Virginia Tech: 32 reasons to question ‘freedom’

Will White House candidates face the realities of US gun law after Virginia Tech shooting?

Opinion LAST UPDATED AT 22:17 ON Tue 17 Apr 2007

At least 32 people were killed and 29 wounded in yesterday's shooting rampage, the worst ever on an American campus. The gunman, a 23-year-old South Korean student, Cho Seung-hui, killed himself. It is thought that his first victim was an ex-girlfriend.

The mayhem took place at Virginia Tech, where 25,000 students live and study in brick and stone buildings spread over 2,600 acres.

The victims died in two locations, starting with two dead in a dormitory at 7.15am. But the majority - 26 students and four teachers - were gunned down two hours later in Norris Hall, a teaching block on the campus.

Why did the university's own armed police force, the first to respond, fail to 'lock down' the campus after the first shootings? The initial answer was that the police thought the dormitory killings 'domestic' and that the killer had left the campus.

They were wrong. The discovery today that the same weapons, including a Glock 9mm, were used at the dorm building and later at Norris Hall proves Seung-Hui was responsible for all the killings. Parents have called for the firing of both the university's president, Charles Steger, and police chief, Wendell Flinchum.

The disaster is sure to ignite America's debate over gun laws and the nature of its society which produces murder rates of ten times European countries.

President Bush said that schools "should be places of safety and sanctuary and learning", and resorted to prayer: "We hold the victims in our hearts, we lift them up in our prayers."

Last year five little girls were murdered in an Amish one-room schoolhouse. In 1999, 12 students and a teacher died at Columbine High near Denver before the two teenage gunmen killed themselves.

"These incidents are social bad weather, part of the society we live in," said the American author Lionel Shriver, who explored the psychology of teenage mass-killers in her 2005 novel We Need to Talk about Kevin, which won the Orange Award.

She fears a security clampdown making schools as miserable as post- 9/11 airports, destroying them as communities.

CNN's Jack Cafferty broadcast the view that massacres could happen anywhere. "There is no way you can plan for a psycho," he said.

Yet the fact that the massacre happened in Virginia is significant. The state boasts among the loosest gun laws in the country. Virginia includes some of Washington DC's wealthiest suburbs and, to the west, the dark, secretive hills and hollows of the Appalachians where the gun culture was born in hillbilly cabins.

'Freedom' to own guns here is about dealers who walk into stores to buy five or six guns at a time and then sell them from car boots to the gangsters of New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

The gun law debate is one the White House candidates would prefer to avoid: Democrats fear losing support in 'red' states, while for Republicans the gun is as sacred as Church and family.

Rudy Giuliani, Republican candidate for the presidency, once a supporter of gay and abortion rights, faces another test of his true beliefs. As Mayor of New York, he campaigned for Virginia to slam the gates on interstate gun smuggling.

Another 32 dead kids should persuade Giuliani to stick to the truth as he knows it, and for America to face up to it too. · 

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