Virginia Tech Tragedy,Cho’s Mental Illness and Gun Sale,University Explains

University Explains the Return of Troubled Student

April 20, 2007

BLACKSBURG, Va., April 19 — Officials at Virginia Tech on Thursday defended their decision to allow the gunman in Monday’s rampage to return to campus after he was released from a psychiatric facility, even though they were aware of his troubled mental history and potential for violence.

Cho Seung-Hui, 23, the student who killed himself and 32 others, received outpatient psychiatric care ordered for him after he was involuntarily hospitalized and reportedly suicidal in late 2005.

Christopher Flynn, director of the campus counseling service, said the university had played no role in monitoring Mr. Cho’s psychiatric treatment.

"The university is not part of the mental health system nor the judiciary system, and we would not be the providers of mandatory counseling in this instance," Mr. Flynn said at a news conference. "This is not a law enforcement issue. He had broken no law that we know of. The mental health professionals were there to assess his safety, not particularly the safety of others."

Also on Thursday, a law enforcement official who asked not to be identified said it now appeared that Mr. Cho had fired more than 100 shots during his rampage. The official said investigators believed that most of the 32 dead were shot a minimum of three times.

Investigators now believe that after Mr. Cho left the scene of the first shooting, where two people were killed in a dormitory just after 7 a.m., he went to the post office to mail a package of writings and videos to NBC News, the official said, and then returned to his dormitory room before going to Norris Hall, where 30 people died.

He chained shut a door to the building from the inside, using chains he had bought at Home Depot, the official said. The police who first responded to the shootings were able to force their way in by firing at the door with a shotgun, the official said.

Investigators believe the shotgun blast alerted the gunman to the arrival of the police, and he shot himself.

In the weeks before the violence, the investigator said, Mr. Cho went to a shooting range in Blacksburg, spending an hour practicing with the weapons.

Investigators believe, based on interviews with an employee at the range, that Mr. Cho recorded part of his video statement in a van in the range parking lot, the official said.

Soon after the shootings, university officials and police were criticized as taking too long to alert students to the danger after the first one.

On Wednesday, criticism increased after court documents, classmates and professors indicated that Mr. Cho had a long history of disturbing and menacing behavior. On Thursday, even President Bush joined the chorus of those questioning whether more could have been done to avoid the tragedy, though he did not specifically mention university officials.

In previous cases like that of Virginia Tech, "there have been warning signals that if an adult, for example, had taken those signals seriously, perhaps tragedy could have been avoided," Mr. Bush said at a town meeting in Tipp City, Ohio.

"One of the lessons of these tragedies is to make sure that when people see somebody or know somebody that is exhibiting abnormal behavior, to do something about it," he said.

Also on Thursday, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine of Virginia said the state, rather than the university, would oversee a review panel that plans to examine how the university handled Mr. Cho’s mental health needs and the Monday shootings.

The panel, which Mr. Kaine said would seek to make recommendations before classes start in the fall, will be led by retired Col. Gerald Massengill, a former state police superintendent, and includes Tom Ridge, the former secretary of homeland security, Mr. Kaine said.

"This is a case study of a very tragic incident that has occurred unfortunately in Virginia," Colonel Massengill said at a news conference. "We’re not trying to second-guess anyone with any decision or any action that was taken."

In defending their actions, university officials pointed out that Mr. Cho was legally an adult and that a doctor at the psychiatric center in nearby Radford where Mr. Cho was sent in 2005 determined that he was mentally ill but not an imminent danger to himself or others.

"I know that we followed all of our policies correctly in the past and we acted on information that we had at the time," said Edward Spencer, associate vice president for student affairs.

He added that Mr. Cho had lived in a suite with five other students, and that "none of them expressed any concern to us of any violence, danger or whatever. I think that gives you a view of the inner world of mental illness."

Police officials said that while the multimedia manifesto Mr. Cho sent to NBC News on Monday provided them with little new information to help their investigation, they were disappointed it was broadcast.

"We appreciate NBC’s cooperation, and they’re cooperating with all of the authorities, though we’re rather disappointed in the editorial decision to broadcast these disturbing images," Col. W. Steven Flaherty, the superintendent of the Virginia State Police, said during a morning news conference.

NBC defended its decision to release parts of Mr. Cho’s video, saying that it "did not rush the material onto air, but instead consulted with local authorities, who have since publicly acknowledged our appropriate handling of the matter."

The police recovered a Dell laptop computer and a cellphone that appeared to belong to Emily J. Hilscher, Mr. Cho’s first victim, according to an affidavit for a search warrant filed on Thursday afternoon.

The police have been investigating whether there were any links between Mr. Cho and Ms. Hilscher.

Police officials said they were also continuing to explore whether Mr. Cho had any connection with any of his other victims.

Crime scene technicians recovered a total of 17 spent magazines of ammunition, the majority of which were for Mr. Cho’s 9-millimeter handgun, a law enforcement official said.

"He ended up buying a load of mags from Wal-Mart and Dick’s Sporting Goods," said the official, who asked not to be identified. "This was a thought-out process. He thought this through."

Classes were scheduled to resume on Monday, but Mark G. McNamee, university provost and vice president for academic affairs, said that the university planned to offer students a number of ways to complete the semester. Students will have the option of removing themselves from the campus for all or part of the semester without penalty to their academic standing, Mr. McNamee said.

The students killed on Monday will be posthumously awarded the degrees they were pursuing, he added. The degrees will be awarded in regular commencement exercises.


Chuck Burton/Associated Press

Flowers and beads graced one of the 33 stones placed near a memorial on the campus of Virginia Tech

Cho’s Mental Illness Should Have Blocked Gun Sale
April 20, 2007


WASHINGTON, April 20 — Under federal law, the Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho should have been prohibited from purchasing a gun after a Virginia court declared him to be a danger to himself in late 2005 and sent him for psychiatric treatment, a government official and several legal experts said Friday.

Federal law prohibits anyone who has been “adjudicated as a mental defective,” as well as those who have been involuntarily committed to a mental health facility, from purchasing a gun.

A special justice’s order in late 2005 that directed Mr. Cho to seek outpatient treatment and declared him to be mentally ill and an imminent danger to himself fits the federal criteria and should have immediately disqualified him, said Richard J. Bonnie, chairman of the Supreme Court of Virginia’s Commission on Mental Health Law Reform. A spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms also said if that if found mentally defective by a court, Mr. Cho should have been denied a gun.

The federal law defines adjudication as a mental defective to include “determination by a court, board, commission or other lawful authority” that as a result of mental illness, the person is a “danger to himself or others.”

Mr. Cho’s ability to purchase two guns despite his history of mental illness has cast new attention on Virginia’s relatively lax gun laws. And since states are supposed to enforce federal gun laws, the sales raise questions about whether Virgina — and other states — fully comply with the federal restrictions.

Virginia state law on mental health disqualifications to firearms purchases is worded slightly differently from the federal statute. As a result, the form that Virginia courts use to notify state police about a mental health disqualification only addresses the state criteria, which lists two potential categories that would warrant notification to the state police — someone who was “involuntarily committed,” or ruled mentally “incapacitated.”

“It’s clear we have an imperfect connection between state law and the application of the federal prohibition,” said Mr. Bonnie. The commission he chairs was created by the state last year to examine the state’s mental health laws.

Mr. Bonnie, the director of the University of Virginia Institute on Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy, said his panel would look into the matter: “We are going to fix this.”

He also said he believed similar problems likely exist elsewhere in the country.

“I’m sure that the mis-fit exists in states across the country, and the underreporting exists,” he said.

After a pair of female students complained about his behavior in 2005, Mr. Cho was sent to a psychiatric unit for evaluation and then ordered to undergo outpatient treatment, which would not qualify as an involuntary commitment under Virginia law, Mr. Bonnie said.

“What they did was use the terms that fit Virginia law,” he said. “They weren’t thinking about the federal. I suspect nobody even knew about these federal regulations.”

But Christopher Slobogin, a professor of law at the University of Florida who is an expert on mental health issues, said that under his reading of the Virginia law, outpatient treatment could also qualify as involuntary commitment, meaning Virginia state law should have barred him from buying a weapon as well, an interpretation Mr. Bonnie said he and the state’s attorney general disagree with.

Mr. Slobogin added that the federal statute “on the plain face of the language, it would definitely apply to Cho.”

A spokesman for the Virginia state attorney general’s office declined to comment today, saying only that various agencies are “reviewing this situation.”

Richard Marianos, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, would only say today that federal and state officials were looking into the question, studying the court proceedings and testimony.

But he added: “If he was adjudicated as a mental defective by a court, he should have been disqualified.”

Federal authorities apparently have not noticed Virginia’s failure to comply with federal guidelines restricting gun sales to the mentally ill. Dennis Henigan, legal director at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said the oversight on the federal law in Virginia has probably been occurring for some time.

“They may have been doing this for years, just basically assuming, if the guy’s not disqualified under state law, then we don’t have to send anything to the state police,” he said. “It’s a failure to recognize the independent obligation to the federal law.”

Most states do not follow the letter of the federal law when it comes to the mental health provisions, said Ron Honberg, legal director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an advocacy group.

“I suspect if we look at all the requirements that exist for the states, there’s probably a whole lot of them that don’t implement them,” he said, explaining the gap often comes from a lack of resources but also because no one is enforcing them. “When something like this happens, then people start to pay attention to this.”

Representative Carolyn McCarthy, a New York Democrat, has been pushing a bill that would require states to automate their criminal history records so that computer databases used to conduct background checks on gun buyers are more complete. The bill would also require states to submit their mental health records to their background check systems and give them money to allow them to do so.

Currently, only 22 states submit any mental health records to the federal National Instant Criminal Background Check System, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said in a statement on Thursday. Virginia is the leading state in reporting disqualifications based on mental health criteria for the NICS system, the statement said.

According to gun control advocates, however, the mental health information submitted is often spotty and incomplete, something Ms. McCarthy’s bill is designed to address.

Representative John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat and former member of the National Rifle Association’s board of directors, is co-sponsoring the bill, which has twice passed the House only to stall in the Senate, with Ms. McCarthy. According to congressional aides, he is negotiating with pro-gun groups to come up with language acceptable to them.

“The NRA doesn’t have objections,” he said in an interview. “There are other gun organizations on this that are problems.”

A spokesman for the NRA declined to comment Friday on the legislation, but Mr. Dingell said the measure could prevent future tragedies: “It resolves some serious problems in terms of preventing the wrong people from getting firearms.”

Virginia Tech Tragedy

It is impossibly sad, gut wrenchingly sad, to watch the video of the candlelight ceremony on Virginia Tech’s campus on Tuesday evening.

What can anyone say? All of the people in the Virginia Tech community deserve our support and prayers.

Why God? Why do these things happen to young people who have so much to live for?

If nothing else, we must get this Gun issue under control, once and for all. If not, then what kind of a society are we? As we display guns at shows around this nation like so much fruit at a Farmer’s Market.

I am unable not to cry when I view a MySpace page of one of the victims of this unspeakable tragedy at Virginia Tech.

When you see the page of a person who last week you might have found somehow linked into your own friend’s list, now they are names on a list of dead people.

This time last week they may have been checking their MySpace page for emails, comments, friend requests. And unbelievably they were slaughtered for no reason and I cannot imagine how the friends and families of these people must feel.

I am so sorry this ever happened to anyone.


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