Monday, April 16, 2007

Sympathy for Virginia Tech

Incredible that someone could have such unfocused hatred. Incredible that after shooting over 40 people, the rage is unsatisfied and the shooter still feels the need to shoot. Phenomenal level of depersonalization, those people screaming, they're not really people. How can you line up and shoot people you don't have a specific reason to despise? I can understand being willing to kill if you're threatened, but to line people up and shoot them one after another? Boggles.

There's a natural desire to want to place the shooter outside the human experience, maybe he had a mental illness, he's a fanatic, he played too many video games, etc. I'm not going to draw any inferences about the shooter's motivations or background, at this point that's rather a secondary issue. There are no motivations or explanations that justify this. This will all come out in the next few weeks. Some people have noted that "Asian" is a code-word in the media for "Muslim", at least in Europe. That's the description given by students, so I don't think they're covering up for anything, sometimes "Asian" just refers to one of about 2.5 billion people who share slightly darker skin than Caucasians and an epicanthic fold. The religion issue is also secondary, premature and largely irrelevant at this point, IMO. The blame lies squarely on the person with the murderous intent, no other factor is anywhere near as significant as the decision to kill in a random fashion.

There are some truths that can already be derived. The media is passing around terms like "massacre", I wonder what else they expect when unsuspecting and unarmed people are stuck in a building with someone armed and in a mental state to kill randomly. It's worth noting that in 2006 a bill in the Virgina Legislature that would have allowed college students and others who had a Virginia Concealed Carry Permit to carry on campus was defeated. Accompanying that bill is a now-unfortunate statement by a VT spokesman:

Virginia Tech spokesman Larry Hincker was happy to hear the bill was defeated. "I'm sure the university community is appreciative of the General Assembly's actions because this will help parents, students, faculty and visitors feel safe on our campus."

Right. May have been true at the time, but it didn't seem to help this morning. And the irony is that there was an increased police presence on campus to investigate the first shooting that occurred around 7am while the second and much larger shooting was taking place across campus two hours later. It's hard to conceive of a more ideal situation in terms of law enforcement response time, but nevertheless we're up to 31 innocents and one scum-sucking dirtbag dead even with the police present.

The ugly truth of public mass murders is that the only thing that will reliably stop someone armed with a gun is someone else armed with a gun. This is one of the reasons that people seek out concealed carry permits in the first place. Rather than making areas safer for people, declaring some places "Gun-Free Zones" is hanging out a "Free Buffet!" sign for wanna-be mass murderers. Pretty much by definition, a gun-free zone is the perfect place to commit a mass shooting, because all of your law-abiding victims will be unarmed. If you follow the law you won't be armed when you're there. If you don't follow the law the "NO FIREARMS" sign is good for a laugh as you walk by, and buys you several more minutes of resistance-free mayhem.

Even under ideal circumstances, with one armed person in each classroom, you're still going to lose some people when a mass-murderer goes off. The first attack is basically free, because there just isn't enough time to respond. You have to realize that, yes, you've been shot at or even shot, and then try to figure out what to do about that. The shooter knows what they're doing, you need to go from Remsburg's Condition White to Condition Orange, and then to Condition Red as appropriate. If you're a concealed carry permit holder and armed, your job is to see to the safety of those around you, and prepare to stop the threat with what you have at hand. The Bad Guy will get the first shot, always.

After reading about the Tueller Drill, after 9/11 and Columbine, it's amazing to me that anyone lets themselves be herded around by a gun-wielding person who's within 10 feet. It's horrible to read of students lined up and shot execution-style, that should never happen. And it's not the students' fault, they've never been trained to respond to force with force. And I don't mean they're not Marines, or black-belt holders, I mean nobody has ever looked them in the eyes and told them that when they're being lined up by a gun-wielding person in a school, they're already dead. They can die fighting or they can just die. The folks on Flight 93 understood this, "Let's Roll" should be the title for a school defense course. The Burleson ISD in Burleson, Texas has an active school defense plan, how much better would this work with a classroom full of 18-25 year old students?

The shooting today at VT is one step below the Beslan hostage crisis, and it's an example that as good and as dedicated as our police officers are, they just aren't prepared for a situation like this. US police in hostage situations are trained to contain and negotiate, there are only a few teams in the nation that are trained to go into a school and find and kill a shooter that is determined to kill or be killed. The FBI's Hostage Rescue Team could do it, but they're three hours by air from where I live. The Army's Delta teams could handle it, they're usually overseas. Maybe, maybe, SWAT from Los Angeles or NYC or Dallas could do it, but they're just too far away. The shootings in Norris Hall took only 20-30 minutes to complete, meaning that there is functionally no time to assemble an intervention of highly-trained people when the flag goes up. If you start hearing what sounds like firecrackers, you have: 1) you, and 2) what you have with you. My advice if you're unarmed is to comply only enough to get yourself within range, and then attack with everything you have until you're dead or he's dead.

It's not too hard to imagine that a group the size of the 9/11 hijackers (19-20 people) could simultaneously take over 5-10 schools in a single day, and cause a Beslan-style slaughter in each place. The only thing that has a chance of stopping them is someone else with a gun who will try to kill them before they can kill any more people. CCW permits should be universal and unhindered, CCW permit holders are pretty much by definition the most law-abiding people you'll find next to the people who own Federally-registered automatic weapons. If you really want to stop school violence, that's the best bet the public has. Not only is it free, but we pay for the privilege.

Sympathy and prayers for the students and their families.

PS: Maybe this is an example of why the UCLA cops were so quick to incapacitate someone who was loud and disruptive. They go to school every day thinking "This might be the day someone cracks." Today was the day for Virginia Tech.


Anonymous said...

Well said.

Brian Cole said...

This person seemingly had been processed through both the criminal and psychiatric systems.

As a "simple country radiologist", do you believe culpability from this tragic crime falls on those healthcare professionals whom previously evaluated him?

Darren Duvall said...


Thanks for the comment.

I personally believe that every error committed with a firearm is the primary responsibility of the nut behind the stock -- the shooter.

As far as the culpability of those who assessed this individual, that's difficult for me to gauge given that I haven't followed much of the news since the shooting, and I haven't read the notes or other clincal material of those involved. Also, I'm not a psychiatrist by training other than my combined 10 weeks spent in third and fourth-year rotations in the psych department.

Caveats aside, I'm pretty sure the individuals involved will probably feel some culpability for the rest of their lives. Given that 33 people are dead including the shooter and others injured, I'm pretty sure there will extensive efforts in the civil courts to establish at least fiscal responsiblity for the outcome.

Sociopaths are pretty hard to manage because they lack some moral reflexes most of us have. They don't flinch at disturbing things. They don't scare easily. And while their pathology is undoubtedly dangerous, the way our criminal justice and mental health systems have evolved over the last few decades, having a personality disorder isn't sufficient reason to lock someone up. If you're going to arrest someone for disturbing fiction, then Stephen King should be incarcerated for life. Stalking is disturbing, but sociopaths are capable of creating rational explanations for their behavior and promising not to do it again in a convincing fashion.

Part of the failure in this case is that sufficient force was not applied through the legal system to have Cho flagged as ineligible for firearms purchase based on mental health reasons. It's understandable if you consider that the bias is toward giving people, especially young people, second chances. Most people referred for mental health assessment aren't sociopaths, and if they get some help they can pull out of their nosedive. In this case, I think it was nearly two years between referral and the subsequent explosion.

No system is foolproof. There will be errors of exclusion and inclusion. The bias of the system in the United States is toward exclusion, based on legitimate concerns about individual freedom. To have a foolproof system, you'd have to include people inappropriately, treating as inpatients and limiting the freedoms of some people who don't deserve it to be sure you catch those who do.

Basically, loose sociopaths are the result of societal preferences. Yes, in retrospect this kid should have been flagged in the Instant Check system at a minimum, but the courts cut him a break. Many people who are cut such breaks do not go on to mass murder. It's easy in retrospect to say, "Change the system, lock up people like this," but there are unintended consequences to that decision as well.

Brian Cole said...

I absolutely agree that the shooter bears the ultimate responsibility; I don't trust myself with a firearm and therefore won't own one.

While mass murderers are a clear exception, what are your thoughts about stronger regulation, not on guns themselves, but on live ammunition?

Darren Duvall said...

The average firearm weighs a kilo or less.

How are we doing with interdicting kilos of cocaine or heroin? Do you think the government will be any more successful with firearms, or that criminals won't find a way to get firearms if they want them?

"Restrictions" are above all limitations on the use of something by overwhelmingly law-abiding citizens. The restrictions in Virginia, which unlike Texas restricts someone to purchasing one handgun a month, were followed and the VT incident happened anyway. Some would argue this is an argument for more restrictions. An equal case can be made that it's evidence that the restrictions are ineffective, and hampering to law-abiding citizens' individual rights in the process.

Crime is, strangely enough, not particularly affected by most restrictions on firearms. The Assault Weapons Ban was passed, the Assault Weapons Ban expired, and Assault Weapons continued to be used in a vanishingly small number of crimes. It's just not convenient to carry an M4 for most criminals, the extra firepower is not typically worth the penalty in concealment. Under ideal circumstances for a criminal, they are reasonably sure they're the only ones armed, which forestalls resistance. Criminals aren't boxers looking for a fair fight.

As for restrictions on ammunition, they're equally useless in my estimation, simply because it's impossible to determine how much is too much. The VT shooter fired almost three boxes of ammo out of 9mm and .22LR pistols -- a box of 50 9mm rounds is about $12, a box of 100 .22LR is about $3. If you restricted him to a box a month, he'd do what he did with the pistols -- buy his monthly allotment, and wait.

In terms of the type of ammo, hollowpoint or expanding bullets are actually safer for bystanders than "ball", or solid ammo. Hollowpoints don't riccohet as much, and don't penetrate building materials as well. They also make defensive handgun use more effective. "Armor Piercing" is generally a misnomer, there are no handgun rounds marketed that will penetrate a Level III vest, simply because the short barrel and low powder charge of handguns means that the projectile will not develop sufficient energy to punch through Kevlar. On the other hand, nearly all rifle rounds will penetrate soft body armor without a trauma plate, simply because of the amount of energy deposited in the cross-sectional area of a small but speedy rifle bullet. F=mv^2 means a fast .223 will zip through armor that a slow .22LR wouldn't have a chance of penetrating. If you banned "armor-piercing" ammo, you'd ban every rifle in the country.

I'm not willing to make distinctions about "sporting purpose" or "for hunting". Firearms are for what you use them for, if you misuse them then you are responsible. Statistically, the safest firearms in the nation are the Class III fully-automatic machineguns, since 1934 there have been two (2) deaths related to the use of one of these registered firearms. It would seem that outright banning Class III weapons would be a good idea, but it would have absolutely no effect on crime or public safety.

There is a tremendous amount of misinformation and disinformation on this topic, and no restriction that I have seen proposed seems reasonable or likely to succeed any more than the tens of thousands of firearms laws we have on the books already. There are people who point to Britain as an example, but it's usually bad science to correlate one variable (firearm deaths) to another (firearm laws) across societies.

Just to be honest, I'm a white guy and I live in a suburb in a small town in East Texas. The chances that I will every see a firearm pointed in anger are vanishingly small, I'm 38, I've lived in pretty much the same kind of surroundings my entire life and I've never seen it happen, doubt I will. I don't know personally anyone who has been murdered. Firearm violence by and large isn't random or evenly distributed, it's primarily confined to a few dozen zip codes, and to one SES. We'd be better served by addressing the problems in those zip codes and in that SES than making laws that restrict the freedoms and rights of the law-abiding, particularly the responsible law abiding.