As more details emerge on the background of the Virginia Tech shooter, it turns out that his history was one long, loud warning sign that something extremely bad was about to happen.
So how is it that this young man—who was known to have set fires and stalked women; who barely spoke, never made eye contact, and seemed profoundly depressed; who was friendless and expressionless; and whose writings so alarmed his classmates that they were afraid to come to class—how did he slip so readily through the cracks?
The answer is that the cracks can probably never be sufficiently filled without sacrificing more of our individual freedoms than we are willing to give up.
It’s not as though the alarms hadn’t been sounded in the case of Cho. His teachers, for example, found his behavior so profoundly disturbing that school authorities were alerted. But their hands, those authorities reported, were tied, because he had made no threats.
Or rather, he hadn’t made the right kind of threats. Lucinda Roy, who him tutored him separately because his presence in a classroom had become too disturbing to the other students, alerted everyone she could think of: the administration, the counseling office, and the campus police. It’s unclear whether Cho had much (or any) counseling—but law enforcement could do nothing about him, apparently, since his threats were “veiled” rather than “something explicit.”
What about involuntary commitment? Virgina, like most states, has procedures in place, but they are stringent. Usually the commitment process is quite temporary, anyway, and designed merely to get a patient’s meds under control. The days of state mental hospitals warehousing large numbers of potentially dangerous people who have committed no serious crime are over–and that’s a good thing, since that system was widely abused. And it’s fairly clear that by the standards we now use, Cho could not have been committed against his will.
From the descriptions of Cho’s disordered personality, it appears that he was the sort of individual who is so deeply disturbed in so many areas of human interaction, and so resistant to even the idea of counseling, that talk therapy would not have been of much help, anyway. So, short of commitment for an indefinite period of time, the mental health community probably could not have helped him.
But what of the school? The school probably could have dismissed him, and given the severity of his behavior it would have been well within its rights to have done so. Instead, it bent over backwards to accommodate him (the private teacher, for example) and hoped for the best, while his fellow students chillingly speculated on whether he would become a serial shooter.
But a school dismissal would most definitely not have done away with the problem. In fact, it could have exacerbated it by increasing his anger and desire for revenge (not that that would have been a good argument for not dismissing him; it’s simply a fact).
Would a more stringent background check have prevented Cho from purchasing the gun, at least? Perhaps. But he easily could have gotten one illegally; it’s really not all that difficult, if one is determined to do so. And my guess is that Cho was extremely determined.
What else? Well, it’s not something that proponents of gun control like to hear, but the evidence from research indicates that the only factor demonstrated to be effective against serial shootings is the carrying of concealed weapons by trained and certified portions of the population. Researchers John R. Lott Jr. and William M. Landes from the State University of New York and the University of Chicago Law School, respectively, have come to this conclusion in a paper entitled “Multiple Victim Public Shootings, Bombings, and Right-to-Carry Concealed Handgun Laws: Contrasting Private and Public Law Enforcement .”
They evaluated all sorts of factors relating to gun control in particular. The conclusion: the only one that mattered was the carrying of concealed weapons by law-abiding citizens. This worked both to discourage the number of attacks—perhaps because potential mass murderers knew that their likelihood of carrying off such killings would be reduced by the presence of another gunman/woman—as well as the severity of whatever such attacks did occur.
Remedies may be difficult to come by, but one thing is clear: when a person is described as “like talking to a hole” (as tutor Lucinda Roy memorably stated about Cho), watch out. That is the single most common characteristic of those who murder (see this, about Mohammed Atta’s eyes): dead eyes from which the soul appears to have been scooped out.
“Dead eyes” can’t be a criterion for involuntary commitment, I suppose—but if I were to design one, that would be it.