The first news reports started rolling in shortly before 11 a.m. on April 16, 2007: two dead at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, commonly referred to as Virginia Tech. A little later, it was 12 dead. By noon, the official toll had climbed to 22, surpassing the body count of the 1966 University of Texas sniper attack, until then the nation’s deadliest school shooting. Then, later that afternoon, the chilling final tally: 32 dead, 17 wounded.
“I thought it was a typo,” a Virginia Tech alumnus told the local NBC-TV affiliate this week.
By the end of the day, a fuller understanding of the rampage had come into focus: Seung-Hui Cho, a 23-year-old English major who’d been ordered by a judge to receive psychiatric treatment two years earlier, began his rampage by killing two students in a residence hall at around 7:15 a.m. The South Korean native mailed a multimedia manifesto to NBC News — replete with photos of himself glaring at the camera, pistols in hand — then went to another part of the campus and gunned down students and teachers in four classrooms before killing himself.
The massacre, which dominated the national news cycle for days, was a seismic event. It brought focused attention to the federal background check system that had been created 14 years before, and to a broad failure by states to submit mental health records to a national database. It energized a movement by victims and their families to tighten the nation’s gun laws. And it also sparked a crusade by gun groups like the National Rifle Association to lift restrictions on carrying firearms on college campuses.
The Virginia Tech mass shooting also, in a significant and incredibly sad way, raised the bar for what qualifies as horrifying enough to attract an all-in media response.
Here is a more complete picture of how the deadliest school shooting in American history changed the gun debate and gun policy in the United States.
The gun reform movement gets a new face
Before Virginia Tech, two groups of people dominated the push for gun reform: lawmakers and advocates. But after that chilly April morning, a new group emerged comprised of survivors and grieving family members.
What began as a support group of victims’ families awaiting body identification at a Blacksburg, Virginia, hotel morphed into a community fighting for stricter gun laws that grows with each massacre, as new groups of parents, children, widowers, and wounded survivors channel their grief and frustration into action. In the decade since, loved ones of victims of mass shootings in Isla Vista, California; Tucson; Aurora, Colorado; Newtown, Connecticut; Charleston, South Carolina; and Orlando, Florida, have become the visible face of new gun reform proposals, most often at the state level. Their presence provides an emotionally powerful counterweight to the NRA.
Peter Read, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel whose daughter Mary died at Virginia Tech, told the New York Times in 2015 that his decision to fight for gun reform, even if it meant battling indifferent lawmakers, was a no-brainer: “How do I not? When the time comes for me to see my daughter again, what do I tell her that I did?”
It’s now easier in many places to bring guns on college campuses
What is a rational reaction to a mass shooting in a nation awash in guns? For some, it is to tighten gun restrictions, trying to lessen the odds that someone with intent to do harm cannot acquire the kind of tools that make killing many people so easy. For others, it is to work to make sure as many “good guys” as possible are armed in as many places as possible, with the hope that a private citizen can put a stop to a would-be mass shooter. In the second camp is the NRA, which has helped undo centuries of American tradition by helping to pass legislation that permits students, faculty, and staff to carry firearms on school grounds in many states.
In 2007, the same year the Virginia Tech shooting happened, Utah became the first state to require public colleges and universities to allow concealed handguns on campuses. Since then, at least nine other states have followed suit, most recently Arkansas, where Governor Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, signed a bill into law in March. To ensure that the policy continues to spread, an umbrella group called Students for Campus Carry with more than 40,000 members, organized into a network of chapters that act as the movement’s student ambassadors.
The NRA completely abandoned the Democratic Party
That the response to the incredible death toll at Virginia Tech has been less about restricting gun rights than asserting them may have something to do with a trend that parallels the rise of the “campus carry” movement. The NRA became a political organization in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until the last decade that the group decisively turned its back on the Democratic Party, which now takes a forceful stance in favor of gun regulation.
Over the last four election cycles, the NRA has spent more than $100 million on political campaigns, virtually all of it in support of Republican candidates. The intensely high degree of partisanship has had a trickle-down effect, emboldening state-level GOP lawmakers, who now control both chambers in 32 state legislatures across the country. These elected officials push policies like campus carry, which before Virginia Tech were well outside of the mainstream.
The background check system improved — but serious gaps remain
In the wake of the massacre, it surfaced that Cho had cleared a background check to purchase the Glock 19 and Walther P22 pistols he used in the attack, despite being declared mentally ill by a judge and ordered to seek treatment two years earlier.
While being diagnosed with a mental illness is not, in itself, enough to disqualify a person from owning a gun, anybody declared mentally unfit by a judge or involuntarily committed to an institution is prohibited from buying a firearm.
In other words, Cho should have failed his background check. But, as news reports detailed, the Commonwealth of Virginia never forwarded his mental health records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS.
The failure galvanized lawmakers to reform the background check system. Two weeks after the shooting, Governor Tim Kaine of Virginia, a Democrat, issued an executive order mandating the transmission of mental health records to NICS. Federal remedies soon followed. In June of 2007, Representative Carolyn McCarthy — a Democrat whose husband was killed and son critically wounded in a 1993 mass shooting aboard a commuter train in New York — introduced the NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007, which allocated $1.3 billion to improve state record reporting to the federal background check system.
The desire to prevent another Virginia Tech was so universal that even the NRA supported the bill, which President George W. Bush signed into law in early 2008. It was the first federal gun reform bill to be enacted since the Brady Act, which created the federal background check system, more than a decade before.
What Kind of Person Calls a Mass Shooting a Hoax?
The legislation was a catalyst for a dramatic improvement in the reporting of mental health records to the background check system. In 2007, the NICS Index — a database of state and federal records identifying those prohibited from owning guns — contained 518,499 mental health records. Last year, the database boasted 4,487,573 — a 765 percent increase.
But despite the uptick in records submitted to NICS, critics maintain that there is more progress to be made. As The Trace reported in 2015, only a fraction of the money allocated to improve NICS has been spent. The low funding level may be a consequence of how grants’ eligibility criteria are written. Under the law, states are required to have a “relief from disability” program, through which persons deemed ineligible for gun ownership because of mental health diagnoses or criminal records can petition for the restoration of their rights.
It’s also true that several states still only report a handful of records to the background check system. As of last year, for example, Wyoming, Montana, and New Hampshire all reported fewer than 100.
The pace of mass killings accelerated and campus shootings got deadlier
In the decade since Virginia Tech, the frequency of mass shootings that leave four or more dead has sharply increased in public places.
Shootings on school grounds — from elementary schools to colleges — claimed 23 more lives in the decade after Virginia Tech than the decade before. While the number of shootings on campuses held relatively steady, they became deadlier: Deaths on college grounds jumped from 11 in the decade before Virginia Tech to 39 in the decade after.
Here is a map of those incidents.
The bar for what sparks national outrage has gone up
Perhaps because Virginia Tech’s fatality count was so high, most of the school shootings that followed didn’t receive the attention they might have in the decade prior to the massacre.
Only the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut (27 dead) and Umpqua Community College in Oregon (10 dead) traumatized the nation in the same way, while rampages at Northern Illinois University in 2008 (six dead) and Oikos University in California in 2012 (seven dead) quickly faded from headlines. Other deadly school shootings that unfolded away from the public eye: a 2012 rampage at an Ohio high school that killed three students and wounded three others; a 2014 incident at a Washington state high school in which four students died, making it the deadliest school shooting since Sandy Hook; and a shooting last fall at a South Carolina elementary school that killed a 6-year-old boy and wounded another student and a teacher.
Another recent school shooting involving young children is already fading from the headlines. On Monday, Cedric Anderson walked into an elementary school in San Bernardino — the California city still reeling from a 2015 shooting rampage attack that left 14 dead and 22 wounded — and fatally shot his estranged wife, a special needs teacher named Karen Smith. He also killed 8-year-old Jonathan Martinez, and wounded another pupil before killing himself. The gunman fired six shots, reloaded, and fired four more before it was over, a fact that haunts a teacher’s aide who witnessed the bloodshed.
“From the second he walked into that room, I did not think he was just out for Ms. Smith,” Jennifer Downing told the Press-Enterprise. “He was out for blood.”
[Data analysis and map by Francesca Mirabile]