Ignoring Virginia Tech

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Alan Kim / The Roanoke Times / AP

Injured students are carried out of Norris Hall at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., Monday, April 16, 2007.

A year after the deadliest shooting in America, when a sad and angry English major killed 32 people and himself at the Blacksburg campus of Virginia Tech, only modest changes have been made to the country's gun control laws. These days it appears that the most lasting effect of mass-casualty shootings is to harden people's pre-existing opinions on emotionally loaded issues like gun control and privacy rights.

While it's true that many states are now more likely to share important information about certain mentally unstable people with the National Instant Criminal Background Check system, a good number of states are also pushing new laws to allow students and/or faculty to carry concealed weapons on campus.

Before the Virginia Tech shootings, Virginia could have (and should have) reported Seung-Hui Cho's psychological history to the feds, which would have made it harder for him to buy the two guns he used, but it didn't happen. "Virginia just misunderstood what the federal standard was," says Kristen Rand, legislative director at the Violence Policy Center, adding that both state and federal officials were responsible for the bureaucratic confusion over which information to report.

Some of that confusion has been cleared up in reaction to Virginia Tech. In Virginia, Governor Tim Kaine signed a law on April 9 that will require courts to forward information about all involuntary mental health commitments to the state's central criminal records database. New laws will also broaden the standard Virginia uses to commit people against their will and increase the monitoring of those receiving outpatient care (as Cho was supposed to do but didn't). And Virginia also now requires that universities notify parents if a dependent child receives treatment at a campus counseling center. "I think generally we're very pleased with what we see," says Gerald Massengill, chair of the now-disbanded Virginia Tech Review Panel created by the governor and a retired Virginia State Police superintendent.

Nationwide, about 10 more states, including Illinois, have started reporting mental health information to the federal database since the Virginia Tech tragedy — bringing the total to 32. Other states are considering laws to improve their reporting, but many of those bills are not expected to pass into law. For now, in other words, 18 states still would not report someone like Seung Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech killer, to the federal database.

Congress and the White House point to the bill they did pass after Virginia Tech as evidence of progress. But that law, which would create financial incentives for states to improve their reporting to the federal database, is not very impressive. It just authorizes new incentives; it doesn't appropriate the money for them. In Congress, nothing is real until the cash is actually appropriated (which in this case could happen this summer or fall or... never).

Meanwhile, even in states that do share mental health data, people can still buy guns without anyone checking the database at all. Under current federal law, unlicensed gun dealers at gun shows, for example, do not need to do a background check before they sell a weapon.

So it doesn't matter what is in the federal database if you aren't required to look. It's as if the federal government decided you only need a license to practice surgery if you do it professionally; if you are more of a surgical hobbyist, well, then, by all means, give it a try.

No one really knows how many weapons are sold this way. Gun-control proponents say it could be nearly 40% of guns; gun-rights groups say the number is under 3% — mostly just family members selling rifles to each other over kitchen tables. A bill to close the gun-show loophole in Virginia was killed by legislators after the Virginia Tech massacre. Congress has repeatedly failed to pass similar legislation.

It's also worth remembering that the vast majority of violent crimes — some estimates say 95% — are committed by people who are not technically mentally ill. So Virginia Tech was not typical, in this regard, and sharing mental health data is not a comprehensive solution.

The major lesson of Virginia Tech appears to be that most subsequent legislative changes happen only in the locale of the incident — and even then only incrementally, in a very narrow way that applies to the specific shooting and not to the gun problem generally. "I'm very concerned that there is this level of acceptance — that these shootings are just going to happen no matter what," says Thom Mannard, president of States United to Prevent Gun Violence. "What never really seems to occur is a real, thorough discussion on the fact that often the only common denominator in these tragedies is the use of guns. There is no other weapon that is legally available that can kill so many in such a short period of time. It's amazing that more people don't make that simple acknowledgment."