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Warning signs missed Virginia Tech tragedy shows difficulty of balancing rights, need to intervene

The saddest thing about the general reaction to Monday's mass murder at Virginia Tech University is also the most predictable. A senseless tragedy of this magnitude should soften our hearts and open our minds. In the case of those most directly affected, it often does. But in the wider world of political debate, such events tend to enrage our souls and harden our heads.

The core of the tragedy in Virginia was a deeply troubled young man, and the way to avert that tragedy involved the almost impossible task of identifying the depth of his troubles, and of intervening, in a society based on individual rights. But the initial reaction, predictably, focused on the means rather than the cause.

People who believed Sunday that guns are too easy to get and misuse in America believed that even more strongly, and on even more television interviews, Tuesday. People who believed Sunday that more guns in the hands of more people would offer some form of meaningful self-defense against the occasional mass murderer believed it even more strongly, and on even more Web postings, Tuesday.

The likely result, again, is political gridlock that will mostly leave our gun laws where they are, a patchwork of unenforceable half-measures that actually seem to be the preferred course in this, the most violent nation in the so-called developed world.

It is useless to argue that there are too many guns on the street, even though there are, because America's cultural reality is such that, even if they are not allowed by law, guns will always be sought by the feared and the fearful. And it is witless to argue that a student or teacher with a gun could have held the body count at Virginia Tech to, say, 11 instead of the eventual 33, even though it is theoretically true, because the increase in one- and two-victim murders, suicides and accidents that would inevitably but much less noticeably accompany an increase in firearm ownership is a price we should not be asked to pay.

Face it. There are too many guns in the hands of too many unstable people, people whose instability would be of little consequence but for the fact that they are, legally or otherwise, armed. We should recognize that our media-saturated world encourages too many of those tortured souls to one last act of defiance, taking with them as many innocent people as they can as they exit this veil of tears.

Background checks and waiting periods for purchasing guns are reasonable, and should have prevented Cho Seung-Hui, the Virginia Tech killer who had one involuntary mental health commitment on his record, from buying weapons legally. But his apparent determination would likely have found a way around that limitation, perhaps leading him to kill a different clutch of people on a different day.

And the fear that one of the intended victims might be armed will also fail to be a deterrent. A spectacularly violent death was always the desired end of the script. Thus law is less important than listening, crime scene investigation less crucial than accessible and stigma-free psychological help.

Cho showed several warning signs over the last several months -- violent writings, stalking female classmates -- which Tech administrators will be criticized for not acting upon. But if we were to investigate, treat or hospitalize every spooky dweeb with a student ID, schools would have time for little else, creative types would be unduly harassed and the mentally fragile would have one more grievance for their suicide note.

Cho's epistle to the cold, cruel world, we are told, included the sentiment, "You caused me to do this." No, we didn't. But we didn't do enough to stop him, either. In part because we keep forgetting how hard that is to do.

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