Guns, Troubled Students, and Campus Security

Last week, Pope Center writer Shannon Blosser expressed our sorrow at the lives horribly cut short by the massacre at Virginia Tech. He said that it was wrong to “play the blame game,” as some of the media had started to do, so quickly after the tragedy. It was more appropriate, he said, to honor the victims whose lives ended so suddenly.

There would be time to examine the causes of this tragedy and consider future policies. Now is the time. Indeed, in blogs and op-eds, commentators have addressed three major issues: guns, university dealings with troubled students, and campus security, as well as made broader societal statements.

I have reviewed commentaries currently available online and today share with you some that I feel frame or explore these issues.

Guns: Fewer or More?

Almost as soon as news of the shootings spread, conservative bloggers such as framed the “gun control” question, suggesting that the harm could have been minimized if others had had firearms available, as was the case at the Appalachian Law School shooting several years ago.

The Raleigh News & Observer debated the issue on Sunday (April 22). F. Paul Valone of Grassroots North Carolina summarized the argument for guns to protect students, citing examples where “armed intervention saved lives.” Lisa Price of North Carolinians Against Gun Violence Education Fund countered with a plea for more effective laws. She noted, however, that Seung-Hui Cho would not have been able to buy guns in North Carolina, at least not legally. Unlike Virginia, background checks take several days and his mental illness would have been discovered, she says. (The N & O also had a somewhat idiosyncratic defense of guns by a British journalist on its editorial page, not available online.)

How To Deal with Troubled Students

After the killer was identified, information surfaced about his troubled personality, his violent and vicious writings, and efforts by faculty and students to stop his disturbing behavior.

Was the administration negligent in failing to get Cho off campus? Some efforts were made, but they didn’t work. Although he was sent to a mental facility, a court-ordered evaluation by a psychiatrist determined that he was not an immediate threat, so the judge let him go. (He was supposed to be treated as an outpatient; information on his treatment, if any, is not yet available.)

Colleges and universities often face the problem of mentally disturbed students. A news article by Tamar Lewin in the New York Times suggests that there is little consistency in their actions, partly because the law is unclear. Her chilling story gives an example of one school, MIT, sued for failing to prevent a suicide and another, City University of New York, sued for keeping a student out of her dorm room after she attempted suicide. Universities cannot inform students’ families of their mental condition without the students’ permission, except in emergencies, and the definition of an emergency is unsettled.

Do laws like this reflect a conflict between “bleeding hearts” (those who want to help such individuals but keep them in society) and “realists” (who feel they should be committed to mental institutions, even involuntarily)? If so, the realists are in ascendance right now. Rich Lowry of National Review Online takes a hard line against the trend to “deinstitutionalize” mentally ill people, a policy that leaves dangerous people like Cho in close proximity to others whom they may harm.

The more libertarian view that people should not be incarcerated unless they are guilty of a crime does not receive much support right now, although Charles Krauthammer mentions the dilemma between tolerance and the risk that it poses.

Campus Security

Schools across the country are taking another look at their systems for preventing, handling, and notifying students about a crisis. Administrators at Virginia Tech were criticized for not immediately warning students about the first two killings. A week after the event, however, there seems to be no consensus on whether they acted appropriately or not, given what they knew. A new commission set up by the Virginia governor, will probably look into this decision).

The Broader Picture

Finally, cyberspace is full of broader societal comments. For me, the most haunting commentary was by Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal. Although his column, “The Numbing Down of America,” is not available to non-subscribers, its message is straightforward.

Henninger does not sense among Americans the “emotional surge” that in the past followed malevolent tragedies such as the Oklahoma City bombing and Columbine. While upset and sympathetic, Americans have, in his view, kept their “emotional distance” from the tragedy.

His explanation? The suicide bombings in Iraq. While not commenting directly on the war, Henninger says that the day-after-day reporting of these horrifying events, now in the hundreds, has forced Americans to pull back emotionally to separate themselves from the barrage of violent death. When one more catastrophic massacre occurred here in the United States, it was difficult to remove the self-imposed blinders that kept life “normal.” For that reason, the reaction to Virginia Tech is muted.

Whether he is right or not, one does sense a feeling of futility in the wake of this disaster, a feeling that little can be done to prevent the next one. As the N&O said in a news headline, “Mourn, but don’t rush for ‘cure,’ scholars say”. It’s demoralizing but it may be true.