Notes on a tragedy

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  April 25, 2007

Cho, on the other hand, didn’t do anything so overtly threatening. Until he began shooting.

In theory, federal law prohibited Cho from purchasing a gun because during his involuntary commitment two years ago he had been “adjudicated as a mental defective,” to use the language of the federal statute, which has required background checks since 1993. But as Cho planned his rampage, he had no difficulty obtaining the means for killing dozens of people in quick succession. That’s because the Bush administration has allowed Virginia, and most other states, to ignore the law.

The FBI maintains a national database of those barred from purchasing handguns. States are supposed to supply information on individuals to keep the list current, but fewer than half provide any mental-health records at all. Those that do, including Virginia, use different criteria than that which federal law mandates — this difference kept Cho’s name from being reported.

Similarly, Michael “Mucko” McDermott had been mentally committed three times before killing seven people in Wakefield with an AK-47 in December 2000, but he was not in the background-check database.

This administration has done nothing to force, or even encourage compliance with federal law. As a result of this willful inaction, most people whose mental illnesses should prevent them from buying guns can buy them anyway.

The Justice Department has also done nothing about those states that don’t require background check or record-keeping at gun shows. In fact, more than half the states are noncompliant, as is the case with failure to provide mental-health records.

The FBI, which collects information on gun purchases, erases that information after 24 hours. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), which tracks ballistics from gun crimes, is barred from sharing that information with other agencies or outside groups — a prohibition put in place after a late-’90s study found that ATF data could easily identify the dealers whose guns most often make their way into criminal hands. Those lax dealers have been subject to almost no audits or penalties.

“That’s all happened since Columbine,” observes Boston real-estate developer John Rosenthal, founder of Stop Handgun Violence.

Rosenthal points out that firearms are one of only two products — along with tobacco — not subject to guidelines from the National Consumer Products Safety Commission. And last year, Congress exempted gun manufacturers from product-liability lawsuits.

All of this made it much easier for Cho to do what he did — and will make it easier for the next shooter, unless we start setting changes in motion.

Yet we seem, as a society, to be comfortable only discussing issues of “that last hour, or three hours, before the shooting occurred,” says Woodward.

Woodward’s Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence has found that the real solutions start long before those final hours. In fact, the single most successful violence-reducing program the CSPV knows of is one that assigns a registered nurse to first-time at-risk mothers-to-be, to meet and discuss approaches to a healthy pregnancy and child-rearing over the course of two years. Their children, tracked over 20 years, commit far less violence than those peers whose mothers did not receive the service.

Woodward doubts that the Virginia Tech massacre will spur interest in expanding that program to the 600,000 high-risk mothers in this country, or in challenging ourselves as a society to do the hard things necessary to address such a large problem.

And it is a large problem indeed, perhaps even an intractable one. “Every couple of years this will happen, no matter what we do,” says Coakley. “We can do better, but we can never completely prevent it.”

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