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The parallels are striking: an apparently lone shooter opening fire in a confined space, with guns and ammunition reportedly purchased legally. What lessons can we learn from the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting as the country mourns the victims of the deadly rampage at a Colorado movie theater? Former Virginia Gov. Timothy Kaine reflects on the campus tragedy and the nation’s willingness to debate gun control and gun show laws.
- Tim Kaine Former Governor, Commonwealth of Virginia
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to ''The Kojo Nnamdi Show'' connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, grilling lessons from James Beard Award winner, author and television host Steven Raichlen, but, first, lessons of a much more serious and somber sort.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's been more than five years since a gunman went on a rampage at the campus of Virginia Tech University and killed more than two dozen people, a tragedy that many people were reminded of late last week when a shooter stormed a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., killed a dozen people and injured dozens more. Tim Kaine was governor of Virginia when the shootings took place there in 2007.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWe spoke with him earlier today about the lessons he took out of that tragedy and how they may be relevant as we learn more of the details about what happened in Colorado. Gov. Kaine, it doesn't feel like that much time has passed, but it was only about five years ago that you were the man leading a state mourning a different tragedy when a gunman went on a shooting spree on the Virginia Tech campus in 2007. How did that experience color your reaction upon learning what happened in Aurora, Colo. late last week?
GOV. TIM KAINEWell it was -- Kojo, it just brought up a lot of painful memories, and I was actually in southwest Virginia in Wise County. That's not too far from Blacksburg on Friday morning when I heard the news, and I was with an awful lot of people who are very close to the Tech community. And we were all talking about it.
GOV. TIM KAINEThere had also been an earlier shooting in Virginia at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Va., which was very close to where we were in Wise, and so it -- you know, our hearts went out to the victims, and we just couldn't help but be reminded of all the emotions that we felt, you know, both when the shooting happened at Grundy and when the shooting happened at Blacksburg.
NNAMDIWhat did you think were the most tangible lessons to take away from what happened at Virginia Tech, and, five years later, do you think that we have learned those lessons?
KAINENo, we haven't. Now, we have to -- you know, we have to start off with an appropriate level of humility. There's nothing that we can do as public policy makers that are going to eliminate bad things from happening in the world. It would be hubris to think we could. But our job is to do all we can to reduce the likelihood of things like this happening, and I still think there's an awful lot more to do. You know, we spent our time in the first days after Virginia Tech really focusing upon comforting family members and just grieving as a community.
KAINEThere are those who wanted to, just from the very minute it happened, sort of politicize it, both sort of right and left, and we resisted that. But we didn't ignore that there were policy implications. And so, within two days after the shooting at Tech, I had appointed a very broad and bipartisan panel of folks to take a look at everything that happened and make every suggestion for how we could improve our, you know, campus security and our public safety. And they spent a lot of time, and they came up with a very good report. I would certainly encourage the policymakers in Colorado to do that.
KAINEYou have to use sad occasions like this as an opportunity to learn and make fixes. And we did. We made fixes in the state's gun laws, especially the database, to make sure that people who had been adjudicated, mentally ill, and dangerous would not have access to purchase weapons. We made changes to campus security. We made changes -- many, many changes to the state mental health system, both standards but also funding and accountability. I think our campuses in Virginia and our campuses nationally are safer today than they were five years ago, but we have work to do.
KAINEI also tried to make some changes that I was not able to successfully make. In particular, the one that I tried to make was I really am concerned that the ability of people to purchase weapons at gun shows without a records check exposes, you know, people to harm, and we tried to close that loophole in Virginia law. But I wasn't able to convince the Legislature to do that, and I regret it.
NNAMDIGov. Kaine, putting the matter of guns aside for a minute, to what degree do you think episodes like these reveal a dilemma that tends to present itself in free societies, that, no matter what layers of security or what policy restrictions we put on certain kinds of activities, a lone wolf is always going to be able to do, well dangerous things? What can you really do about the threat of a lone wolf, like the alleged shooter in Colorado or, for that matter, the shooter at Virginia Tech?
KAINEThe answer, Kojo, it's sort of what I said at the start. We would be prideful to think there's something we can do as policymakers that will eliminate the prospect of somebody who is, you know, mentally ill and deranged and with violent tendencies doing something like this. We can pass all the laws in the world, and we're not going to eliminate the chance of this happening. But, you know, even in the first days after this -- the notion of, you know, massive ammunition shipments, you know, by mail to this individual without it raising any question, it does -- it's uncomfortable. It's uncomfortable.
KAINEThe other thing that, you know, I do notice is that this was not a shooting at a university, but it was an individual who was part of a university community where folks were sort of aware that it seemed that here is an individual who is experiencing some trouble. One of the things we found in the aftermath of the shooting at Virginia Tech is a lot of people knew that the guy who committed all these horrible crimes was having trouble, but they were, well, can I share this information? Aren't there privacy restrictions that would, you know, block me from sharing it?
KAINENobody even shared with the student's parents. Hey, we think your son's really having a challenging time. Can we sit down and talk about it? I don't know what the circumstance was at the university in Colorado and whether there was any sharing of the information with the student's parents or not. But what we found was a lot of people on this campus at Virginia Tech, they didn't understand what they could legally do to address the concerns that they had about the shooter's mental degradation.
KAINEAnd I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of folks in Colorado probably had the same level of confusion or question about what they could share. I think it's really important that we give information to folks. Look, if you know someone and they seem to be having significant issues of mental health or exhibiting signs of danger, here are the things that you can do to help. Here are the things that you're allowed to do.
KAINEYou're not going to get into, you know, any kind of a legal jam if you share this information. So I think it's important that we give people not the thou-shalt-nots but we give people the things that they can do if they feel like the behavior of someone they know suggests that they might be dangerous.
NNAMDIAnd, finally, there's this. It's being reported today that the alleged shooter, James Holmes, purchased hundreds of dollars' worth of ammunition online. Was the online sale of ammunition an issue that ever came up in Virginia when you were governor? And do you think this is an issue that would be worth looking into if, indeed, you make it to the United States Senate?
KAINEKojo, I think it's troubling. These kinds of purchases -- you know, anybody can get online and get anything, so the size and scope of these purchases is troubling. And, you know, we wrestle all the time, for example, with online sales issues. And here's an example of one, selling alcohol online. Well, how do you know the person buying it is, you know, is 21, is legally able to get alcohol? Well, then you put some rules and regulations in place to make sure that the purchases that are being done are being done in accordance with the law.
KAINEAnd I think it's very fair, if we have concerns about alcohol sales online, if we try to put mechanisms in place to make sure that, you know, nothing bad is happening, I think it's also appropriate to ask ourselves whether we have the right policies with respect to these purchases. That wasn't an issue that really came up, that I can recall, as discussed -- or at least it wasn't front and center in the Virginia Tech situation.
KAINEBecause, again, I think the most significant issues in Virginia Tech were campus security issues, were the state's mental health procedures, and then the fact that we were not entering into the national database information about the adjudications of somebody as being mentally ill and dangerous. The law currently prohibits, as you know, people from purchasing weapons if they're felons, if they're mentally ill and dangerous, if they're subject to protective -- domestic violence protective orders.
KAINEAnd there are some other categories as well. But, unless you have a vigorous records, you know, records law that requires the entry of those kinds of adjudications into the records law, then you're allowing people to illegally obtain weapons who you have every reason to believe, you know, will do bad things with them.
NNAMDIGov. Kaine, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDITim Kaine was governor of Virginia from 2006 to 2010. He's now a Democratic candidate for the United States Senate. When we come back, we'll chat with author, television host and grillmaster, and now novelist, Steven Raichlen. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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