Virginia Tech: "Domestic" not dangerous?

Some question decision not to lock down, or at least alert, campus after so-called lovers dispute.

Published April 18, 2007 12:33PM (EDT)

The parents of a Virginia Tech student -- one who was, thankfully, not among the victims -- have called for the firing of the university president and police chief over their handling of Monday's horrific massacre.

"My God, if someone shoots somebody there should be an immediate lockdown of the campus," John Shourds, father of freshman Alexandra Shourds, told Fox News, referring to the shooting of two people in West Ambler Johnston Hall that preceded the massacre in Norris Hall. "They totally blew it. The president blew it, campus police blew it."

A handful of bloggers are wondering, just wondering, what would have happened if police had not, accurately or otherwise, labeled that first shooting a "domestic" (or "lovers") dispute. Was that, at least in part, why students weren't warned immediately that there could be a gunman on the loose? Could it be, wonders MojoMom, the kind of "complacency" also apparent in, for example, the Akron Beacon Journal? Her citation: "At first, the shootings seemed like the sort of thing police around the country are called to every day. A domestic dispute in a dorm room, something that could happen on a big college campus without every student feeling touched by it. Certainly not the beginning of the worst shooting rampage in modern U.S. history."

"This sense of complacency over domestic violence adds to the tragedy, and possibly the outcome," writes MojoMom. "Someone shoots two people in cold blood and leaves the scene. In what universe is it okay to minimize the seriousness of the scenario because it [allegedly] began as a domestic dispute?" (Early reports suggest the police had reason to believe the killer had left the campus.)

In her second of two posts on the matter, Garance Franke-Ruta at Tapped -- who charged in her first one that "the idea that you don't warn people that a killer is on the loose just because you think he killed his girlfriend seems like 1950s thinking" -- adds that, actually, "murders on college campuses are extremely rare. According to the FBI, there were fewer than five of them in 2005. And Ross Douthat is correct to note that there's no more reason to think intimate partner murders would lead to additional violence than would any other murder. But there's also no less reason to think so." (Indeed, a perp of domestic violence might stop with the intended target -- or might continue on a rageful rampage.) "So far," Franke-Ruta writes, "the clearest lesson is that police and college administrators ought to treat every college murder with the same level of concern and speedy community notification, whether they think it was intimate partner violence or not, because every on-campus murder is an 'extraordinary' occurrence."

No one's alleging deliberate "Eh, it was just a lady murder" misogyny. Or saying that the job of all officials in this case was anything but complicated, or that the second shooting could have been prevented. Or even that we have all the facts, to say nothing of an efficient means of issuing an immediate warning on a huge campus.

Still, it's hard to ignore voices like Mr. Shourds'. Would things -- would anything -- have been different if the first shooting had not initially been considered isolated as "domestic"? Are these bloggers on to something -- even if it's only one element of a terrible day gone wrong in so many unpreventable ways? What do you think?

Update/more grist: Pandagon's Amanda goes meta- with this new post, "The Sound of A Million Axes Grinding."

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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