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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 April 2007, 09:15 GMT 10:15 UK
Washington diary: Virginia shootings
By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

America has witnessed at least 19 fatal school shootings in the last decade.

Norris Hall
Police say the university's size made it difficult to "lock down"
What is it that makes men, and in some cases boys get up in the morning, slaughter innocent civilians in a place of learning and then end their own lives?

The question pursued us on our way to Virginia Tech. Outside Washington the headquarters of the NRA - the National Rifle Association - glints at passing cars.

The lights were on in many of the offices. Was this usual? Or were they busy working on damage control for the inevitable criticism?

Another 100 miles further down the Interstate you enter the Bible Belt. Periodically giant illuminated crucifixes jostle for attention with huge billboards advertising injury lawyers and fast-food outlets. Just before the city of Roanake there is a Wal-Mart. "Guns for sale all year round", it boasts, "except on Xmas Day".

'Aftermath'

We were in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains only a few miles from the West Virginia border. It was bitterly cold. The expectant dishes of a phalanx of satellite trucks pointed silently at the stars. The stage was set for the pageantry of grief and healing that follows every tragedy of this kind.

Cho Seung-Hui
One teacher described Cho Seung-Hui as a deeply disturbed individual
The aftermath of every school shooting may have produced its own ritual, but every tragedy is different and full of baffling details. In Pennsylvania last October, when a milkman killed five girls execution style in a village school the Amish world of horse drawn buggies, straw hats and militant pacifism collided with modern gun violence, visited upon innocent children by a friendly neighbour.

In Virginia Tech, an institution devoted to learning and clarity of thought was brutalised by the murky mind of a painfully shy Asian American. As he rampaged from the Maths class to the Engineering Class, from German to French he may have felt like Rambo but he still looked like the quintessential science geek.

The stereotype doesn't fit. And as we discovered nor does the location. The campus of Virginia Tech sprawls across the rolling landscape. It is huge. The university has 100 buildings. It boasts its own airport and power station. Size is one of the reasons why the police say that they couldn't easily "lock down" a virtual city that is home to almost 26,000 students.

But the place is also surprisingly beautiful. The college buildings are tastefully built in beige quarried rock. The fluorescent green lawns are meticulously manicured.

A lot of money has clearly been well spent. A golf course snakes between half a dozen artificial lakes and the students we spoke to were impeccably polite, despite our intrusions into their grief. In short, Virginia Tech is the kind of university you would want to send your daughter or son to.

Right to bear arms

On the sports field between the hall of residence where Cho Seung-Hui shot his first two victims and the Norris Hall where he gunned down the remaining 30, I spotted Chris Mucklow, a 22-year-old sociology student who loved soccer.

Glock
Some of the killings were carried out using a 9mm Glock
He was sitting by himself and crying silently. I asked him, whether he thought there should be stricter laws against gun ownership. "More background checks, absolutely," he replied. "But I wish I had had a gun that day. I wish some of the professors had had guns on them. They could have taken the shooter down."

It was an opinion I heard from many students at Virginia Tech and it goes beyond the abstract debate about the "right to bear arms", enshrined in the Constitution. It is about self defence in the face of a rampaging menace.

If Professor Liviu Librescu, the 76-year-old Holocaust survivor who died wedging himself against the door to stop the gunman from killing his students, had had a weapon, perhaps he would he alive today.

But it strikes me that this is a reaction rather than a solution. "You can't control guns with more guns for chrissake". That's how Brendan Quirk, an engineering student who watched as the victims jumped from the second story windows of Norris Hall put it.

If the state of Virginia had been obliged to conduct a thorough background check and seek references before granting Cho the right to bear arms, they might have discovered what his teacher Lucinda Roy knew from his writings: that he was a deeply disturbed individual who fantasised in his creative writing exercises about shooting people in the face - first one eye, then the other.

Debate

Would John Markell, the owner of the Roanoke firearms shop really have wanted to sell Cho the 9mm Glock if he had read some of these pages? After all four guns sold from his shop had already been reportedly involved in other homicides.

George Bush watches Laura Bush sign a memorial
Mr Bush said it was impossible to make sense of such violence
Yes, this tragedy has sparked a debate about gun control but mostly outside America. Even Australian Prime Minister John Howard, that stalwart friend of George W Bush, was quick to blame "the US gun culture".

But on Capitol Hill, the Democrats, who have sunk their teeth into every other aspect of the administration, have remained largely silent on the issue. Gun control puts voters off in swing states, their research has discovered. Best to say little about it especially with an election approaching.

Remember Howard Dean, the country doctor turned governor, turned Presidential candidate, turned Chairman of the Democratic Party? He railed against George W Bush "shooting from the hip" but he never really spoke out for gun control. Why? Because his liberal home state of Vermont hates fast-food as much as it likes hunting.

Despite this week's bloodbath there will be no overwhelming demand for gun control in this country. Like evangelical Christianity, baseball and a love of Pumpkin Pie it is just one of those things that separates Europeans from Americans.

Will the next shooting take place at another university, a high school, a nursery or a secretarial college?

In our hotel they were handing out ribbons made by the staff, displaying the colours of Virginia Tech. Orange and maroon. It was a touching gesture. On campus thousands of students gathered with candles in hand to commemorate the dead.

Earlier in the day they had sat in silence in the basketball stadium to listen to President Bush explain that the victims found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. America is at its most impressive when it grieves and remembers. But will the soul-searching ever produce legislation and will it make schools safer?



MATT FREI'S WASHINGTON DIARY

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