6 – Blacksburg, Virginia
The actions of Eric Harris & Dylan Klebold are far from the last to affect educational institutions in the United States. While Columbine is still the most deadly school shooting in American history, it was surpassed in 2007 by the Virginia Tech shooting, in which 33 people (including the perpetrator) were massacred on a university campus in the city of Blacksburg, Virginia.
Blacksburg is a larger city than the likes of Dunblane and Hungerford, but by American standards, it is still relatively small. Moreover, it is the quintessential college town, in which the university is the heart of the community and the centre of all life. Thus, when Seung-Hui Cho struck on the morning of April 16, 2007, it scarred the town forever. Few can hear the name of Virginia Tech, the university, without immediately thinking of the massacre.
The comparisons to Columbine are clear and, in the eyes of the perpetrator, completely intentional. Seung-Hui Choi was obsessed with the Columbine massacre as a child – it had occurred while he was at high school himself, aged 15 – and had spoken of wanting to “repeat Columbine”, which got him referred to the school psychologist.
Choi was born in South Korea but had moved to the United States as a child, growing up in Centreville, VA. He was studying English at Virginia Tech when he carried out the murders. Cho had previously been diagnosed with a whole range of mental health problems in his adolescence: everything from severe depression to selective mutism – anxiety so severe that he was unable to speak – as well as having endured bullying from his classmates throughout high school. He had been declared mentally ill two years before the shootings and previously reprimanded for stalking female students.
When, on the morning of April 16, he strode into the West Ambler Johnston Hall on the Virginia Tech campus and killed Emily Hilscher and Ryan Clark, who had run to her aid. Surprisingly for spree killers, he then returned home, where he stayed for a few hours. He deleted his email, removed his computer harddrive and went to mail a package to NBC News. He calmly walked on to Norris Hall, carrying a backpack that contained two handguns and close to 400 bullets. He then killed 31 teachers and students, as well as himself.
Cho was clearly disturbed, but expressed little interest in the help that he was offered. While it is difficult to control mentally ill individuals who refuse help, many people turned on the ease with which such an individual was able to acquire a gun. Virginia has laws that should have stopped him being able to purchase weapons, but they were circumvented easily. Cho bought the first online from a dealer in Wisconsin, using his Permanent Residency card, Virginia driver’s licence and cheque book as proof of address, then waited the mandated 30 days before walking into a store in Roanoke, VA to buy another. He passed the background checks because he simply left off that he had undergone a psychiatric evaluation. The bullets, which included hollow point rounds, were bought off eBay.
Cho’s letter to NBC was later published and featured him threatening “rich kids” and, of course, citing Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. As for the gun laws – they barely changed at all.