Ten years have passed since a Virginia Tech student opened fire on his classmates and professors, killing 32 people before taking his own life. At the time, it was the deadliest mass shooting in our country’s history. The shock and heartbreak surrounding Virginia Tech had the ability to influence widespread change; instead, we’ve seen very few changes in gun regulations nationwide, and have gone backwards in some states.
Now, ten years later, our country suffers from a mass shooting more than once every day. The tragedy’s death count was recently eclipsed by the Orlando Pulse shooting, an even larger massacre. Unfortunately, Virginia Tech still holds the distinction of being the deadliest school shooting in American history, but Sandy Hook came terrifyingly close in 2012 with 27 casualties.
TATM spoke with Paul Friedman, Executive Director of the Virginia Tech Victims’ Family Outreach Foundation, to discuss what went wrong with the Virginia Tech massacre and what we can do to prevent similar tragedies. Friedman quickly pointed out that the Virginia Tech shooter was deemed a danger to himself and others by a state judge in Virginia, and was legally required to seek outpatient treatment before the shooting took place–he shouldn’t have had access to guns in the first place.
“The critical thing is that, once assigned to outpatient treatment, the Virginia State Police didn’t think it was necessary to put his name into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), and that was a mistake, because he went on to buy two guns at a licensed dealer and those are the guns he used,” said Friedman. “He should’ve been in that system–could’ve been in that system.”
Immediately following the Virginia Tech massacre, then-Governor Tim Kaine (D-VA) signed an executive order, making it mandatory for individuals who have been deemed dangerous to themselves and others to be included in the NICS. Kaine’s decision was confirmed into legislation by a Republican-controlled state legislature and supported by the NRA, along with other gun rights groups. The program has been in place ever since, with all parties in agreement that the NICS is a valuable law enforcement tool.
Even so, it is now easier than ever to buy a gun in Virginia, despite the state’s history and aforementioned legislative victory. Mass shootings have proven to influence legislation, but unfortunately, most of the progress has headed in the wrong direction.
According to a Harvard Business School study, a single mass shooting produces a 15% increase in “firearm bills” introduced in the year following one such tragedy, and an overwhelming majority of those bills result in lifted gun restrictions. In states with Republican-controlled legislatures, a mass shooting actually increases the number of loosened gun laws by 75%.
As for the Democrats looking to take away everyone’s guns? Well, they statistically respond to national tragedies by influencing zero change–they’re also bought and paid for by gun rights groups, just on a much smaller scale.
The Supreme Court ruled that the federal government cannot enforce a nationwide NICS-reporting policy like Virginia’s, due to states’ rights. However, Friedman’s organization has a new initiative, Campaign 32, “designed to get at the heart of what happened at Virginia Tech and prevent it from happening elsewhere.”
Their mission is to make states aware of a federal grant program, which encourages states to individually implement programs similar to Virginia’s. It was signed into law by President George W. Bush back in 2008, shortly after the Virginia Tech massacre, but not all states have chosen to participate. Nearly $75 million is set aside to help states take initiative, and the program receives bipartisan support, but it comes down to a matter of awareness.
“The NRA is very supportive of this [campaign] because it has not, in any way, challenged the Second Amendment; it does not, in any way, challenge anybody who has not been found to be a danger to themselves,” said Friedman.
According to Campaign 32’s website, the NICS has blocked over 27,000 gun sales to exceptionally unstable individuals, and can prevent similar mass shooting tragedies from happening in the future.
“We want to be sure to send the message that we’re not trying to stigmatize people who have mental health problems,” said Friedman, as only a small fraction of those with mental health issues would be subject to these restrictions. The NICS also prevents convicted criminals from purchasing guns at federally-licensed gun retailers.
“We don’t want to deter anyone from seeking treatment, but we do know that when someone has arrived at the point where a medical determination has been made that they are a danger to themselves or others…at that point we have to say that that person should be barred from purchasing a gun.”
Friedman is hopeful that Campaign 32 will gain traction, but it’s up to progressives to push their representatives to consider similar laws in every state. In addition to donations, which aid in research efforts, activists can call their elected officials to encourage them to participate.
”Ask them what they’re doing on this matter, ask them if they’ve taken advantage of the federal funds to be able to make sure that their system is working in the best way possible,” said Friedman.
While initiatives like Campaign 32 are a step in the right direction, our country has a long way to go before we fix our collective obsession with guns. Since 2010, three years after the Virginia Tech massacre, gun production has doubled–there is now nearly one gun per citizen.
Mass shootings account for only a small percentage of gun-related deaths, including increasing instances of suicide and deaths of children within their own homes. However, these incidents are 80 times as likely to evoke new legislation due to our media’s fixation over them, and our country has become desensitized to unacceptable levels of gun violence as a result. Many people only stop to mourn these tragedies if the death count is eye-catching, which makes the corporate media that much less likely to cover a single violent gun incident.
Worst of all, lawmakers have historically used these tragedies to put more guns in the hands of more people, and Democrats are certainly not taking any guns away. Once again, it’s up to progressives to call out the corruption among both major parties in order to positively influence change. We can only hope that it doesn’t take another 10 years or another record-breaking tragedy to reverse the damage that has already been done.
Interview by Zee Cohen
Edited by Lydia McMullen-Laird