The Bejeezus Out of Me

Startling behavioral science.

Thoughts for the Fifth Anniversary of the Virginia Tech Massacre

On gun control and safety nets.

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Since I started writing "The Bejeezus Out of Me" for Psychology Today, my posts have been light-hearted looks at quirky aspects of behavioral science. This sort of quick-dip journalism lets me learn something new almost every day while making myself laugh. Today, though, I want to confess to having a more somber side that sometimes brings me to journalistically plumb darker depths. Recently, I wrote a book about school murder. Because of this, April 16, 2012, has significance to me. It marks marks five years since English major Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people and himself at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, Virginia. 

Though far deadlier even than Columbine, Virginia Tech was not America's bloodiest school massacre. That notoriety belongs to America's first. In 1927 a disgruntled tax payer in Michigan dynamited the town's elementary school, killing 44 people. In the 85 years since then, Americans have seen sweet towns and campuses become carnage scenes as often as large city, bad neighborhood schools. And in the past few years the FBI has acknowledged that their long slog to identify a school shooter profile has turned up nothing. Perpetrators come from various races and backgrounds, and show no apparent pattern in impulse control or temperament. There is no telling who will strike next, or why.

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Actually, two generalities about perpetrators of school massacre do hold. Most are male, and all but one did their killing with guns.  

Now, as a country, we can’t ban men and boys from campuses; nor are we inclined to. But gun control laws deserve our attention. 

They are relaxing. According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, only 22 states bar concealed weapons from college campuses. In 2011, Oregon and Mississippi joined Utah in allowing them on campuses regardless of a college’s policies. Wisconsin allows weapons on campus but bars them from buildings. 

The move towards letting hard-partying 18-year-olds carry semi-automatics to class and hoard them in dorm rooms has been fueled in part by a crime report analysis published around the time of the Columbine massacre. It seems counter-intuitive, but in this University of Chicago Law School study more guns translated to fewer slaughter deaths. Got that? Way fewer. This led to the theory that, public, multi-victim shootings begin to look uneconomical to a shooter who thinks victims and bystanders could be heavily armed,. The price looks high (the shooter could die) and the benefit (probable body count) low.

But the study had a problem. The researchers didn’t look at gang and mob killings, because they assumed the victims would have been carrying guns regardless of what the law allowed. But since gang and mob killings make up a huge portion of slaughter deaths in America, any general analysis of related statistics is biased without them. 

So why does this study keep popping up in the national conversation? Well, there are two bits of anecdotal evidence suggesting that more guns may, indeed, provide more safety at school. In 1997 a high school massacre was stopped when the assistant principal grabbed a pistol from his truck. And in 2002, a university massacre was stopped by students who got guns from their cars.

At the same time, in the case of the Virginia Tech massacre, lax gun laws may have allowed the crime to occur. Only days before the massacre, campus police escorted Seung-Hui Cho to a mental hospital, where he was declared an imminent danger to himself and others. Unfortunately, at the commitment hearing a judge stipulated only outpatient treatment. And because Cho was not involuntarily placed on a ward, Virginia law allowed him to buy guns. 

The FBI says that school massacres are rarely impulsive actions. The murderers can brood for months before acting. During this period, they usually they "leak" about their intentions, either explicitly or indirectly. For example, Columbine killer Eric Harris may have indirectly leaked about mass murder by decorating himself with Nazi paraphernalia and barking about in German. Prior to his rampage, one high school freshman told friends that he had guns and that “Monday would be the day of reckoning.” And a piece of Seung-Hui Cho’s “poetry” was a multi-page string of venomous ideas about Americans. “You low-life barbarians make me sick to the stomach that I wanna are [sic] all over my my [sic] new shoes,” he coughed up.

Cho’s teacher raised the alarm, but the safety net she assumed would be drawn around Cho did not hold her dangerous student. 

The FBI urges communities to keep lines of communication open between schools, police, and mental health agencies. Sadly, it was the lines of communication in the safety net in Blacksburg, Virginia that broke first. The judge who assigned Cho to outpatient care assumed that the mental hospital that evaluated him would inherit a duty to monitor him. 

The hospital, unfortunately, didn’t get the memo. 

      

Rebecca Coffey is a science journalist and broadcast commentator with Vermont Public Radio. 

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