun sales have been stopped by the NICS check. (It also means that 97.4% are legal purchases by Mr. Goddard's standards.) Even that incredibly low number of purchases that are stopped is still misleading when you consider that many non-violent crimes and even dishonorable discharges (for things like being gay) from the military disqualify one from gun ownership. False positives in the system (think TSA-style no-fly lists) are also part of this number. In short, one can't conclude, on the basis of Mr. Goddard's statement, that rejection of a gun sale by NICS equates with the stoppage of crime.
But how many dangerous people bought guns through public sales where they knew there would be no background check? We can't know because there aren't records of those transactions to begin with. However, one instance everyone should remember is the Columbine High School massacre. Three of the guns used were purchased through private sales without background checks at a public gun show.
To bring home his point about how great NICS will be for preventing gun violence, Mr. Goddard appeals to the public's emotions by bringing up the Columbine High School tragedy. We've already established, though, that Mr. Cho (the Virginia Tech shooter) underwent a background check and passed. The Columbine tragedy is unrelated in this way to the Virginia Tech massacre. A closer look at the Columbine tragedy reveals, though, that NICS probably wouldn't have helped there either (and didn't since the system had been in place for nearly 6 years). Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris obtained some of their guns via a straw purchase. Another was purchased from a friend (an illegal sale because the two were under 18). The methods via which the two obtained their weapons were already illegal. The NICS system does nothing to prevent illegal sales.

Having, in his mind, adequately demonstrated that NICS is the solution to all the country's gun problems, Mr. Goddard now begins to attack the idea that law abiding citizens should be allowed to carry guns on campus.
Forcing colleges to allow students to carry concealed weapons isn't a solution and it could easily make matters worse. It effectively rewrites the book on how police respond to a situation with an active shooter. The one student with the gun would no longer be the only target -- that person could be one among several or more.
Mr. Cho killed his first victim at 7:15am. He then returned to his dorm room, changed his clothes, and went to the post office around 9am. He then returned to campus (about two hours after the initial attack) and began killing again. Someone called 9-1-1 at this point, but Cho continued shooting for another 10 or so minutes before killing himself. Police would not have been an issue here because they didn't arrive until after the entire episode had concluded. Assuming that Cho hadn't killed himself, it is likely that had students been armed, they would have killed him or at least slowed his progress. Finally, does Mr. Goddard believe that the crazy guy carrying two guns, twenty magazines, four hundred rounds of ammunition, and walking around shooting indiscriminately is indistinguishable to the police from law abiding citizens, guns drawn but most likely cowering under a desk? The victims are the ones not aiming their guns at the police. Let's give people and especially our law enforcement officers at least a little bit of credit here.

The system failed at every step of the way. Mr. Cho was unable to get the help that he requested for his mental condition. The NICS database failed to stop Mr. Cho from purchasing his weapons. The university failed to notify students that a shooter was on the loose that morning (leading Mr. Goddard to go to class when, in his own words, he would have stayed home had he known about the shooting). The police (campus and local) were unable to stop the shooter before he ended his spree by killing himself. The only thing that even had a chance of stopping Mr. Cho sooner was an armed response by the students themselves.

As Mr. Goddard himself says, "Once someone is on campus with guns and intends to kill, we've already lost." "Intends to kill" is the key phrase there, though. Armed, law abiding citizens could have prevented the loss from being as great as it was. In spite of that reality, Mr. Goddard ends his column by extolling his readers to listen to a statement by the head of the NRA in 1999 following the Columbine shooting denouncing guns in schools.
We believe in absolutely gun-free, zero-tolerance, totally safe schools. That means no guns in America's schools, period ... with the rare exception of law enforcement officers or trained security personnel.
This statement is obviously taken out of context since Mr. LaPierre was referring to guns in high schools being handled by minors. More importantly, though, it should be noted that Virginia Tech was already a gun free zone prior to Mr. Cho's shooting, and we all know how that turned out.


  1. Man, was that really crappily written or what?

  2. This is similar to the crap spewed by the spineless left-wing imbecile Maureen Downey at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. You can read here baseless (and poorly defended) rhetoric at:


    She defended no guns on school campuses with a study done in London (England). Yeah, the same London in which the police are rarely allowed to carry arms and personal ownership is verboden.

  3. @bofdem: I couldn't find anything recent, and I didn't know exactly to which of her posts you were referring.

  4. You make a great analysis and a compelling argument. The only danger I see is that gun control advocates may employ the NICS's ineffectiveness in advocating a new, harsher system of blanket bans or restrictions such as those seen in D.C. and Chicago. Those were not struck down overnight.

    The London "study" reminds me of "If I Only Had A Gun," a 20/20 special report done in 2009. They staged a "safety briefing" as an excuse to pad the test subjects, put them in neck protectors and full-head helmets limiting their vision, topped it off with the baggiest shirt and pants you can fathom. Then an abrupt simulated attack occurs and the students' reactions are gauged. Not surprisingly, they did horrible. Some shot classmates or the teacher since they could hardly get the gun out, and the ones that did could hardly see anything. Oh, and the coup de gras: The attackers in the simulation were police firearms instructors and they knew exactly which students had weapons. Diane Sawyer wants America to draw from this that guns are destructive and only cause trouble.

  5. @Gordon: I saw that piece, and aside from all of the impediments placed on the students, what struck me was that none of the students seemed to really have any training or respect for the guns. That is, they knew it was a game and that they were "supposed" to fight back. They all ended up reaching for their weapons and trying to fight back instead of first protecting themselves.

    Most of the students survived just by diving for cover. The students with the guns would have been better off if they had done the same and only after taking cover somewhere, trying to draw their weapons. It never seemed to cross anyone's mind that the fact that you *have* a gun doesn't mean that you have to *use* it.


Please be relevant, civil, and brief... in that order.