Monday, April 16, 2007

In Loco Parentis

What will be most hotly debated in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings, which are now reported to have claimed 32 lives, is the role of guns. There's a roundup of related news stories, plus cell phone video camera footage at Pajamas Media. One of the most chilling things about watching that video is how it is punctuated at intervals of several tens of seconds by deliberate gunshots. One can almost imagine how the shooter is roaming through the dorms, his victims trying to defend themselves with schoolbooks, chairs, baseball bats, ipods or whatever else came to hand, largely in futility. And with each shot, another son or daughter dies.

The irony of course, is that the scenario of an armed man on campus was anticipated by the Virginia Tech authorities, who unswervingly prohibited the possession of any firearms on campus, even by students who had permits to carry issued by the state in the belief that the fewer guns, the better. In the April, 2005 incident:

University officials confirmed that, earlier this semester, campus police approached a student found to be carrying a concealed handgun to class. The unnamed student was not charged with any crimes because he holds a state-issued permit allowing him to carry a concealed gun. But the student could face disciplinary action from the university for violating its policy prohibiting "unauthorized possession, storage or control" of firearms on campus.

In an eerie precursor to the recent tragic incident in August 2006, the university premises were evacuated by authorities who were searching for a murderer believed to be on campus. One student, describing his feeling of vulnerability, wrote to say he would feel safer if he were allowed to carry his own gun.

On Aug. 21 at about 9:20 a.m., my graduate-level class was evacuated from the Squires Student Center. We were interrupted in class and not informed of anything other than the following words: "You need to get out of the building."

Upon exiting the classroom, we were met at the doors leading outside by two armor-clad policemen with fully automatic weapons, plus their side arms. Once outside, there were several more officers with either fully automatic rifles and pump shotguns, and policemen running down the street, pistols drawn.

It was at this time that I realized that I had no viable means of protecting myself.

Please realize that I am licensed to carry a concealed handgun in the commonwealth of Virginia, and do so on a regular basis. However, because I am a Virginia Tech student, I am prohibited from carrying at school because of Virginia Tech's student policy, which makes possession of a handgun an expellable offense, but not a prosecutable crime.

University authorities scoffed at the student's argument, arguing that it was absurd to think he would be safer defending himself than letting the campus authorities do it. A university spokesman wrote back:

The writer would have us believe that a university campus, with tens of thousands of young people, is safer with everyone packing heat. Imagine the continual fear of students in that scenario. We've seen that fear here, and we don't want to see it again.

Who among us thinks the writer of the commentary would not have been directly in harm's way if he showed himself to those tactical squads while displaying a deadly weapon? Would he even be here today to tell us the story? Contrary to his position, the writer's commentary actually gives credence to the university policy preventing weapons in classrooms.

Guns don't belong in classrooms. They never will. Virginia Tech has a very sound policy preventing same.

Now both arguments have been put to the empirical test, but it is unlikely that commentators will agree on the result. The anti-gun control people are probably going to say that if only guns were banned in the Commonwealth of Virginia, or better yet, in all of America, or still better in the whole world, that this tragedy would never have happened. But on the other hand, 2nd Amendment proponents will argue that such an extensive massacre would never have taken place if only an armed student had been there to resist.

Gun control as a strategy for prohibiting violence only works if it is universal, just as disarmanent is valid protection against aggression only if it is global. What Virginia Tech achieved, in creating its "gun-free zone" was to create a bubble of vulnerability in an armed society. While it may be possible for some societies, due to special characteristics like isolation or island geography, to successfully create local conditions at variance with global ones, Virginia Tech was self-evidently not able to do this.

If there is any silver lining to the tragedy, it is this: the campus shooting warns us how vulnerable an American campus is to a single armed man equipped only with handguns. Al-Qaeda terrorists all over the world must now be calculating how many more students they could have killed had a trained team of terrorists equipped with fragmentation grenades, automatic weapons and explosives launched an attack on an American institution of higher learning. Let's hope campus authorities are calculating their hypothetical response as well. I wouldn't bet on it, but no other bets are allowed.


The weakness with forcing a reliance on someone to save your life by disabling your ability to save your own is that it rejects subsidiarity, which is the idea that problems should be handled as locally as possible. In this case, the central authority, Virginia Tech, responded belatedly to events.

Students complained that there were no public-address announcements or other warnings on campus after the first burst of gunfire. They said the first word they received from the university was an e-mail more than two hours into the rampage—around the time the gunman struck again.

Virginia Tech President Charles Steger said authorities believed that the shooting at the dorm was a domestic dispute and mistakenly thought the gunman had fled the campus.

"We had no reason to suspect any other incident was going to occur," he said.

That university had "no reason to suspect" shows how much dead time, pardon the pun, was implicitly built into their response system. Any system with this much of a lag is a disaster waiting to happen if a terrorist attack actually materializes.

Owing to the sensitivity of this issue, I am taking comments offline.

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