My heart goes out to everyone who was shot today, and to their friends and families, and to the community at Virginia Tech. I cannot imagine their grief; all my thoughts are with them.
I was out all afternoon and much of the evening, and so it hadn't occurred to me that anyone would have made this into some sort of political issue. Not so soon. Not now, when kids are probably still in surgery, and their parents are pacing outside the doors of their hospital rooms.
I do not want to get into this, other than to make this one point: the idea that normal deterrent measures will affect people in the state of mind in which they might so much as think of lining people up and shooting them is, I think, completely wrong, at least, if my experience is any guide. Of course, it may not be: we know next to nothing about the shooter at the moment, and it could be that he -- the coverage suggests that it is a he -- has nothing in common with other people who do, or consider doing, similar things. But questions of policy should not turn on features unique to him in any case, so consider what follows a story that might or might not have any relevance.
I once knew someone who was thinking of doing this sort of thing. (Note: he didn't, and he's OK now. Moreover, while I normally don't predict people's future psychological states, for various reasons I think that he is unlikely to go down this road again. So this is a story with a reasonably happy ending.) I didn't know whether he was serious in one sense: knowing whether, when push came to shove, he would turn out to be one of those people who actually do it, or one of the people who get altogether too close and then, for whatever reason, draw back. I also don't think he knew that. The only being I could think of who could possibly know that was God, and I didn't believe that He existed.
But my friend was quite serious in two other senses. First, he really meant it. And second, the way it happened in his case was that he started saying things like: maybe I'll just become an axe-murderer. He was, at first, mostly kidding, but not entirely. That in itself was quite disturbing. But over time, the way he said it changed from "mostly kidding" to "not really kidding" to "not kidding at all", and, over the same stretch of time, this thought sort of metastasized and spread all over his mind, until it was just about all he thought of.
It should, I think, go without saying that there was something badly wrong with this person, above and beyond the fact that he wanted to go out and kill people. It manifested itself in ways that are similar, in some respects, to major depression. If you've ever talked to someone who is very, very depressed, you know that their thoughts tend increasingly to go round and round the same topics, as though they are trapped in some sort of horrible rut, which moreover tends to constrict with time. And it's very hard to get them out of this: I often have the feeling, when talking to very depressed people, that they are trapped within some entirely smooth sphere, which I am turning over and over in my hands, thinking: there must be some way to open this -- some point which, when I press it, will cause it to unlock, or some way of twisting it that will make its halves swing open. And I try and try, pushing now on one point, now on another, and nothing works; and all the while I can see the person I'm talking to, trapped inside, and I feel helpless.
Talking to this friend, at this point, was exactly like that. But of course it was even worse than talking to a normally depressed person, since normally depressed people are, at worst, only thinking about harming themselves. Which is quite horrible enough, but not as horrible as shooting up a bunch of innocent bystanders.
Also, as with normal depressed people, the rut in which his thoughts turned round and round didn't really make any sense. One of the things that makes the image of the sphere work for me is that the person inside is genuinely trapped -- they're going around and around not because that's what actually makes sense, all things considered, but because while they ought to get out, somehow they just can't.
It is for this reason that normal deterrence would not, I think, have had any effect. He just wasn't thinking in any such sane way. There was no particular effect he wanted to produce, other than: dead people. And even there, it wasn't so much the dead people as his killing them that was the point; as far as I could tell, his main reason for wanting to do this was that, as far as he was concerned, other people had been dreadful to him, and he had been all nice and restrained for so long, and why didn't he get to do what he wanted for a change? Precisely why "what he wanted" was to kill people was a question I often tried to get him to answer; as far as I could tell, it had no answer, other than: that they deserved it. (Note: what they had done to deserve this was: not to befriend him. That's why his potential targets were many: almost everyone in the world had failed to befriend him.)
To someone in this frame of mind, normal deterrents are useless.
Moreover, there was, as far as I could tell, a huge gap in his mind where any thought of what would happen after he killed people would be. I would sometimes try to get him to think about this, since it seemed to me that the cartoonish lack of detail in his thinking was an essential part of it. Would he turn himself in and go to jail? Try to escape? Kill himself? There was no answer. It was as though he thought that he was in a play, and when he had done this the curtain would ring down on what he thought of as his triumph, making all those annoying questions about what came next as ridiculous as asking whether the Prince who married Snow White would have a midlife crisis, and if so what Snow White would do then. Just asking those questions about a fairy tale shows that you don't understand what a fairy tale is: what the conventions of the genre are. My friend seemed to regard questions about what happened after the shootings as similarly inept.
Again: to someone in this state of mind, deterrents are pointless. As far as he was concerned, there was nothing that came afterwards. Nothing that mattered, at any rate. It did not seem impossible to me that he might have turned his gun on himself for that very reason. Had he thought that someone else would do the job for him, I don't think that would have dissuaded him at all.
Talking about deterrents presupposes a rational actor with some concern for consequences. It would surprise me if most school or workplace shooters fit that description. Certainly, at the time, my friend did not.
One other point that's worth making about cases like this: I spent several years trying to get my friend through this. During that time, I was very, very acutely aware that I had no idea at all what I was doing. I was probably better prepared than your average person with no psychiatric training: I had, after all, done high-stakes crisis counseling before, and therefore had some (not enough) emotional preparation. Moreover, while I was doing counseling for a living, I had tried to train myself, and so I was not completely ignorant of some of the relevant literature. But I had absolutely no idea what was going on with my friend or people like him, no idea how to think about it, and therefore no idea what to do.
I therefore tried very hard to figure out what to do. And it turned out that there were, as far as I could tell, no resources at all for people in my situation. (This was before the web, so that might have changed.) There were lots of books in the Counseling/Self-Help sections of bookstores with titles like: When Someone You Love Is Thinking Of Suicide; but there were no books called: When Someone You Love Is Thinking Of Going Postal. I went to the counseling center at the college I worked for, but they had very little help to offer. (Though it was sort of amusing, in a morbid way, that I only realized after saying "I have a friend..." that I would necessarily spend the next twenty minutes or so convincing the counselor that it really was a friend, not me.)
I tried every means I could think of to find some information about what on earth I should do, or even how to think about cases like this, to no avail. And I'm good at research.
Moreover, there were very few things that I could do, other than keep talking. Obviously, I tried to convince him to see a psychiatrist, and ultimately I succeeded, but "ultimately" here means: after two and a half years, and then only by somewhat dubious means. It also means: one and a half years after he bought the gun. Obviously, I tried talking to his family, but for various reasons that was not helpful. Since a lot of the problem was that he had no friends, I couldn't exactly talk to them. I could have tried to have him involuntarily committed, and in fact was pretty close to trying that when I got him to see the psychiatrist. But that is, for good reasons, very hard to do, especially at a distance, and it would have had very serious consequences.
In any case, the point is: there's a very, very large gap between "try to talk him into seeing a psychiatrist" and "try to get him involuntarily committed", and in that gap there was, as far as I could tell, next to nothing to be done.
I did think of one thing, which brings us back to gun policy. I felt fairly sure that if my friend ever did try to kill someone, it would be with a gun. He's not particularly strong or athletic, and he has very little physical confidence, so killing people by means that require either strength or dexterity seemed unlikely. That left, mainly, guns. Moreover, this particular person is not very street-smart; if I had to rank my friends by how likely they are to succeed at obtaining an illegal firearm, he'd be pretty close to last. And he didn't have a gun when this started. So it seemed to me that if I could keep him from getting a gun license, I would make it much, much less likely that he'd end up killing people.
So I called the gun licensing board in his jurisdiction. I didn't expect them to deny him a gun license on my say-so, and would in fact have been pretty appalled if they had. But I had a fairly extensive collection of emails in which he discussed what he wanted to do at considerable length, so I offered to send them the emails, and also to allow them whatever access they needed in order to verify that these emails had in fact been sent to me. If they couldn't spare the resources (this friend lived over a thousand miles away, so that seemed likely), I also offered to let them choose a forensic computer person to do it, and to pay the tab. I also offered to pay for a psychiatrist of their choosing to evaluate the emails and determine whether or not the person who wrote them was indeed a threat. Because I thought: while it would be awful if I could get them to deny someone a gun license just by making unsubstantiated claims about his sanity, surely there must be some provision for denying a gun license to someone who is demonstrably homicidal.
Guess what? There isn't. Or so that particular gun licensing board told me. If someone has committed a felony, they said, he can be denied a license. But if they are merely insane and homicidal, there's nothing anyone can do
And that's just wrong.
I have no particular interest in taking anyone's hunting rifles or handguns away from them. But I do think that it should be possible for someone to be denied a gun license when a qualified psychiatrist determines that there is evidence that that person is mentally ill in a way that predisposes him or her to homicide.
I can't imagine what it must be like for the victims, their families, and their friends; and my heart goes out to them. I do know something about what it's like to know someone who might have ended up being the shooter. This shooter could have been completely unlike the person I knew. And he might not have given any indication that he was planning to do anything like this. But if he did, it's quite possible that there were people who tried to stop it, and for whatever reason, couldn't. I spent two and a half years having nightmares about the possibility that I would hear a story like this, and the shooter would be my friend. So my heart also goes out to anyone who did try to stop it, and couldn't find the resources they needed, or any good steps to take.
It's a horrible, horrible thing.