Students who kill their classmates are motivated by a desire to change their reputation, Wilson School professor Katherine Newman and politics professor Keith Whittington told about 50 students and community members last night at a talk on the Virginia Tech shootings.
Newman discussed the social experience of school shooters and the unpredictability of such tragedies, while Whittington related the killings at Virginia Tech to gun control regulation and discussed the potential for changes to concealed weapons permits.
The sociology of school shootings
Major American school shootings have mostly occurred in obscure rural neighborhoods, Newman said. She likened the school massacres in small towns to the "endemic" violence in big cities.
Newman went on to discuss Virginia Tech shooter Cho Seung-Hui in the context of three case studies she has done of school shootings since the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.
"What all three of these boys were trying to do was changing their image in the eyes of their peers," Newman said.
In rural towns, the school is an easy place to make a violent statement, Newman said. She contrasted this with the situation in cities, where young men are more likely to commit violent crimes on the street.
Newman found that school gunmen in recent years have professed a desire to surpass the death toll of the Columbine shootings. The same mentality, she said, seems to be true for Cho.
Newman discussed several cases of school shootings, all committed by students much younger than Cho. She said that if the children been older, their mental diseases would have been more readily apparent.
"There isn't a single rampage incident that wasn't preceded by a string of signals," Newman said.
But the signals that future shooters send out are often ambiguous and under the radar of adults, which is why the signs are rarely reported, she said.
Classmates of the shooters often do not convey their suspicions to authority figures because they fear being labeled a "rat," Newman said.
She described the sense of community in small towns that can lead to reluctance to come forward with damaging information regarding a child. In one example, a neighbor saw a child killing cats in his backyard but did not tell the child's parents. The child went on to kill several students at his middle school.
Neighbors may also be suspicious of the motives of the people who come forward with information about their children.
Newman noted that the Virginia Tech shootings were different from other school shootings because classmates and professors did come forward with information, and Cho did receive treatment.
School shootings and gun control
Whittington discussed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993, which requires federally licensed handgun dealers to run background checks on customers.
Cho went through a background check when he purchased a gun from a licensed dealer. Unfortunately, Cho was not in the federal background check system, though a Virginia judge had ruled him to be a danger to himself.
"[Cho] should have been included in the database, and [it] should have excluded him," Whittington said.
"[Gun control is] not a sufficiently high priority in the state or federal budget," Whittington said. He also noted many problems with background checks, including the high cost of constantly updating databases and difficulties in maintaining consistency across databases.
"It's unlikely to thrust forward a major movement ... for rethinking gun control more broadly," Whittington said. He does not foresee a major shift in gun control, but he predicts a debate about concealed weapons permits.
The argument for concealed weapons permits is that students may have been able to stop Cho during the shootings.
The lecture was organized as a response to the Virginia Tech shootings by the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students and the USG.
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