Marc Carlisle: While tragic, Virginia Tech shootings are still an anomaly |

Marc Carlisle: While tragic, Virginia Tech shootings are still an anomaly


Of the millions of entries in any English language dictionary, none seem adequate to describe the ghastly event that took place last Monday morning in Virginia. So many questions, and no answers, as to why, what possible confused or tenuous explanation could the killer have offered to justify 33 deaths. Monday’s slaughter was tragic for the families and friends of the fallen. But the bodies were not even in the ground when calls for action, by the school, by the police, by the President, someone, anyone, began. The killings are symptomatic of the decline of society, family and the neighborhood. The killings are proof that America needs gun control to keep guns away from the madmen. Universities must take more responsibility for the safety of the boys and girls who are their charges. The only cry likely to resonate will be for the schools to do more, even though the men and women attending universities are all adults over the age of 18, and babysitting is not a university’s task.

Look for cosmetic changes similar to moving election polling places from primary and secondary schools, which has the trivial effect of reducing the risk to kids one day each year. Gun control will be argued and set aside, for the simple reason that violent crime has dropped by half over the past 20 years without it, thanks to the case of Roe v. Wade which affirmed a woman’s right to an abortion – read “Freakonomics” by Levitt and Dubner. And as to the decline of American civilization and the rise of anarchy, let’s take a step back and put these deaths in perspective. Every day in this country, roughly seven thousand people die. About a quarter of them will die from heart disease in one form or another. Twenty percent will die from cancer of something, and a similar number will have “Alzheimers” entered on the death certificate. But for 300 or so of each 7,000 daily deliveries to the morgue, death was a result of “unintentional causes,” a statistic that will swell for Monday, April 16, by about 10 percent when the Virginia Tech dead are included. Tragic though Monday’s murders may have been, they are a statistical anomaly, and hardly a cause for dramatic, nationwide action to “prevent” similar incidents, or a reason for national soul-searching. On average, more people will have probably died on Monday from accidental poisoning, perhaps 40 or so.

Twice as many will have died from falls, from the tops of ladders, for example, or the slip in the bathtub that you always thought was a joke but is more likely to take your life than any gun. The biggest friend of the Grim Reaper, at least in the category of unintentional causes of death, is the car. One hundred and forty Americans died on Monday, either behind the wheel of a car or in front of one. Although drunkenness was at the heart of many of those deaths, you rarely hear of anyone advocating prohibition although clearly alcohol can cause people to kill.A fair number of those dead in a car will have only themselves to blame, somehow running into trees or telephone poles or other immobile objects. Many deaths will be unexplained, although bugs and clumsiness are the probable causes, as one driver panics at the bee on the knee and another flinches from the coffee spill. But while the gunman took an incredible toll on Monday, the number of deaths pale in comparison to the number of deaths in car accidents that can probably be attributed to bugs. Much as some people dislike bees or flies, there’s no national effort to eliminate them. While the bobbled coffee cup has no doubt taken its share of lives, there are no mothers against travel mugs. And while cell phones surely cause accidents and shouldn’t be used while driving a car (Spock and Uhura only used their earpieces when Sulu was driving), operator error is the problem, whether it’s a cell phone or a coffee cup and its unfair (though satisfying) to single out cell phone egomaniacs.

So mourn for the dead, and comfort their families, and ponder the question of why, as well as how did the killer manage a hearty breakfast after a good night’s sleep. What’s incredible is not that Columbine and Oklahoma City and Virginia Tech happen – what’s incredible is that they happen so rarely, and are such a small part of the “unintentional” death count. Marc Carlisle writes a Thursday column. He can be reached at

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