Last week was horrifying for the small town of Blacksburg, Virginia, and Virginia Tech University. Summoning visions of the massacre that took place there in 2007, initial reports described how a lone gunman shot a police officer on the grounds of the VT campus, and how another person had been shot and killed as well. It was thought the shooter was still at large. The campus locked down immediately. Given that I have a dear friend who works as staff there at VT, I paid close attention to the reports. Naturally I had fears of another mass shooting.
That was several days ago. Since then, the story has become clear. Ross Truet Ashley, age 22, apparently snapped. For reasons that are still unclear from media reports, last Wednesday he robbed the office of his landlord at gunpoint, demanded the keys of the landlord's Mercedes-Benz sport utility vehicle, then drove off in it. Almost 24 hours later, officer Deriek W. Crouse had pulled over a motorist on the grounds of Virginia Tech University. From out of nowhere, and for reasons unknown, Ashley abandoned his stolen vehicle, walked up and shot the officer, killing him. Ironically, the shooting happened across from the dormitory where the first shootings began in 2007. Ashley then ran off to the university greenhouses and made a quick change of clothes. Meanwhile, notices were already being sent to students, and the campus was locking down. Officers spotted Ashley in a parking complex, but by the time they caught up to him, he had shot and killed himself. They didn't initially identify him due to the change in clothing.
Obviously, the community was traumatized -- not just due to the horror of the event itself, but because this conjured memories of the 2007 shooting, where another mentally ill lone gunman, Seung-Hui Cho, shot and killed 32 students and faculty before taking his own life on the VT campus.
This case is particularly ironic, given that pro-gun groups have been holding rallies at area universities, trying to goad the universities into allowing concealed carry by their students, which the universities have a policy against. It's interesting to note, though, that the general public, outside of students, can carry there. These groups, particularly the radical Virginia Citizen's Defense League, held such a protest at VT on December 1. On Wednesday, Dec. 7, they held a rally at Radford University. The rally was going on when, almost within sight of the protest, Ashley robbed his landlord's office. Had Ashley known about the protest? Did he attend? It's unknown. The next day, as the shooting was taking place 2 hours away, the pro-gun extremists were holding another protest at James Madison University in Harrisonburg.
Even before the shooter had been identified or many facts were known, pro-gun extremists were commenting that this case proved that students should be allowed to carry guns on school grounds. Just like the protestors, they claimed on the comments sections of online news flashes that students should be allowed to protect themselves, that if they had a gun the shooter would be dead, that the universities were trampling the Second Amendment. All arguments about the dangers of guns or availability of guns to criminals were snidely brushed aside with language about patriotism and rights.
But let's take another look at what they claim. The pro-gun crowd likes to suggest that the sort of people who go on shooting sprees are criminals with previous records, obviously mentally ill, drug dealers, or gang members. Their vision of students who should be armed are students who have a clean record, who are well-adjusted, academically achieved, and well-liked -- law-abiding citizens who just want to feel secure.
Students just like Ross Truet Ashley.
You see, Ashley had no previous criminal record. He had shaved his head and was known to run rather than walk, but otherwise showed no clear signs of mental illness. He was a student, attending part-time at the business school at Radford University, 16 minutes away from VT. He was of legal age to purchase a firearm and have a concealed carry license. He is described as being friendly, nice, and quiet. He never talked about guns, drank, or used drugs (although he owned a gun and had visited a shooting range), wasn't a loner, and had been a star football player in high school. And he was academically achieved, having served on Student Government committees and been on the dean's list at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise in southwest Virginia in recent years. This is a young man who seemed to have everything going for him. It's unclear if he had a concealed carry license, but there was nothing stopping him from getting one.
Said his roommate from his years at U.Va-Wise:
"I was like, 'Oh, my God,'" he said. "This was my freshman roommate. This was the first person I met in college. This dude wore my clothes. This is freaking me out for real -- this is so crazy."
Vaughan said he was shocked by Ashley’s alleged actions.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “He doesn’t seem like the type who would do something like that. He was always eager to help and pretty much always in attendance [at SGA meetings]. He always had a smile on his face. I would never have imagined him doing anything like this.
Ashley was the model student for the campus conceal carry movement -- until he went on his murderous crime spree.
In the emotionally- and academically-charged and sometimes irresponsible environment that defines university life for young people, how then are we to trust that the average student carrying a gun is to be trusted? Does it make students safer somehow? The pro-gun extremists think it does. The vast majority of students and faculty at VT don't, and neither do any of the survivors of the 2007 shooting or their families.
The day after last week's shooting, Lori Haas, the mother of one of the first 2007 shooting survivors, Emily, had this to say:
Meanwhile, on the same day that we lost Officer Rouse [sic], a radical pro-gun group, the Virginian Citizens Defense League, or VCDL, was rallying on the James Madison University campus to force the school to allow guns in its classrooms and dormitories. When they’re not busy trying to arm our campuses, VCDL advocates for the eradication of Virginia’s state background check system.
Keep in mind that neither the Virginia Tech administration—nor a single victim or surviving family member of the 2007 massacre—supports these attacks on our gun laws. To the contrary, many of us are calling for tougher, universal background checks on all gun sales to halt the carnage before it ever begins.
Recently, my friend Colin Goddard—who like my daughter was shot on April 16, 2007, but survived—said something that stuck with me. Responding to those whose only solution to violence on campus is to arm themselves with concealed handguns, he said, “Shame on those unwilling to be their brothers’ keeper, but being all too eager to be his executioners."
Similar sentiments were shared by Omar Samaha, whose sister, Reema, was shot at VT in 2007. Samaha works hard to help prevent concealed carry on campuses.
And for those pro-gun folks who are still arguing that being armed on campus is going to save the lives of students, let me point out the following. Ashley's victim, Officer Crouse, was a Virginia Tech Police Emergency Response Team member, an Army veteran, was trained as a Crisis Intervention Officer, General Instructor, Firearms Instructor, Defensive Tactics instructor and most recently completed training for Advance Law Enforcement Rapid Response and Mechanical and Ballistic Instructor (source). And yet, despite all of Crouse's training and experience, the shooter still got the jump on him and murdered him. What are the chances, then, that the average student, barely trained in firearms or conflict engagement, could have any better luck? Is that chance worth all of the potential non-defensive shootings?
Universities are no place for guns. Keep 'em gun-free.