Thank God the Blacksburg killer only had guns.

Science, technology, and life.
April 18 2007 10:38 PM

Low Tech

Thank God the Blacksburg killer only had guns.

Car bomb in Iraq. Click image to expand.
A suicide car bombing in Karbala, Iraq

"Deadliest Shooting in U.S. History," said the Washington Post. "Deadliest shooting rampage in U.S. history," agreed the Chicago Tribune. "Deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history," echoed the Los Angeles Times.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

What happened at Virginia Tech was indeed our deadliest shooting. But the key word isn't "deadliest." It's "shooting."

Advertisement

Monday's death toll was 32. How does that compare with the worst mass murders of U.S. civilians? Not even close. On Dec. 21, 1988, plastic explosives killed 270 people on Pan Am Flight 103. On April 19, 1995, a truck loaded with ammonium nitrate killed 168 in Oklahoma City. On Sept. 11, 2001, hijacked planes killed nearly 3,000 in New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

In short, every six and a half years, give or take a couple of months, Americans get massacred. The difference this time is that the body count is so much lower. Why? Because the weapons were just guns.

I'm not saying guns are harmless. A few years ago, while walking to work, I had a traffic altercation that ended with a driver getting out of her car and shouting, "You're lucky I don't have a gun!" I'm glad she didn't. I wish Cho Seung-Hui hadn't had one, either.

But it was just a gun. Each time Cho wanted to kill somebody, he had to squeeze the trigger. There was time for horror, but also for mobilization. That's why the students in Room 207 had time to block the door. Hell, Cho had plenty of time between shootings to go to the post office and mail his ramblings to NBC.

Today everyone's asking why administrators didn't lock down the campus after the first two deaths. I'm sure that'll happen the next time somebody gets shot at a university. But maybe next time we won't be so lucky. Maybe the killer won't use a weapon that requires him to walk across campus to get from the first two victims to the next 30. Maybe he'll do what killers already do in Iraq: take out scores of people in one blast.

Do you know how many people got blown up in Baghdad on Wednesday? More than 170. A single bomb killed 140 of them. This happened at the same market where a bomb had killed more than 125 people two months ago. That's four times the body count at Virginia Tech, in a flash. Do you think it can't happen here? Do you think the people who smuggled a bomb into Iraq's parliament building, through multiple screenings by U.S. and Iraqi forces, can't penetrate our security at home?

No wonder Iraqis find the outcry over Virginia Tech puzzling. Scores of them die every week, while many of us hardly notice. Our gun debate makes little sense to them. In today's Post, a Baghdad traffic cop, when asked about the Virginia Tech tragedy, opines, "America has terrorism and they are exporting it to us. We did not have this violence in the Saddam era because the law was so tough on guns."

Well, no. When you can wipe out thousands of Kurds in a chemical weapons attack, people are understandably reluctant to wave a .22 at you. Saddam even faked a nuclear arsenal, at fatal cost to himself, to intimidate his enemies. If you really want to teach people a lesson, you don't shoot them one at a time. You slaughter them in droves. That's the 21st-century terrorist style: 200 dead in the Bali car bombings five years ago. Another 190 in the Madrid bombings of 2004. Another 200 in the Mumbai bombings last year.

When you look at the gun debate from this angle, two things stand out. One is that we should spend our time and money trying to stop bombs, not guns. Lots of schools have a whack job like Cho. For every one of those guys, there are a dozen students ready, if he commits a heinous crime, to say they saw it coming. But the crime almost never happens. If we'd kept guns away from Cho, the Columbine kids, and the University of Texas sniper, we'd have saved about 60 lives. Compare that with a radioactive bomb in one of the 20,000 uninspected cargo containers that enter our country every day.

I see you Second Amendment enthusiasts nodding. Keep nodding, because the next point is just as important: It's time to stop thinking of rapid-fire weapons and high-capacity magazines as part of the gun world. They're part of the bomb world, because they give guns the sudden, mass killing power of bombs. Virginia Tech's football stadium seats 65,000 people. Imagine Cho in that stadium with a gun that sprays 15 rounds per second.

Do you know what happened in Baghdad after today's bombing? According to the New York Times, "As rescuers thronged the site, a sniper opened fire on the crowd, killing at least one person and wounding two others." A single fatality. I feel awful for that victim. I feel even worse for the other 139.