Friday, April 20, 2007

Reflections on Two Massacres

Eight years ago today, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold looked at Rachel Scott and said "Do you believe in God?" She answered "You know I do". Upon hearing this, they opened fire on her.

Or at least that's the common myth that persists to this day. Eyewitnesses say that there was no actual interaction between the late Miss Scott and the monsters that ripped her, eleven other children, and a teacher from this world, and that if such a conversation happened at all, it was the killers asking that of another girl that survived the slaughter.

As this sad day is upon us, we are a nation mourning another recent massacre. Cho Seung-Hui walked into a dormitory and killed two, then walked into classrooms and killed thiry more, piling up a body count well over twice the Columbine massacre without so much as an accomplice.

In this massacre, just as in Columbine, the human mind reaches out, sometimes in irrational ways, to try and make sense of the insane maelstrom around us. A well-known rightwing blogger tried to make the case that Cho was some kind of Islamic terrorist. A person I was speaking to over on the Nashville Is Talking site, upon finding out the killer was of Asian descent, pointed to an arrest of an Asian man a year before for possession of explosives and tried to insinuate that there might be some kind of link.

In the days to come, the blame will be spread in many directions, almost as scattershot and random as the phalanx of bullets that spawned them. Video games, movies, TV shows--- Any piece of popular entertainment where a gun is featured somewhere.

Of course, that misses the point. The popular gun-driven entertainment is typically either a tale of ill-defined justice, or a tale of retribution. Even Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs was a tale of vengeance carried too far, and that's arguably one of the most disturbing films of all time. There is no popular fiction where someone that randomly murders innocents is seen as a heroic figure. When author Anne Rice felt the need to turn her own work on its head and make Lestat a heroic figure, she "retconned" him into a killer of killers.

Marilyn Manson lacks the popularity he once held, so it's unlikely that he'll be blamed for the Virginia Tech massacre.

That leaves us with video games. Certainly, the violence in the Grand Theft Auto series is over the top, particularly the scene where the game's protagonist fights his way out of a police station. But ultimately, there is nothing in those games that would truly prepare you for actually picking up a gun and commiting acts of murder.

Sometimes, there are no answers. Sometimes, there is nothing and no one to blame. While Virginia Tech was the worst mass shooting of all time, the worst school massacre was actually a 1927 bombing where a man that didn't want to pay taxes bombed the school that he held responsible for his economic problems.

There were no violent movies then. There were no video games. Marilyn Manson's parents weren't even an idea yet.

But you know what the biggest difference after the fact between that massacre and our more modern ones? Responsibility. The bombing was carried out with dynamite and an explosive called pyrotol, and having seen what their product was capable of in the wrong hands, the manufacturers took pyrotol off of the market.

You won't see that this time. After Columbine, the gun show loophole was closed by a citizen ballot initiative--- Not because of any legislative leadership shown by the state government. It was closed because Harris and Klebold bought their TEK-9, one of four guns used in the massacre, from a private seller they met at a gun show. Had they bought rifles only from that dealer, they wouldn't have even been breaking the law as it exists today, as there is no restriction on selling a rifle to anyone of any age in Colorado.

Likewise, Cho took advantage of some of the most lax gun laws in the country to buy his weapons. No permit. No waiting period. The gun show loophole still stands wide open, meaning that you can buy a handgun from a show or from a private dealer without going through a background check.

And I expect to see as much leadership from Viriginia's government as we saw out of Colorado's. It's not as though they're not aware of their weak gun laws--- In two rounds of lawsuits, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has filed suit against twenty-seven gun dealers, seven of them in Virginia, in an attempt to stop the flow of weapons used in crimes committed in New York, where gun legislation is much more strict.

The lawsuit and the need for it address one key concern--- The standard for firearms legislation should be a federal one, and not left to state law. A gun sold in Virginia does not have to stay in Virginia; The very impetus for the lawsuits is that people circumvent New York Law to bring weapons in from out of state where they're much easier to obtain. If gun rights advocates think their right to carry a weapon is federal in its origin, then the rest of the laws governing their sale and use should be federalized as well.

It's also important to note that I write this from a state with one of the weaker sets of gun laws in the nation. We're only slightly better off than Colorado and Virginia in that it's illegal to sell any firearm to a minor. We don't require background checks at gun shows or from private sellers. No license or training required, and no waiting period.

One of these days, we're going to see a disaster like Virginia Tech and Columbine unfold before our eyes, and we're going to say "Never again" and actually mean it.

Unfortunately for the victims of the next massacre, it's probably not today.

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