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When massacres are normal: guns and Virginia Tech

By Binoy Kampmark - posted Wednesday, 18 April 2007


The National Rifle Association joins the entire country in expressing out deepest condolences to the families of Virginia Tech University and everyone else affected by this horrible tragedy. NRA Statement, April 16, 2007.

In an interview given in 1928, Professor James Shotwell of Columbia University mused from his office that the US had mastered technology but not its engendering force, civilisation. Humanity’s destructive potential was being realised, but not its limitations. His aim in life was a complicated one: outlawing war. He did not succeed.

As the 32 bodies were being dragged out of the slaughterhouse of Virginia Tech on April 16, advocates for tougher rules on guns seemed mute. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence ran its usual protests, but could do little else. The reasons are not perhaps as they seem and go beyond the usual incantation of “a right to bear arms”.

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For one, deaths at the end of guns are banal. Thirty thousand people die of guns in the US a year. A mere statistic - over 3,000 American soldiers have died in Iraq, a figure that reads like an emotive metre on the soul of the country. A life lost in Philadelphia at the end of a loose bullet is less significant than a car bomb in Iraq.

There is shock, there are the consoling gestures. The National Rifle Association swiftly added its voice, communing in the suffering. But here is a tacit understanding between victim, perpetrator and the authorities. Violence is normal. Violence is here to stay.

Militarise the universities against this insurgency, suggested some survivors of Columbine. And in some cases, this did happen. “When we put an officer in the school, it becomes a key factor that makes it possible to keep our kids alive,” argue the authors of a piece from the oddly-named Killology Research Group. As a result, education centres in the US often resemble barracks.

The gun lobby contributed in large part to this: one deals with a gun-death by multiplying the availability of guns. An arms-race within the United States, and now in Virginia, might be a solution. Arm the child, and feel safer.

Armed children do indeed feel safer, at least in using their arms. Blogging students compete for the next Columbine. Some children feel a loss of esteem not because they failed an exam but because they did not instigate a Columbine first.

The authorities, protective as they are meant to be, also normalise the pattern of violence. The Virginia police were no exception. (Remember: their presence, according to many parent groups, makes children safer.) Shots were reported at 7.15 in the morning. The reaction was indifferent: no mass-evacuation or closures were called for. Another shot, another incident. No more. The campus was swamped with law-enforcement officials, and university life continued.

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Among all of this, a belated email was sent by the university authorities. The gunman slaughtered 22 more; the police monitored. As did the public: students simply filmed the area as the gunman went to work, the popping reverberating through the campus. These videos will in time be available and life will simply continue.

Months before, threats had been made against that same institution, and again, such gestures were normalising: another threat, another promise of harm. These are not uncommon, though the reactions vary.

In March 2005, authorities were hysterical at the short story written by an 18-year-old junior at George Rogers Clark High School in Kentucky. The story was simple, describing a scene oddly reminiscent of Virginia Tech: “a high school over ran by zombies.” This fictitious piece was enough for William Poole to be charged with a second-degree felony terrorist charge. Pooles’ mistake, something Virginia Tech’s gunman did not make, was keeping things fictional.

A simple correlative has been found in studies on gun crime. Where guns are easily available, gun-related offences will occur with greater ease. Gun crime fell dramatically in Australia after tough measures were introduced in 1997 to a similar massacre.

Britons witnessed a similar drop after dramatic measures were implemented in response to a massacre at a primary school in Dunblane in 1996. This will matter little in the debate.

Weapons proliferation might be an international security problem, but the US has been facing it domestically for decades. Pooles’ dystopian vision of zombie-run campuses has become all too true.

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About the Author

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and blogs at Oz Moses.

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