The Virginia Tech Tragedy and Gun Control

South Korean mourners hold a memorial messages for the victims of the Virginia Tech shooting during a special prayer meeting by Christian activists in front of the U.S. embassy in Seoul on April 25. (Photo: Jung Yeon-Je / AFP-Getty Images)

In the aftermath of the tragic April 16 massacre on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, Virginia, by gunman Seung-Hui Cho, the national debate on gun control was once again thrust into the spotlight. Many media commentators raised key issues, such as the relative ease with which Cho was able to assemble the weapons used to kill fellow students. Some felt that more effective gun control measures might have prevented the incident altogether, while others remained vehemently opposed to the idea of the government becoming involved in regulating lawful gun ownership.

Since the tragedy was among the top news items around the globe, the international press weighed in with comment and analysis about the circumstances at the university and about gun control (or the lack thereof) in the United States.

An editorial in Qatar's Gulf Times (April 23) took a historical perspective, looking back at another horrific school shooting incident:

Even the mass killings at Colorado's Columbine High School in 1999 failed to result in gun-control legislation, despite the emotional outcry over those shootings. The reaction has been even more muted following last week's tragedy — the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.

U.S. politicians have shown little inclination to introduce new gun control legislation in a country where an estimated 40 percent of U.S. households own a gun and where for many the constitutional right to bear arms is seen as sacred.

Reports of Cho's past brush with mental health authorities should have prevented him from being able to purchase a firearm is prompting a legislative reaction, however.

According to a report published on April 25 in the aforementioned newspaper, the American public was not influenced to a great degree by the massacre on the issue of gun control:

Americans now favor gun control only slightly more than they did before last week's university shooting, according to an opinion poll published on Monday.

The Pew Research Center found that six out of 10 respondents considered the control of gun ownership to be a priority, while 32 percent said it was more important to protect people's right to own a gun.

The results showed little change from a similar survey in 2004, in which 58 percent said gun control was more important than gun owners' rights.

And while 47 percent of people in 2000 favored a total ban on the sale of handguns, that figure had now fallen to 37 percent, with 57 percent opposed, according to the research organization.

In a scathing editorial titled, "Gun Control Now," published in the Philippine News (April 25), it was noted that:

What is so sad is that the U.S. has the worst record in the world where the killing of innocent civilians with the use of firearms is concerned. One simply has to count the number of crimes and killings involving guns that occur in the country compared with any country like Canada or the U.K. or Japan or any other nation with a similar standard of living.

In Australia's The Wimmera Mail Times (April 25), commentator Jack Waterford openly questioned the lucidity of American gun laws:

For heaven's sake, cannot people get it into their thick heads that 32 students and staff at the Virginia Tech University are dead because a determined and murderous lone gunman went loco?

No doubt there are many people, even in Canberra, who get into murderous, perhaps additionally deluded, rages with others. In some cases this involves actual violence against others. But because, generally, the overwhelming majority of us do not have guns readily to hand, it is only very rarely that this leads to mass murder, let alone massacre of the Blacksburg scale.

The Courier Mail (April 25), also published in Australia, carried an opinion piece by Dr. Patrick Bishop, head of the Politics and Public Policy at Department at Griffith University, in Brisbane, which struck a pessimistic tone on whether the Virginia Tech killings would have any major impact on gun control laws in the United States:

On the likely policy outcomes, despite talk of increased gun control (guns are in fact already banned on campus, under Tech rules), I don't anticipate there will be a co-ordinated national or federal response. Attempts to bring about national legislation after the Columbine massacre in Colorado eight years ago have lapsed.

Politicians in the U.S. Senate who have already raised the issue have been charged with insensitivity, with comments that we must wait to observe appropriate grieving and the issue should not (yet) become "political."

This is not only the result of the action of strong gun lobby groups but the more broadly held view that an increase in gun control is a control on freedom. … So, unlike the Port Arthur massacre in Australia 11 years ago, this incident will not result in stricter gun laws.

In further comment from Australia, the Daily Telegraph (April 24) carried an anti-gun control commentary by Dr. Alex Robson, who lectures in economics at the Australian National University:

Instead, we heard the same, monotonous message: A similar massacre could never happen in Australia because our culture and constitutional arrangements are different.

Never mind that Martin Bryant murdered a greater number of innocent people in the 1996 massacre in Port Arthur. And never mind that Huan Yun Xiang carried five guns in to Monash University in 2002, killing two fellow students.

Since we don't enjoy a constitutional right to bear arms and have no gun culture, who is to blame? Charlton Heston? The Australian gun lobby?

Laws for the concealed carrying of guns are present in some form or another in 48 U.S. states, and serious research (most notably by Professor John Lott of the State University of New York) consistently demonstrates their deterrent effect. … Instead of it being illegal for campus security guards to carry firearms, it should be compulsory. It is all about deterrence.

Any further discussions about gun control in the United States is simply frivolous, according to columnist Gwyn Dyer, of the Dyer Report, in Canada's Sackville Tribune Post (April 25):

Gun control is a dead issue in the United States, and it isn't coming back. … This is a society that owns approximately equal numbers of wristwatches and guns: around a quarter-billion of each. There's no going back — and if practically everybody else has guns, maybe you should have one, too.

"Guns don't kill people; people kill people" is the best-known slogan of the National Rifle Association, the most effective pro-gun lobbying organization in the United States. But it's really a cultural thing: the British have bad teeth, the French smell of garlic, and Americans tend to have more bullet-holes in them than other people. The slogan should actually go: "Guns don't kill Americans; Americans kill Americans."

A number of international news sources focused on the massacre itself and how it could have been prevented from occurring.

An opinion piece by Walter Ellis published in the U.K.'s Belfast Telegraph (April 25) decried the ease with which the killer armed himself:

… Virginia, where almost anyone can walk into a gunshop and walk out half an hour later with a semi-automatic pistol or high-powered rifle.

The only limitation in Virginia is that you shouldn't buy more than one gun a month — meaning that over a year you could build up quite an arsenal, and all perfectly legal.

In her commentary in Canada's Pacific Free Press (April 24), Lila Rajiva posits that the university massacre was eminently preventable, and not directly linked to gun control at all:

If the campus faculty and staff had been doing their jobs, Cho would have in psychiatric care of some kind. And if the campus police had been doing theirs, the campus would have been closed after the first shooting, without any further delay. This has nothing to do with gun control. It has to do with ignorance about mental illness and about university officials and security not doing their job.

Looking at the incident from a global perspective columnist John Brown, in Hong Kong's Asia Times (April 26), said:

Americans rushed to unite in horror and mourning in response to the mass killings at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg in a way we haven't seen since, perhaps, the attacks on the US of September 11, 2001.

Despite the negligible coverage of overseas opinion about this event in the mainstream U.S. media, there did appear one comprehensive overview of how foreigners reacted to the killings … "Nowhere, perhaps, were foreign reactions to the Virginia shooting more impassioned than in Iraq, where many residents blame the United States for the daily killings in their schools, streets and markets. 'It is a little incident if we compare it with the disasters that have happened in Iraq,' said Ranya Riyad, 19, a college student in Baghdad. 'We are dying every day.' "

Indeed, for others on our globe, mass murder in Iraq, scenes of degradation from Abu Ghraib, Central Intelligence Agency extraordinary-rendition expeditions, and the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have already become synonymous with the U.S. government and the president; so it would not be surprising if Cho's actions and Bush's foreign policy were linked in the minds of people outside the United States.

An editorial in Saudi Arabia's Arab News (April 24) revealed how the massacre played out in the Arab World media:

As we followed the story on TV and on the Internet the day of the murders, we watched "terrorism experts" suddenly appearing and commenting on what had happened and who the culprit or culprits might be. One of the most notable commentators was identified as an Israeli expert on terrorism and, as he analyzed the photos and data up to that time, he commented that the "patterns" that he saw looked very much like the terrorism patterns in Iraq that we are confronted with daily in the media. He inferred that we Americans were watching the beginning of something akin to the terrorism that, in his mindset, Muslims and Arabs inflict on the world.

Lasly, the New Zealand Herald (April 24) carried a warning, of sorts, in their reader-input "Your Views" section:

I am deeply saddened by the events at Virginia Tech. To all pro-gun Americans I have one comment — war zones aside, name one other country where you see the frequency of school and now university gun massacres that the U.S. is experiencing? Name one! Step back and look at the big picture — there is something deeply wrong with your society and moral fabric if you continue to produce teenagers and young adults capable of such horrific monstrosities. Every country has its problems. There is no paradise on earth (including New Zealand!). As far as these massacres go, the U.S. is #1, so you have to look at what's causing that and remedy it. You can't continue on, business as usual.