Virginia Tech: How Could This Have Happened?

There are a lot of people asking this question, and a lot of people offering answers: sociologists, psychologists, preachers, pundits….

So here’s one simple answer: guns.

No, I’m not about to sound off about gun control. And no, I’m not saying that the individual wasn’t to blame, or that his parents aren’t to blame, or that society isn’t to blame, or that God isn’t to blame. All of those are valid sites for analysis and reflection.

Here I want to say something a little different, at least for a theologian, and I need to say so in two parts.

First, we must acknowledge that there is nothing wildly unusual about the Virginia Tech massacre. It’s horrible, of course. But people have been doing horrible, deadly things to other people for quite a long time. And they are doing them now, on a greater scale than this, in Sudan, Eritrea, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and every other badly troubled spot on the globe.

So to the question, “How could this have happened?” one can respond that it is always happening, and has been happening for millennia. This is what some of us do to each other when we become deeply angry, deeply sad, deeply alienated, and deeply wicked.

Notice that I used that word “deeply.” I did it to show that such people are simply at a further position down the same spectrum of evil upon which I myself am located. I mentally and verbally write off people all the time—while I drive, while I’m reading or watching something I hate, while I’m in a particularly intense argument, or while I’m being threatened. I don’t think I’m especially prone to violence and neither are you. But haven’t each of us thought that, if we could just get away with it, we might just want to murder him or her?

And that brings me to my second main point. The big difference in the world today is technological, not moral. We’re no less deranged and wicked and no more deranged and wicked than people in the past. At least, it’s hard to see how one could make a strong empirical case one way or the other.

What is different now, however, is what guns bring to a situation. In fact, guns bring at least three things to such a scene as Virginia Tech.

Guns provide grossly disproportionate power to an individual, and especially guns today. Compared with, say, muskets, contemporary weapons have several crucial qualities that in combination make them fearsome indeed. They are relatively cheap, relatively accessible, relatively plentiful, relatively simple to operate, and terribly dangerous. Even handguns can have clips of a dozen bullets or more and speed loaders or multiple clips make them wildly lethal. Move up to a shotgun or machine gun and the power they wield becomes simply nightmarish.

So a modern gun is easy to get and easy to use, and it makes a solitary individual proportionately vastly more lethal than previous personal weaponry could.

A gun also, secondly, makes him virtually invulnerable. Everyone else on campus is unarmed—of course. A state university is the definition of an open, free, safe society, and Virginia Tech itself was a “gun-free zone”—even licensed handgun owners could not carry weapons. So one individual with a gun is much more dangerous than his “oneness” would have been in societies in which the most potent weapons were, say, bows or swords. You can rush an archer and you can fend off a swordsman with whatever is at hand. But there’s not much anyone can do against bullets, especially armor-piercing or other special slugs against which there is little defense.

A gun, thirdly, provides an easy way out. The gunman, having spent his anger, can turn the gun on himself and blow his brains out in an instant.

This is an important consideration. Anyone considering going on a rampage in the past faced the question of what to do once the killing was done. Escape, sure: but one would be on the run, perhaps forever. And if you were caught, society would exact a terrible price.

Suicide was the alternative. But every previous means of quick suicide meant suffering. Falling on your sword meant excruciating pain; hanging yourself ineptly resulted in slow strangulation; jumping off a height meant perhaps not dying quickly, or not dying at all—each of these were pretty awful to contemplate. But one quick jerk of the trigger and…the hope of everlasting sleep. Not much of a deterrent.

As a theologian, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the problem of evil in terms of God’s providence, our free will, and the like. I’ve even written about it. All of those questions remain and they deserve the best answers we can give them.

In the shadow of the Virginia Tech massacre, however, we might pause to consider that there is something new under the sun, a technology that makes this sort of terror not just possible, but likely.

And yet what this new technology does is magnify what has been there all along: the age-old evil in humanity—in all of us.

So yes, we should spend more, and better, on mental health facilities. Yes, we should help campus ministries and churches reach more lonely youth. Yes, we should aid parents struggling to raise troubled children. And, yes, we should rethink gun control laws.

But no matter what we do about the place of guns, especially in American society, we must brace ourselves for more of the same. Whatever was wrong with Mr. Cho is not going to be solved merely by policies and police.

0 Responses to “Virginia Tech: How Could This Have Happened?”

  1. Gordon

    I would question the idea that a pistol makes somebody “virtually invulnerable”, in reality if not in generally received wisdom. It’s a cliche in self-defense and martial arts circles that at ranges under fifteen feet or so, a pistol is virtually useless, since one can cross that distance in or under the time it takes to aim and fire. And even with a high-capacity clip, once the shooter has to reload, there are several seconds in which to rush him.

    Western society is extremely non-violent in historical terms. This is of course a good thing! But it results in ignorance about firearms and lack of experience in violence that lets whackos kill many more than they would have been able to in times past without opposition. If you’ve been told all your life that guns are terrible and gun-wielders are invulnerable, you’ll be less likely to try to intervene.

  2. Gordon

    Note that semiautomatic handguns have been around for 150 years. Are the kinds of mass murders that get all the press nowadays a recent innovation?

  3. Gordon Hackman


    I appreciate this reflection. I was just recently involved in a discussion in a completely different context where I pointed out this very thing, that human beings have always been sinful but our modern world has become more technically efficient at promoting it. It reminds me of how Wendell Berry says, “Computers make people even better and smarter than they were made by previous thingamabobs. Or if some people prove incorrigibly wicked or stupid or both, computers will at least speed them up.”

    I think Gordon above (not the same Gordon as me) may have a valid point, but in general I don’t think there is any denying that modern weapons, including guns, allow for a greater efficiency and lethality than ever before known.

  4. Wes Roberts

    Thank you for this. Thank you for your blog. A book club here in Denver will be better in the morning for what you have written that will help feed our discussion.

  5. Michel

    One problem I see with Gordon #1’s comment above about the “virtually-useless” nature of a pistol at under 15 feet is that it implies that the survivors could (should?) have intervened to disarm the attacker. Could that kind of comment cause someone who has been in this situation, and who might read that comment, to feel some kind of false guilt? I mean, no one should have to start to re-play the horror, and start to think to themselves: if only I had rushed the attacker, then maybe…I mean who knows…maybe someone did try that…

    Whether this is the reasonable thing to do under the circumstance or not (and this is obviously a very difficult choice to make under the circumstances, especially if one is not trained in self-defense, as probably was the case for most if not all the students involved)is not the issue. I am only concerned with the survivors and the family and friends of the fallen. Let’s try to stay from comments which might be construed as being less than sensitive to their pain…

    Thanks, John, for a well-balanced piece…

    Michel from Canada

  6. Ben

    Excellent post. Now we need to reflect on what shifts in the understanding of reality and human nature, throughout our Western history, have allowed such a detached sense of techne to accelerate and ascend into its own autonomous rule, as well as asking how this technological hegemony in modern society, in turn, has now uniquely shaped and distorted what is perceived to be the current conditions of possibility for human flourishing.

  7. Paul

    I appreciate the concern for the feelings of the survivors, but survivor guilt will probably be a reality for many of them. I know this from personal and professional experience.

    Having said that. Sometime, the discussion needs to be had about the responsibilities all of us have for the safety and security of our society.

    I would commend the following to your consideration:

    cheers, Paul

  8. As for me and my house … » Blog Archive » Guns

    […] There are a lot of people asking this question, and a lot of people offering answers: sociologists, psychologists, preachers, pundits…. So here’s one simple answer: guns. No, I’m not about to sound off about gun control. And no, I’m not saying that the individual wasn’t to blame, or that his parents aren’t to blame, or that society isn’t to blame, or that God isn’t to blame. All of those are valid sites for analysis and reflection. Read more … […]

  9. David Neff

    A few days after the V Tech shootings, I was reading Martin Luther’s Table Talk and came across this account of his attitude toward guns:


    (Table Talk, “Of Spiritual and Church Livings,” DCCLXXVI.)

  10. David Neff

    I’ll try that again. Fome reason, the actual quote dropped out of that post:

    Cannons and firearms are cruel and damnable machines. I believe them to have been the direct suggestion of the devil. Against the flying ball no valor avails; the soldier is dead, ere he sees the means of his destruction. If Adam had seen in a vision the horrible instruments his children were to invent, he would have died of grief.

    (Table Talk, “Of Spiritual and Church Livings,” DCCLXXVI.)

  11. Susan Michaelson (WTS, Philadelphia)

    Thanks, John, for this thoughtful reflection on how today’s gun technology crossed with fallen human nature at its worst played out at VT. It’s a refreshing break from the broken gun and broken mental health system screeds.

  12. Matt

    Dr. Stackhouse,

    I agree with everything you say here. Unfortunately, there seems to me to be one large topic that gets only passing attention – evil is a real byproduct of Satan and of human free will. Your point about guns is valid, yet to put the onus on guns is to underemphasize the point that humans are capable of much evil in their natural state through free agency. Some have also pointed out that Mr. Cho was deeply troubled, and no doubt he was. Yet to blame the incident on guns, lack of policing, lack of counselling, etc. misses the root issue – human beings sometimes willingly CHOOSE to do evil, attrocious things. While gun regulations are certainly valid, let’s remember that people will still find ways to harm each other even in the absence of firearms. The real need is the saving grace of Jesus and a deep and authentic walk with him in the context of other believers.

  13. Ben


    Your point is taken, but this is already assumed. We need to now ask the complex questions at the intersection of grace and culture/society/politics/economics/etc. Especially, what would technology look like if it’s essence were no longer considered “neutral” and autonomous, but rather inscribed within the grace of God’s love? The point is, we can talk about the good ordering of one’s soul in relation to God’s love, but I think Dr. Stackhouse also intimates toward the subsequent need for considering a good ordering of dominant structural realities like technology (broadly conceived beyond mere weaponry). Such realities implicitly shape and organize our possibilities for living together, which means that talk of an authentic walk must necessarily confront the social and cultural realities that so often determine the shape of that walk. Could it now be that technology shapes our lives in such an integral way that we cannot speak of redeeming ourselves without also the need to redeem and change realities like technology?

  14. Matt

    Ben, I agree with you, and you’ll notice that I did not disagree with gun regulation, etc. in my post. Indeed, I too believe that ALL things are to be brought under the lordship of Jesus in the life of a believer. My concern was to articulate primary and secondary things. Externals like gun control or policing are good, but our ultimate hope is found in Christ, not in secondary things, however good and helpful they may be.


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