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Feeling Safer vs. Being Safer

By Jack Kelly

What can we do to keep what happened at Virginia Tech from ever happening again?

Nothing. Understanding that is the key to reducing the frequency of such massacres, and the bloodshed when they, alas, inevitably occur.

Little more frightens or angers Americans than when a nutbar kills a lot of people at random, because the act is as senseless as it is evil.

"The effort to shoehorn an event as devastating as this one into a predetermined set of an effort to make the unthinkable thinkable," said New York Post columnist John Podhoretz. "Does this massacre seem to be utterly without cause? Well, then, we'll find a cause in order to be able to wrap our minds around it, because when we have a cause we can determine a remedy."

Both supporters and opponents of gun control are shoe-horning the incident into their pre-established templates. Both have ammunition.

On the one hand, Mr. Cho was able to purchase the firearms he used in the murder spree -- Glock 19 and Walther P-22 handguns -- lawfully at a local gun shop.

On the other, the Virginia Tech campus is a "gun free zone," where students, faculty and staff are forbidden to have firearms, even if they have concealed carry permits. Mr. Cho lived in a dorm on campus, where he stored his weapons and ammunition. The school's policy banning guns wasn't very effective in Mr. Cho's case.

Or in most others. "Mass killings were rare when guns were easily available, while they have been increasing as guns have become more controlled," noted Quebec economist Pierre Lemieux.

The trouble with gun control laws is they target the law abiding. "If you disarm good people but not the criminals, instead of making things safe for the potential victims you may unintentionally make them safe for the criminals," said Dr. John Lott, coauthor of a massive study on guns and crime.

A fundamental difference between supporters and opponents of gun control is their attitude toward personal responsibility. Liberals tend to offer excuses for the perpetrators of violent acts (he was poor; his mother drank; his daddy beat him), and to assume that potential victims have no right to play a role in their own defense.

Those who think the law abiding should be permitted to carry firearms argue that if some of the students, faculty, or staff had been armed, they could have cut Mr. Cho's murder spree short.

They point to the shooting that occurred at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Virginia on Jan. 16, 2002. Peter Odighizuwa, a student from Nigeria, killed the school's dean, a professor and a student, and wounded three others. Mr. Odighizuwa's spree was cut short because two students went to their cars, retrieved their handguns, and with the help of an unarmed student subdued Mr. Odighizuwa.

In Pearl, Mississippi on Oct. 1, 1997, 16-year-old Luke Woodham took his rifle to school and began shooting his classmates. His spree was stopped when Assistant Principal Joel Myrick raced to his pickup, retrieved his .45 pistol, and subdued him.

Both crime rates and shooting deaths have declined in most states which have adopted "concealed carry" laws, says Dr. Lott. The decline in "multiple victim public shootings" has been especially pronounced, he said.

"Bill Landes of the University of Chicago law school and I examined multiple-victim public shootings in the U.S. from 1977 to 1999 and found that when states passed right-to-carry laws, the rate of multiple victim public shootings fell by 60 percent. Deaths and injuries from multiple victim public shootings fell even further, on average by 78 percent, as the remaining incidents tended to involve fewer victims per attack," Dr. Lott said.

Because Virginia Tech denies to its students and faculty the right to protect themselves, it has a special obligation to provide protection. School authorities need to explain how it is that Mr. Cho could shoot two students in one dorm, return to his own dorm, write a rambling note, and then, two hours later, walk across the campus to the classroom building where he conducted his massacre, without interference from the police, or a warning issued to students.

School officials also should explain why they ignored apparently ample evidence that Mr. Cho was psychologically disturbed, and that students were afraid of him.

In applauding the defeat last year of a measure in the Virginia legislature to permit those with concealed carry permits to have a gun on campus, Associate Vice President Larry Hinckler said Virginia Tech's strict gun control policy made students feel safer. But there is a difference between feeling safer and being safer, as Virginia Tech has learned to its sorrow.

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