12.09.11

Former Virginia Tech Professor: The Rising Toll of America's Gun Culture

The bloodshed isn’t stopping. After Virginia Tech’s latest violence, Professor Roland Lazenby asks: When will Americans tire of the toll from our aggressive gun culture?

I was locked down with my class of journalism students during the April 16, 2007, shooting rampage on Virginia Tech’s campus. As soon as it was over, one of my students and I set out for the crime scene nearby, to report the story.

Numb with disbelief, we quietly made our way through police lines and even stopped to chat briefly with two officers.

I was taken aback when one of the policemen suddenly blurted out, “We’ve got to do something about people having access to guns. I don’t know what, but we have to do something.”

Later, given time to reflect, I understood that the officer had arrived at the only sane conclusion possible in those circumstances.

No freakin’ guns. None.

Just a few yards away, Tech’s Norris Hall was filled with the bodies of 32 very precious souls.

As we approached the scene, we stopped and talked with two glassy-eyed university housekeepers who had been inside Norris Hall during the rampage but managed to escape.

The student with me, Omar Maglalang, was overcome with sadness as he watched one of the housekeepers struggle with the growing realization of the trauma she had just experienced.

Later, Maglalang and I stood outside Norris just beyond the yellow crime-scene tape that whipped in the stiff wind. We watched the grim faces of officers and technicians coming and going from the grisly scene inside.

They were profoundly disturbed by the ringing of the victims’ cellphones as family and friends tried desperately to confirm their safety in the wake of news reports.

As a former newspaper police reporter, I’d done my share of duty gathering information at murder scenes. But this was different. This was a violence that stunned the planet.

The peaceful little village of Blacksburg was forced to revisit that trauma this week when a gunman inexplicably killed a campus police officer and the university was plunged into another lockdown that lasted into Thursday evening.

Suddenly, national media were again converging on Virginia Tech, invoking for many the painful and nauseating memories of 2007.

“This isn’t the same as the previous incident at Tech and comparisons to it are unfair and insulting,” one of my former students angrily posted on Facebook Thursday.

He was right. This wasn’t the same thing as 2007, but for long hours it sure felt like it.

In nearby Roanoke, I pulled my car off to the side of the road, listened to live radio reports from the scene and wept.

Late that afternoon, Virginia Tech President Charles Steger told a gathered press conference, “In light of the turmoil and trauma and the tragedy suffered by this campus by guns, I can only say words don’t describe our feelings and they’re elusive at this point in time. Our hearts are broken again for the family of our police officer.”

An armed-forces veteran and a father of five, the victim, Officer Deriek Crouse, had been with campus police about four years.

He died on the “reading day” in Blacksburg, when students had a day off before exams to cram in some final hours of study.

Schools are often places highly charged with emotion and conflict. Only an idiot could posit that guns would somehow enhance that atmosphere.

It happened in broad daylight on campus, right outside in a parking lot next to Virginia Tech’s athletic complex.

A freshman walking near Cassell Coliseum gasped to happen upon the officer bleeding on the pavement.

It was stunning how swiftly he had become a statistic; tens of thousands die each year around the globe from gun violence.

In the United States alone, better than 31,000 people died from firearms wounds in 2007 with nearly 70,000 more suffering injury, according to the advocacy group Legal Community Against Violence. Of that number, 12,632 were murdered.

For many people, the politics of gun control is like a merry-go-round, whirring in dizzying circles spun by the lobbyists and lawyers profiting from the debate.

Meanwhile, each attack, each violation, comes upon us like a drumbeat in this media culture.

Each succeeding incident grows in the public mind, becoming metaphors of our despair.

So often in the wake of these incidents I’ve thought of the helpless complaint from that officer in 2007: “We’ve got to do something about people having access to guns. I don’t know what, but we have to do something.”

In recent years, there has been a movement to allow registered guns on college campuses. Having taught 20 years of college journalism and taught in the public schools for three more, I can say that schools are often places highly charged with emotion and conflict.

Only an idiot could posit that guns would somehow enhance that atmosphere.

I do recall in 2007 an off-duty officer who was also a student telling me that he spent hours fantasizing that he was in Norris Hall that day, taking a class and thus able to use his duty weapon to stop the attack.

I happily joined his fantasy.

If only he had been there to shoot the killer and stop the slaughter of the innocents.

But he, you see, is an officer of the law.

Arming students is not the same thing, not even close.

I myself am a child of the Southern gun culture, and as such I’m inclined to acknowledge the desires of “sportsmen” and the alleged protections of the Second Amendment.

I purchased my first weapon at age 10, with my saved allowance, a .22 caliber Ithaca saddle gun from the local Western Auto store, for $29.95. I’m absolutely positive there was no background check.

I am sure there are many young boys and girls across America who have listened intently to their training and learned to handle weapons maturely. I was not one of them. I distinctly remember one camping trip at age 12 that broke out into frightening gunplay. I still can’t figure how someone didn’t get shot that weekend.

Mostly my experience with guns as a police reporter was intensely negative, with a nonstop run of incidents—domestic tragedies, armed robberies, childhood accidents, and other sorts of disasters.

I had worked the police beat about a month, still shocked by everything I had covered, when I decided to load up all my guns and take them down to the local pawn shop. Yes, I needed the money, but I also had a strong sense that I simply didn’t want the trouble.

My first child had just turned 5, and I distinctly remember thinking, if I don’t have a gun around the house, then I don’t have to worry about my daughter getting a hold of it.

You cannot be injured by a weapon that isn’t there.

So you can argue all you want about Second Amendment rights, but many countries don’t have anywhere near our level of gun violence simply because guns are illegal or deemphasized.

Unfortunately, in this country, the killing isn’t going to stop, not unless we stand up to the gun manufacturers’ lobby and begin dialing back our aggressive firearms culture.

Even then, it’s going to take a long, long time.

The only alternative is to continue to endure the succession of shootings and killings and public trauma and to continue to accept the idea that we are impotent to do anything about it.

From Blacksburg to Little Rock to Tucson, we are discovering one terrible day after another that that’s simply no way to live a life.