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comments on the Virginia Tech massacre

Posted by John Reed on

Copyright by John T. Reed

A Virginia Tech senior went on a rampage there on Monday, April 16, 2007 and killed 32 students and teachers before killing himself. I have nothing to add to the usual trite statements about what a senseless tragedy it was and all that. But I question two aspects of it.

A lone gunman shooting multiple people has happened before. One was in a law office on California Street in San Francisco. Another guy shot up a McDonalds in San Ysidro.

The thing I am surprised is missing is that people who cannot escape do not attack the gunmen.

Typically, these guys are armed with pistols or rifles. These weapons have a magazine. The Virginia Tech shooter had a 9 mm pistol and a 22 caliber pistol. According to Time magazine, one had an eleven-round capacity and the other, ten rounds. Newsweek said the 9 mm had a 15-round magazine. 15-round magazines were federally outlawed temporarily for non-law-enforcement people but the law was allowed to lapse before Cho bought his magazines.

That means he had to reload at least once, and probably at least twice during the shooting spree that killed 32 people other than himself. During the reloading, he is just a guy with a useless, small, metal object—the gun—in his hand. He can and should be subdued during that reloading time.

In the Time cover story about the incident, one student who was inexplicably one of only two not shot in a classroom—Cho apparently assumed he had already shot them—said he thought he heard Cho reload three times. Each of those times was an opportunity for that student and the others still living in the room to rush and subdue Cho or to run past him to safety.

How many magazines?
A student quoted in the 4/30/07 Newsweek story said he heard Cho reload and that it only took him about two seconds to do so. That means Cho had another magazine already full of bullets when he finished the first one. I have not seen any media reportts about how many magazines he had. One story said he bought two for one pistol from eBay.

There is a big difference between emptying a magazine and having another already-full magazine handy to replace it and emptying all your magazines and having to put loose bullets into the empty magazines. The latter takes an extended period of time. Unless he had ten full magazines with him, there were times when he had to take an extended period of time to put individual bullets into empty magazines.

According to Newsweek, he apparently killed a handful of students in each of four adjacent classrooms. Since he put multiple bullets into each victim, it would appear that he may have stepped into the hallway every time he emptied his magazines in order to reload the magazines. If so, the optimum time to attack him would have been when he did that.

Count the shots
Experienced combat soldiers learn such things in long wars like World War II. For example, Germans knew that our M-1 rifles used clips that contained a standard number of rounds and made a distinctive clicking sound when the final bullet was fired and the clip ejected. They would either count that many shots or wait for that sound and attack. Some Americans would have a second gun ready, like a 45-caliber pistol, to shoot the German who tried that.

Some cop or cowboy movies have one protagonist counting the shots of their opponent and making decisions based on the enemy’s need to reload. The Virginia Tech students apparently were not experienced in or thinking about such things. Some would probably be alive today if they had.

A janitor saw Cho loading his gun and fled only to find that Cho had chained the doors to the outside shut before starting his rampage. The janitor could have rushed Cho and called for help. Fleeing was probably the wiser choice. He survived, apparently by finding another exit and because Cho either did not follow him or did not catch him if he did. Had Cho cornered him in that exit foyer, the janitor’s decision to flee rather than grab Cho and scream for help would have resulted in his death. He might have died grappling with Cho as well.

Sound of gun shots
At my military affairs Web site, I have long had an article about what weapons fire really sounds like versus what Hollywood makes it sound like. I complained in that article that people have probably died because of the fake Hollywood sounds making them not recognize the real thing. Apparently some of the Virginia Tech dead died because they were mistrained by fake, overly dramatic Hollywood gun shot sounds.

The 4/30/07 Newsweek Virginia Tech story contains this passage:

Someone in the class wondered aloud if the noises were gunshots, but somenone else said no; gunshots are a lot louder. Then a man...entered the room. He did not say anything or hesitate. He shot the teacher.

Obviously, the person who said gunshots were a lot louder was wrong. I cannot imagine how they would have gotten such a notion other than from TV and movies.

Time and again during the Virginia Tech incident, students and teachers assumed that the gun shots were construction noises. One teacher heard the sounds and said, “Please tell me that’s not what I think it was.” Her students assured her it was construction noise. Unconvinced, she looked into the hallway where she saw Cho. She slammed the door and told students to call 911. Cho shot the student calling 911. The other students attacked the door to hold it closed as Cho tried to ram his way in then gave up. The remaining unshot students in that room survived as a result of their action to keep Cho out.

No fewer than three bullets in each victim
An emergency-room doctor said there were no fewer than three bullets in any of the victims he saw. Assuming Cho put four bullets on average into each victim, he needed to fire 32 x 4 = 128 bullets. Since his two pistols held ten rounds each for reloading purposes, he had to reload at least ten times. (He could fire 21 bullets with the two guns based on the initial load of each. He thereafter would have to reload after each ten shots or at shots numbers 31, 41, 51, 61, 71, 81, 91, 110, 111, and 121.) That means the victims had at least ten opportunities to subdue a temporarily defenseless Cho. If Newsweek is right about the capacity of Cho’s magazines being 15, there would have been fewer opportunities.

If he has more than one weapon, a fairly common occurrence in these things, and the case with Cho, there is still a moment of vulnerability when he is putting down the empty gun. Also, having multiple weapons only gives the shooter an advantage until he empties the second one. After that, he should only reload one unless the group of victims remains so totally passive that he can take the extra time for a reload of the second empty firearm after reloading the first one.

Guns jam. I surmise that these mass murderers prepare, probably including cleaning their guns before the attack. Such a cleaning would prevent most jams.

But guns jam for other reasons. For example, in Vietnam, soldiers learned to put no more than 18 rounds into their so-called “20-round” M-16 magazines. Why? Because 20 rounds forced the spring in the bottom of the magazine too tight and it would shove the second bullet into the chamber too fast and thereby jam the gun. Again, a mass murder with a jammed gun is just an average guy with a useless metal object in his hand. He should be subdued.

Still firing
Based on pure logic, it would even make sense for a crowd of people to attack a mass murderer while he was shooting. He will probably hit some of the attackers, but his aim is likely to be less lethal than when he is walking from desk to desk calmly firing into people’s heads. Even if his aim is good, he cannot kill everyone who rushes him and the rush will be successful on a net overall basis if not for every participant.

Throw stuff
There are usually objects in the room or building that can be thrown at the gunman—desks, chairs. Often there is a fire extinguisher that can be discharged at him. Will they kill him? Probably not. Will they distract him and spoil his aim? Almost certainly.

Some may die, but...
The fact that some may die in the rush is overwhelmed by the fact that the alternative is worse: that is, he will kill even more people including likely those who might have been killed during the rush. It is a Flight 93 situation. You’ll recall that on 9/11/01, the passengers on Flight 93 learned through cell phones that the Arabs who hijacked their plane were planning to fly it into the White House or Congress. Once they realized they were probably going to die one way or another, they said, “Let’s move” and attacked their hijackers. It was not likely to succeed and did not, but at least they prevented the hijackers from killing additional people on the ground. The jet crashed into a farm field in Pennsylvania killing all aboard.

How to coordinate the attack is the main problem at present. On Flight 93, the passengers met and discussed it for many minutes. There is no time for that in a lone gunman massacre. It needs to be in the minds of the prospective victims beforehand and they need to recognize immediately that they must do that and react they way they would probably react if the bad guy had a baseball bat or knife instead.

After 9/11, airline passengers in a number of situations (e.g., British Muslim shoe bomber Richard Reid) that seemed similar did spontaneously and instantly attack when a passenger started behaving dangerously. They had been so trained by the example of Flight 93’s passengers.

‘On three’
I suspect that if a spontaneous leader in the victim group just said out loud, “We all need to attack this guy at the same time right now—on three,” that the murderer would immediately recognize that, gun or not, he was outnumbered and was about to be overwhelmed and arrested or killed. I expect he would flee the room and either decide to spend the rest of his day doing something else or look for targets where he had the element of surprise or at least was not outnumbered by a room full of victims who could not escape.

My dad used to tell me that even a mouse or rabbit would fight a man if it were cornered. Indeed. My question is why are mice and rabbits smarter than humans in such situations?

Easier said than done but better than the alternative
Is attacking a gunman easier said than done? I expect so. But the logic of what I am saying is irrefutable. Easy or not, it is the best course of action when the prospective victims cannot escape. Hiding under a desk is suicide in such situations.

The wounded victim quoted in the Newsweek story said, “Nobody tried to get up and be a hero.” But he and others did rush to the door while Cho was in the hallway and managed to brace themselves against it to keep it closed. Cho fired through the door killing professor Liviu Librescu who apparently was standing up holding the door handle. Cho apparently assumed that’s where the door holding people were and fired in that vicinity. Librescu was killed by shots through the door. The others who held the door did so from the floor and the shots through the door around the handle went over their heads.

A Virginia Tech professor, Lucinda Roy, went to great lengths to try to work with Cho and to report his worrisome behavior to the various authorities.

So the Virgina Tech students and teachers were not totally passive and some lives were saved by some of their actions. But too many of them were too passive and too many authorities underestimated the danger Cho represented. In our society, government has a legal monopoly on violence. Unfortunately, government is a dopey, inept bureaucracy.

I am not a gun lover. But no matter how you feel about guns, we have to admit this was a clear case where guns were outlawed—on campus—only the outlaw—Cho—had a gun. Where’s a redneck with a gun rack in his pickup when you need them?

The villain or boob, other than Cho, in the Virgina Tech story is the person who let him out of the Carilion St. Albans Behaviorial Health Center in 2005. He was incarcerated there by a judge who said he was “an imminent danger to self or others as a result of mental illness.” Way to go judge!

An unnamed psychiatrist there, who it seems to me now has the blood of 33 dead people on his hands, decided to release Cho the very next day after concluding that his “insight and judgment are normal.” Excuse me but even if that were so, how does it change the judge’s finding that the guy was an imminent danger to himself and others? Between 2005 and the shooting, Cho’s behavior only got worse.

One Virginia Tech professor, Nikki Giovanni, threatened to quit her job if Cho was not removed from her class. Campus police and bureaucrats told her they couuld do nothing because there were no explicit threats. Bull! Where does it say that mass murderers give explicit threats before they murder? An explict threat is a crime and Cho committed no crime before he murdered 32 people. But the law does not require explicit threats or any other crime for incarceration if the person is a danger to themselves or others.

Our society is far too willing to rely on psychologists and psychiatrists for such evaluations. Psychology and psychiatry are very undeveloped sciences when it comes to predicting human behavior. Yet we keep acting like they can tell who’s going to hurt people and who’s not. In this case, the psychiatrist who decided to let Cho out was incompetent. I do not mean incompetent by any standards of the profession. I mean plain old common-sense incompetent in that the judge, who was not a psychiatrist, diagnosed the patient more correctly than the doctor.

It sounds like the doctor, and maybe his profession in general, bend over backwards to make a diagnosis that gives the patient the benefit of any doubt. Something along the lines of, “It’s better to let nine dangerous nut jobs walk the streets than to incarcerate one nut job who’s not dangerous.”

Seems like, given the inaccuracy of psychiatric predictions, the opposite ratio ought to apply. Or maybe the psychiatric profession ought to decide that honesty deserves a higher position in their diagnoses and just say the plain truth. “Is Cho a danger to himself or others?” “I don’t know.”

Then laymen like the judge can make the decision based on common sense without any confusing psychiatric hocus pocus clouding their judgment.

Limitations on expertise
I wrote an article recently called the nature of expertise. It started with the sentence, “I am an expert on expertise.” Indeed, I am. I have written 65 how-to books and about 5,000 how-to articles, all of which were published nationwide.

One of the most important things that an expert needs to know are the limitations of his expertise. It is crucial that experts inform their clients of the limitations of their expertise up front and that they answer “I don’t know” when they don’t know.

I once interviewed the head of what used to be called the Weather Bureau for a real estate investment article. I was drawing an anology between long-range weather forecasting and forecasting values of real estate. When I asked him how far out they could forecast weather, he said, “We have no skill beyond five days.” Well done. That was a straight-forward, honest, unambiguous statement of the limitations of the weather forecaster’s knowledge.

I am often asked as a real estate investment expert what the market is going to do. “I don’t know. No one does. Markets are totally unpredictable.”

Economists are big on self-deprecating jokes. That’s good because they have much to be self-deprecating about. One such joke is that economists do not make forecasts because they know. They make forecasts because they are asked. That’s funny, but it’s less funny when a psychiatrst knows the same and does the same and 33 people die as a result of the wrong forecast.

Duck and cover
People today are fond of making fun of the 1950s movie “Duck and Cover” that taught elementary school children to hide under their desks in the event of a nuclear attack. Actually, it was good advice for those at the outer edge of the blast area. See my article on it. But it is really dumb advice for people in a classroom with a gunman who is shooting them one by one. Yet most of the people killed by these nut-job gunmen are doing exactly that: hiding under a fig-leaf size student desk like some Canadian harp seal pup waiting to be clubbed to death.

Of course, if the victims can escape or hide successfully in a protected area, they should do that rather than attack the gunman.

Stop giving these guys publicity
At the military affairs portion of my Web site, I have an article called “Terrorism is a publicity stunt.” Its point is that terrorists commit terrorism solely to draw attention to themselves or their group. Giving them that publicity encourages more terrorism. The same thing applies to criminals who commit spectacular crimes, especially when they create accompanying manifestos intended to get wide publicity.

NBC received video tapes from Virginia Tech mass murderer Cho and aired them. Suppose we were to learn that NBC agreed in advance with Cho that if he murdered more people than any previous mass murderers—set a new record—and gave him the exclusive on it, that they would guarantee him X amount of air time for his video, grievances, and life story.

That would be an outrage. Among other things, the executives in question would be prosecuted for conspiracy to commit murder and first degree murder. The families of the victims would sue NBC off the face of the earth. And so forth.

Might as well have been an NBC-Cho conspiracy
Did NBC make such an explicit agreement with Cho? Almost certainly not. But the events played out exactly as they would have if they did. Their lack of legal liability is a technicality, not substantive.

The fact is the media in general have an unspoken agreement with terrorists and spectacular criminals. That agreement says, “Give us a big story that gets ratings and we will make you personally famous, we will air any grievances you have, regardless of merit, to a worldwide audience, and we will publicize all the demands of your group, if any.”

Cho made his publicity video, murdered those VT students and teachers and mailed that video to NBC pursuant to that unspoken agreement and NBC duly carried out their end of this Faustian deal with the devil. Cho did not know for certain that NBC would air it. But he knew they or another media outlet probably would. That high probability was enough to motivate Cho to go ahead and carry out his atrocity.

If, on the other hand, the 9/11 hijackers or a guy like Cho knew that the media had a policy of not publicizing the perpetrators of crimes designed to get publicity, like they do about not showing spectators who run onto the field at pro sports events, they most likely would not have committed the crime.

Terrorists and mass murderers want to be paid for their crimes in the form of publicity. NBC and the rest are only too willing to pay them and thereby encourage them. NBC and the rest of the media who publicize these criminals as the criminals want to be publicized are complicit in the crimes.

Extreme narcissism
In an essay in the issue of Time with the Cho cover story, David von Drehle, who studied mass murderers, argues that these guys are only about one thing: extreme narcissism. They have an infantile, insatiable need for attention and will do anything, including mass murder and suicide, to get it. That would explain the interminable manifestos (e.g. Unabomber) and the windy, pre-murder-suicide self-videos that are left for or sent to the media. Cho sent his to NBC for overnight delivery. Wouldn’t want to miss the highest period of attention to the case.

Bullying in elementary school doesn't cause these guys to kill. Everyone was bullied. Rather, they kill because of extreme narcissism. They mention having been bullied in their videos only because extreme narcissists see their own unpleasant experiences at the hands of others as grandiose crimes like Cho’s seeing himself as the crucified Jesus.

According to von Drehle, the characteristics of narcissistic mass murderers are “grandiosity, numbness to the needs and pain of others, emotional isolation, resentment, envy”... theatricality (e.g. the Columbine shooters trench coats, Cho’s combat poses). Sounds right to me. I would only add that terrorists often behave much the same (e.g., pre-murder-suicide videos, invocation of deities like Mohammed or Cho’s comparison of himself to Jesus) and are likely to be motivated by the same mental illness.

Von Drehle also shares my unhappiness with the media’s rewarding such people with exactly what they want: massive attention. Von Drehle feels this encourages other Cho’s to imitate or top his crime so they can get the amount of attention he got. By his own admission, Cho was imitating the Columbine killers.

Absolutely. If future mass murderers were ignored as much as possible in the media coverage of their crimes, I expect some of those suffering from extreme narcissism would find other, less destructive, ways to get attention. If we reward destruction we will get more of it. In fact, he have rewarded such crimes in the past and the Cho massacre is proof that rewarding them begets more of them.

Gun control
Most observers have said that since a court had judged Cho to be a danger to himself or others, no one should have sold him a gun.

Sold him a gun!? If he is a danger to anyone, why is he walking around buying anything?

That phrase, “danger to himself or others,” comes from a U.S. Supreme Court decision [ADDINGTON v. TEXAS, 441 U.S. 418 (1979)] The issue in that case was under what conditions could you incarcerate a mentally-ill person. That phrase was what the Court decided was necessary.

So all this discussion of whether there ought to be a law prohibited selling a gun to such persons seems beside the point to me. You don’t sell a stick of gum to such a person. You lock them up.

Apparently the Commonwealth of Virginia’s decision about Cho resulted in nothing more than his having to get “counseling” or go to a half-way house or some such. If he is a danger, why is he walking around? That half-way measure to protect the public resulted in 32 innocent people dying.

John T. Reed


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  • Have to agree on most points, with the exception of the media airing of manifestos and perhaps figuring out when to tackle these guys w/little to no information—I tend to support the gun rights activists myself, though I recognize that sometimes, a firearm isn’t the best option. Remember as was so aptly pointed out in the second Anchorman movie (credibility questionable, though point backed up by plenty of scholarly research) and alluded to by you when you menion ratings, it’s not neccessarily the media driving the content, it’s the viewers. There are people out there who are fascinated by horror, pain and violence, much more than just the headline in a basic line up front format. They want to know the motives, the story of the killer, etc. Were this form of censorship on free, albeited moronic, speech to be enacted on the mainstream media, the videos would likely surface on a sites like YouTube, social media, etc. as plenty of already gorey and not fit for TV items already do.

    Bill C. on

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