Virginia Tech: How did it happen?

Police and university authorities faced pressure on Tuesday to explain how a gunman apparently evaded detection after killing two people and then went on to kill 30 others two hours later in America’s worst shooting rampage.

The man, whom police have not identified, killed himself in a classroom at Virginia Tech university after opening fire on students and staff during class in an apparently premeditated massacre on Monday morning.

Police said he appeared to have used chains to lock the doors and prevent terrified victims from escaping the building. Fifteen people were wounded, including those shot and students hurt jumping from windows in a desperate attempt to flee the gunfire.

Many students expressed anger that they were not warned of any danger until more than two hours after the first attack at a dormitory, and then only in an email from the university.

“We knew that there was a shooting but we thought it was confined to a particular setting,” university president Charles Steger told reporters, explaining the lack of more urgent measures such as evacuating the sprawling grounds or shutting down the whole campus.

Although they said earlier there appeared to be only one gunman, police declined to confirm the two incidents were linked and said there was a male “person of interest” connected with the initial dormitory shooting of a male and female student. That person was not in custody.

Asked whether police had initially pursued and questioned the wrong man, campus police chief Wendell Flinchum declined to comment.
“I’m not saying there’s a gunman on the loose,” he said.

The first shooting was reported to campus police at about 7.15am (11.15am GMT) in West Ambler Johnston Hall, a dormitory housing about 900 students. It was followed two hours later by more gunfire 0,8km away at Norris Hall, site of the science and engineering school.

Witnesses said the killer was a black-clad Asian male, about 1,8m tall, who went wordlessly from room to room calmly shooting students and staff with at least one handgun.

Echoes of Columbine

Television images of terrified students and police dragging bloody victims out of the building revived memories of the infamous Columbine High School massacre in 1999 and is likely to renew heated debate about the United States’s gun laws.

More than 30 000 people die from gunshot wounds in the United States every year and there are more guns in private hands than in any other country. But a powerful gun lobby and support for gun ownership rights has largely thwarted attempts to tighten controls.

Advocates of gun ownership rights saw Monday’s massacre as evidence of the need to relax gun laws rather than tighten them.

“All the school shootings that have ended abruptly in the last 10 years were stopped because a law-abiding citizen—a potential victim—had a gun,” said Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America.

“The latest school shooting at Virginia Tech demands an immediate end to the gun-free zone law which leaves the nation’s schools at the mercy of madmen.”

Mass shootings

Before Monday, the deadliest campus shooting in US history took place in 1966 at the University of Texas, where Charles Whitman climbed to the 28th-floor observation deck of a clock tower and opened fire. He killed 16 people before he was gunned down by police. In the Columbine High School bloodbath near Littleton, Colorado, in 1999, two teenagers killed 12 fellow students and a teacher before taking their own lives.

Until now, the deadliest mass shooting in US history was in Killeen, Texas, in 1991, when George Hennard drove his pickup into a Luby’s Cafeteria and shot 23 people to death, then himself.

A gasp could be heard on Monday at a campus news conference when the police chief said at least 20 people had been killed. Previously, only one person was thought to have been killed on the campus, which has 25 000 full-time students.

Investigators from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives began marking and recovering the large number of shell casings and will trace the weapon used, according to an official who spoke on condition of anonymity because local authorities are leading the investigation.

A White House spokesperson said President George Bush was horrified by the rampage and offered his prayers to the victims and the people of Virginia. “The president believes that there is a right for people to bear arms, but that all laws must be followed,” spokesperson Dana Perino said.

In a televised address, Bush said that the US as “shocked and saddened” by the shooting rampage. “Schools should be places of safety, and sanctuary, and learning. When that sanctuary is violated, the impact is felt in every American classroom and every American community,” he said in a brief statement at the White House.

MAJOR US SCHOOL KILLINGS

May 18 1927: In Bath, Michigan, Andrew Kehoe blew up the town’s school, killing 38 children and seven teachers and injuring 61 others.

 

August 1 1966: In Austin, Texas, sniper Charles Whitman killed 14 people and injured dozens from the clock tower at the University of Texas.

 

January 1979: In San Diego, California Brenda Spencer (17) killed two adults and injured eight children, famously saying she did it because “I don’t like Mondays.”

January 1 1989: A man in Stockton, California shot dead five children and wounded about 30 people.

 

March 24 1998: In Jonesboro, Arkansas, two boys aged 11 and 13 fatally shot four students and a teacher and injured 10 more after setting off the school’s fire alarm and opening fire as people streamed outside.

 

April 24 1998: In Edinboro, Pennsylvania, Andrew Wurst (14) killed a popular teacher and injures three more at an eighth-grade graduation dance.

 

May 21 1998: In Springfield, Oregon, Kipland Kinkel (15) shot dead two students, wounded 25 after he was expelled for bringing a gun to school.

 

April 20 1999: In Littleton, Colorado, Eric Harris (18) and Dylan Klebold (17) plotted for a year before they shot dead 13 people and wounded 24 more at their Columbine High School. They then committed suicide.

 

August 10 1999: In Los Angeles, California, a man fatally shot three children and two adults at a pre-school.

 

March 21 2005: On an Indian reservation in Red Lake, Minnesota, a male teenager fatally shot nine people, including five students.

 

October 2 2006: In Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, a man shot 11 girls “execution-style” at an Amish school, killing five. - Reuters, Sapa-AP, AFP

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