Some people who think the law should allow the carrying of concealed handguns (which I favor) make the mistake of seeing them as a cure-all. Virginia law allows licensed gun owners to carry weapons, but not on public university campuses. The thinking is that if students and faculty had the freedom to pack heat, someone could have stopped Cho in the act -- or deterred him from even trying.
But would that have saved anyone? I put the question to Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck, who is revered by gun rights supporters for his work on the defensive value of guns. He agrees that an armed student or professor could well have succeeded in stopping the slaughter, but doubts one would have been present.
"Most people wouldn't carry a gun to a classroom in daytime, because college campuses are very safe," he says. "It's a hassle to carry a gun. It's heavy, it's dangerous, it scares other people, and it puts weird bulges in your clothing."
Nor is there any assurance that someone with a handgun would have been able to act effectively -- something far easier in theory than in practice. Even police often miss their targets. And it's hard to deter a killer who is seeking his own death, as Cho was.
All this says nothing about the effect on learning from lots of people sitting in classrooms with lethal ordnance at hand. You don't have to be a gun control fanatic to recognize that putting firearms into a seminar room might cramp the discussion. To think guns belong in every setting is to make a sensible insight -- that they can be useful for self-defense -- into a fetish.
It may seem obvious that when an atrocity is committed with a gun, we should respond by revising our gun laws. In fact, what we know suggests that if there is a way to prevent mass killings, it will have to be found someplace else.
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