It’s time for the gun laws to change

by Jim Longworth

High school and college campuses all have one thing in common: They are, by design, accessible. Buses must be able to get in and out. So must parents, teachers and students. Following the Columbine massacre in which 15 children were shot to death, many public schools began locking their ancillary doors to outsiders, and even installing metal detectors near the main entrance. And colleges increasingly installed security code doors in dorms.

But such measures only provide a false sense of security. After all, most school shootings are done by students who attend those schools and have both access and opportunity to carry out their crazed mission. Such was the case at Virginia Tech last week when Korean student Seung-Hui Cho took 33 lives, including his own. It was the worst such massacre in US history, but the worst may happen again unless we figure out an effective deterrent.

Cho purchased his two semi automatic handguns legally, undergoing instant background checks on both occasions. But Cho was not red flagged because he: 1) was not a fugitive; 2) had never been convicted of a violent crime, a drug crime or illegal use of force, nor had he ever been imprisoned; 3) was not an illegal alien; and 4) was not the subject of a protective order.

He should have been denied a gun, though, because he was once involuntarily committed to a mental instuitution.  However, he slipped through the cracks, in part because the judge didn’t actually adjudicate Cho to be a “mental defective,” and because of a 1974 law that prohibits mental health professionals from sharing certain patient information with law enforcement.

We obviously need to review how psych hospitals communicate with police, colleges and others, but we also need to change the conditions of the instant background check to include not having been voluntarily committed. Don Clark, former FBI Agent, advocates such a change in the background check system, and I agree. That’s because mentally disturbed people are usually very intelligent, and clever enough to fool the system by agreeing to voluntary treatments so they can still purchase handguns. 

In the midst of this debate about gun ownership, however, there are plenty of people other than Cho who bear some responsibility for the Virginia Tech massacre. The two girls who Cho stalked called police, but refused to press charges. Had they done so, Cho would have certainly been convicted of at least a misdemeanor, and would have been denied a gun. And how about the students in Cho’s English class who were so frightened of him that they dropped the course rather than filing a complaint with campus police?  Then there are the mental health professionals who supposedly evaluated Cho following the stalking complaints, but failed to recognize the danger he posed to himself and to others, and/or failed to report their findings to authorities. And finally, there are the Virginia Tech campus police who should have had the school evacuated immediately after Cho shot two people in a dorm room. Instead they waited for over two and a half hours to notify students and faculty of the incident.

But in the end, the debate over campus violence will come back to the same issue: gun control.

The problem with gun laws is that, even if strengthened, they cannot stop a mass murderer or a terrorist. Case in point, last year the Virginia General Assembly voted down House Bill 1572. It would have given college students and employees the right to carry handguns on campus. Upon the measure’s defeat, Virginia Tech spokesman Larry Hincker told reporters, “I’m sure the University community is appreciative of the General Assembly’s actions because this will help parents, students, and faculty feel safe on campus.” Hincker, like so many other trusting souls, couldn’t have been more wrong in his naïve assessment. The defeat of the legislation lulled the Hokie nation into a false sense of security which exploded on April 17. 

So what, then is the solution? Perhaps we need to take a page from the FAA playbook.  Following 9-11, airline pilots were allowed to carry firearms in the cockpit. Since then, no commercial airliner has been hijacked by terrorists. And just last week, NC lawmakers began to look at a bill that would allow judges to keep firearms under their robes while in court.

A day after the VPI tragedy, Larry Pratt, president of Gun owners of America, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper, “When will we learn that being defenseless is a bad defense? Thanks to gun laws, a guy like Cho who has murder in his heart is not going to shoot up a police station. He goes looking for a safer ‘work environment’ where no one has firearms.”    It should be noted that Pratt is not a crazy radical. He is not a member of the KKK. He is a well-spoken, thoughtful man whose argument has merit.

For further proof, just look at two school shootings in which the body count was minimized thanks to peace-loving individuals who also carried firearms. An assistant principal in Mississippi used his handgun to stop a potential mass murderer. And in Grundy, Va. two law students at the Appalachian School of Law, rushed to their cars, grabbed their guns and killed an assailant who was only able to murder three people, instead of 15 or 30.

I’ve grown pretty liberal in my old age, and I’ve never been a fan of the NRA. In fact, back in 1993, Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder had me spearhead an advertising campaign to gain passage of the nation’s first handgun law. We succeeded in spite of a media blitz against us by the NRA. But that law was specifically aimed at stopping multiple firearm purchases by gangs who traded guns for drugs up and down the East Coast. The law served its purpose. It was not, however, designed to take guns out of the hands of law-abiding citizens, and that brings us back to Pratt, and to the men in Mississippi and Virginia who prevented school massacres because they were legally armed.

I am saddened to admit it, but the time has come for us to defend ourselves. The bad guys and the deranged killers are the only ones bringing guns to school and, last week, 32 Virginia Tech students and faculty paid the price for being defenseless. 

That’s why I now urge campuses across the nation to act contrary to their core beliefs, and start requiring faculty to be trained in the use of firearms, and to allow them to carry guns in the classroom. To paraphrase Pratt, crazy people like Cho are smart enough not to target victims who can return fire.  What I’m proposing has already worked in the air, and on the ground in places like Mississippi and Grundy.

Ironically, arming instructors might just be the only measure we can take to bring real peace to school campuses. Being defenseless is a bad defense.

Jim Longworth is host of “Triad Today” which can be seen Friday mornings at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7), and Sunday nights at 10 p.m. on MY48 (cable channel 15).