shooting of Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, writers Michael Grunwald and Jay Newton-Small asked an important question: How could Jared Loughner, the shooter, be considered too dangerous to attend community college but not too dangerous to buy a gun? Grunwald and Newton-Small (2011) point out that gun control continues to be a hot topic in the United States, despite the fact that the Arizona shooting occurred after the horrors of Columbine and Virginia Tech. Many people thought the attention to gun control after those mass killings would have resulted in significant changes but that has not happened. There continue to be very strong feelings on both sides of the gun control debate.
Gun control is an important factor in any discussion of school or workplace violence but it is not the only one that deserves our attention. Loughner bought a gun, but so do millions of law-abiding citizens. What happened in Loughner's life to lead him down the path of destruction? More importantly, when was it recognized that there might be a problem, and by whom? It is always easy in hindsight to ask questions about why nothing was done to prevent tragedy from occurring. These questions were asked in the wake of the Arizona shooting just as they were four years ago, when the deadliest attack in history took place on the campus of Virginia Tech. In a matter of a few hours, thirty-three people were dead. The gunman turned his weapon on himself, so we will never know what made him commit this terrible act. Theories abound, but we cannot know for certain.
The Massacre at Virginia Tech
According to an article in The New York Times that appeared on the day of the shooting, the rampage began at 7:15 A.M. when the gunman killed two people in a dormitory. Approximately two and a half hours later, police responded to a 911 call reporting that shots had been fired at Norris Hall, where engineering classes generally take place. On a sprawling campus of 2,600 acres, Norris is about a half-mile away from the scene of the first shootings. Police had to force their way into the building since the doors of Norris Hall had been chained from the inside, apparently by the gunman in an attempt to thwart both escape and rescue attempts. Police made their way to the second floor and found the gunman, who had shot himself in the face. Because of the severity of his wounds, he was not immediately identifiable and authorities quickly announced that the gunman was not a student. This announcement was but one of a number of missteps made by police and administrators as events unfolded.
The police were not sure a lone gunman was responsible and proceeded with caution through Norris. They eventually discovered thirty more victims in the building, including some who had been lined up against a wall and shot. Amazingly, many students on campus did not realize what had happened. The university sent a mass email two hours after the first shooting, but most students, even if they did receive it, did not pay much attention. Some thought it was a hoax.
In the aftermath of the shooting, the administrators at Virginia Tech closed the campus and cancelled classes the following day. The University set up a meeting place for distraught families to reunite with their children. Some parents had been aware of what was happening almost from the outset, when they received hysterical phone calls from their frightened children. The school made counselors available for anyone having difficulty coping with what had happened. The school planned a convocation at Cassell Coliseum Basketball Arena to honor the dead.
It turned out the gunmen had been a Virginia Tech student. He was identified as Seung-Hui Cho, the son of Korean immigrants who had grown up in nearby Chantilly, Virginia. Former classmates of Cho's said he had been bullied (Johnson, Cahil, Williams, Popkin & Handelsman, 2007). There is evidence that Cho suffered from anxiety and depression as a child. He also had a peculiar way of speaking, described by one classmate as if Cho had something in his mouth. He was painfully shy and withdrawn. His odd behavior and odd speech frequently made him a target. One former classmate spoke of an incident during which Cho was laughed at, taunted, and told to "go back to China" (Johnson et al.). It is hard to know the extent to which the bullying exacerbated Cho's anxiety and depression, but it is certain that these had to be contributing factors to his worsening sense of anger and disenfranchisement.
After shooting his first victims, Cho mailed a "media package" to NBC News. It contained an angry videotaped diatribe. Some news stations chose to air it in the aftermath of the killings, against the advice of many mental health professionals who worried about giving ideas to other mentally ill individuals or validating the paranoid thoughts of other potentially dangerous people. Some argued that bringing Cho's mental illness to light was an important step in addressing the needs for early identification and treatment, but most people, according to posts on various news network comment boards, felt that airing the video both pandered to a lust for sensationalism and gave Cho the publicity he so desperately sought. The video has been posted on YouTube, but this writer made the decision not to watch it. It is too disturbing, even to watch in the name of research.
As Johnson, Cahil et al. (2007) pointed out, there were a number of professionals who raised red flags about Cho at various junctures. A grieving nation wanted to know why the pieces of the puzzle were never put together. Perhaps if they had been, Cho could have gotten the help he needed before taking lives, including his own. Charles Steger, president of the Virginia Tech, gave one answer, although he was speaking not of how Cho slipped through the cracks but how the shootings were handled. "You can only make decisions based on the information you had at the time. You don't have hours to reflect on it" (Hauser, 2007). There were no databases on which information on Cho could have been entered and cross-checked. Individuals saw problems, but evidently nothing was significant enough to warrant serious action. Cumulatively, and in retrospect, Cho's patterns of behavior clearly lead to the violence that took place. Hindsight is always 20/20 and there are undoubtedly a number of individuals who believe they had a chance to stop Cho somewhere along the way but did not act on their findings.
Cho, an English major, was removed from a creative writing class in 2005 because his professor and classmates were disturbed and frightened by his odd behavior and violent writings. Two women complained to the police about messages that Cho sent them, and a temporary detention order was issued. When the women declined to press charges, however, the case was dropped and never even reached a hearing. Cho was required to undergo a mental health evaluation and in December 2005, he was briefly admitted to Carilon St. Albans Behavioral Health Center. Cho was released after it was determined that he may possibly be a threat to himself but he posed no danger to others (Johnson, Cahil et al., 2007). We now know this was not the case.
Pumroy (2007) pointed to "an escalating cycle of silence, anger, lack of social skills and distrust" that can propel a victim of bullying, such as Cho, to commit an act of violence. Children are bullied for a variety of reasons that seldom make sense to reasonable people; in Cho's case, it appears he was an odd, anxious child who was targeted because he was shy and withdrawn. The more he was bullied, the more withdrawn he became. It is a vicious circle.
It seems stunning, again looking at events in hindsight, that authorities did not secure the campus after the first shooting. In an investigation months later, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) issued a report condemning the actions of Virginia Tech. In a written response, Director of Emergency Management at Virginia Tech, Michael Mulhare, noted it was easy to see after the fact what should have been done. Mulhare maintained "all the evidence indicated that a crime of targeted violence occurred and there was not an ongoing threat. This was not the conclusion of one police department but three independent agencies" (Mulhare, 2010).
According to the DOE, the university was found to be in violation of the Clery Act, which requires a "timely warning" to a campus upon knowledge of certain crimes committed on campus. The first shooting occurred at 7:15 A.M., the first classes began at 8 a.m., and it was not until 9:26 that an email was sent to students. The subject line of the email read "Shooting on campus." The contents of the email were as follows:
A shooting incident occurred at West Ambler Johnston earlier this morning.