I graduated from Virginia Tech three weeks after losing the girl I loved in the worst shooting in American history. Three weeks after that, I moved to Texas and began doctoral studies at the University of Texas at Austin. The six months that followed were the worst of my life. Alone and numb in a new city, I tackled questions that ranged from difficult to impossible.
Why us? Why Maxine? What would I do if I ever found myself in Max's shoes? Could we have prevented the shooting? Which seat in a classroom would be the safest in the event of a shooting?
In Texas Senator Jeff Wentworth and Representative Joe Driver, thousands of miles away from my alma mater, brashly claimed they had an answer to my every question. Arm students and faculty, they said, in order to "prevent another Virginia Tech".
At that time I believed, naively, that if I shared the stories of the survivors with them, they'd simply withdraw their proposal and explore any number of the litany of ideas I imported from Virginia for preventing school shootings. I believed, naively, that they would honour our dead, our maimed, and our survivors.
Virginia lawmakers have filed campus carry legislation a number of times. Survivors and families of victims of the 2007 shooting bury the bill every time. To my knowledge, none favour handguns in classrooms; for them, the focus has been on preventative measures: text-message warning systems, evolving campus safety policies, access to counselling services, clarification of federal and state privacy statutes, and even push-locks on classroom doors.
Indeed, many of these recommendations were offered by the Virginia Tech Review Panel, a non-partisan commission assembled to study the tragedy and make recommendations for future incidents. Chairing the panel was a retired state police superintendent, who had led the investigations into the 9-11 attack on the Pentagon and the 2002 Washington DC sniper killings.
The other panellists included former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge, President Bush's first Homeland Security Secretary; the retired director of the FBI National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime; experts in adolescent psychiatry, higher education and emergency medicine; a victim services expert; and a veteran circuit court judge.
The panellists dedicated several months of their lives to comprehending the difficult details of a painful tragedy - unlike the two Texas lawmakers pushing for more guns, who have expressed not the faintest glimmer of intellectual curiosity about the events.
In the end, the review panel specifically recommended against allowing firearms on campus, and further suggested that state laws be clarified in Virginia so that universities could ban firearms - the opposite of what Wentworth and Driver propose. All in all, the panel made over 70 recommendations, and only two others related to guns.
The two gun-related recommendations are topics most of the campus handgun proponents not only refuse to address, but actively oppose. They concern fixing background checks. Background checks don't work, they say, and we can't fix them, so let's arm the public.
Seung Cho, the shooter at Tech, had been ruled a danger to himself by a Virginia judge, and under federal law was forbidden to own a gun. Unfortunately, Cho passed the background check, as Virginia did not report mental health referrals to the background check system.
Even if he had failed, the review panel noted, he could have visited a gun show and purchased the firearm from an unlicensed seller, no questions asked (the same loophole was exploited by the perpetrators of Columbine). The panel recommended closing both of these loopholes.
Texas finally closed the mental health loophole in 2009, but with fully one-third of the Texas House voting against it. Nearly all of those 50-plus members were sponsors of the campus handgun bills. The gun show loophole bill has never made it out of committee.
Worse, the Texas legislature has taken few, if any, steps towards implementing any of the other recommendations of the review panel - and is on the brink of making major cuts to campus mental health services. If Wentworth and Driver were serious about campus safety, they would be talking about more than just guns.
The truth is that these lawmakers care more about ideology than campus safety. They have no knowledge of the many steps universities have taken to improve security since Virginia Tech. Driver was shocked when he learned that police active-shooter response involves shooting any person holding a gun, without verbal warnings - an offensive strategy which enables police to enter situations much more quickly.
In fact, the legislation's authors haven't any idea what happens day-to-day on college campuses. While debating with survivor Colin Goddard on MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, one author swore that Texas campuses don't have bars (they definitely do), and implied that alcohol was also absent from our universities (it's definitely not). Several proponents claim that only seniors, graduate students and faculty would carry guns.
The bill sponsors are apparently unaware of the binge drinking that goes on, or that a majority of crimes on many campus are committed by seniors - exactly the people who would be carrying guns if the legislation passes (assuming the National Rifle Association doesn't win its lawsuit to lower the concealed handgun age to eighteen).
Similarly, legislators seem unaware that most large college campuses experience no homicides in a given year, but several suicides. Last but not least, they are blissfully ignorant of the long list of campus administrators, student governments, faculty councils and university police chiefs that have expressed concerns about - if not outright opposition to - their legislation.
If lawmakers are unwilling to sit down with higher education and safety experts before considering such legislation, they are willfully and grossly negligent. If we allow these bills to become law in Texas, other states will follow, and we surrender something much larger than the rights of universities to self-regulate: the free and honest debate so important to the development of critical thinking skills.
Maxine was not in the wrong place at the wrong time, as newscasters said of the 32 victims. She was in the right place at the right time: in class. And guns do not belong there.
* John Woods is a National Science Foundation graduate research fellow at University of Texas at Austin, and is Texas statewide director at Students for Gun-Free Schools.
Great article, John. A definite "must read" for legislators. I am weak reading your lucid expressions of how one is stunned to realise that legislators show no understanding of the anguish of this kind of violence and don't do what, surely, any intelligent human being would do - all possible to prohibit violent weapons in classrooms. Our love is with you; Maxine was wonderful. May you continue to recover from this trauma.
1) There was no "gun show loophole" exploited for the Columbine tragedy. The individual would have passed a background check.
2) How does the comment "guns don't belong on campus" actually prevent a crime? In case you forgot, they were already illegal at Virginia Tech at the time of the massacre.
3) Emotional arguments are usually illogical.
What many people seem to overlook when it comes to these sorts of proposals is that there's a difference between banning something and actually making it go away. No-one who has it in them to walk around murdering other people will be dissuaded simply because one more aspect of their plan is illegal. Simply put, campus gun bans do not disarm potential shooters, they only disarm potential victims, leaving them helpless to defend themselves.
This is not a hypothetical argument. Virginia Tech was not the only university in Virginia where a shooting occurred in the last decade. There was also one at Appalachian School of Law. The difference was that in this other incident the shooter was quickly subdued by other students, who were armed. This is why the Virginia Tech incident is rightly termed a massacre, and the Appalachian School of Law incident is relatively unknown.
Mr Woods is not the only one who wants a world free of violence. We all do. But unfortunately, we don't live in that world, and that being the case we should make decisions based on reason, and not emotion. Gun bans fail that test.
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