The July 20th shooting spree in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater left 12 dead, and more than 57 wounded. This tragedy is another reminder that American lives are at risk because of the failure to adopt common sense public safety measures that make it very difficult and always illegal for dangerous persons to purchase guns.

It was only five years ago, on April 16, 2007, when an English major at Virginia Tech University named Seung-Hui Cho gunned down and killed 32 people, wounded another 17, and then committed suicide as the police closed in on him on that cold, bloody Monday. That massacre at Virginia Tech five years ago, remains the deadliest spree killing in U.S. history according to The New York Times. The similarity in how Cho and the Colorado shooter armed themselves and meticulously planned their assaults is eerie. Cho and Holmes both were able to commit their mayhem in about 15 minutes. But, as recent events made sadly and forcefully clear, the Virginia Tech massacre was not the last one of its kind experienced by our nation. Including the Aurora rampage, there have been a total of 14 spree killings that have left 135 dead and 167 injured since April 2007. This includes the shooting in Tucson, Arizona at a town meeting held by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords which left six dead and 13 wounded, including a gravely injured Rep. Giffords.

The human toll of the worst spree killing in American history at Virginia Tech—or of any instance—is immeasurable, but there are financial costs that can be calculated.

These costs are directly attributable to the cost of negligence due to the failure of ambiguous gun control laws alongside the lack of any genuine effort by federal or state officials to clarify the laws so that state police and courts can enforce them to their fullest extent. This lack of enforcement of poorly written laws enables mentally ill people to pass background checks and purchase guns legally even if they have a history indicating dangerousness, including those found by courts to be mentally ill or subject to orders of confinement to a mental health facility. This breakdown in our legal system results in the inestimable loss of life and its horror and consequence.


Center for American Progress
The rise of American spree killings since 1984

In this report we share the findings of the Center for American Progress’s survey of the monetary costs incurred as a result of the murderous rampage at Virginia Tech five years ago. This paper assesses this cost at $48.2 million for the taxpayers of the United States and the commonwealth of Virginia, and for Virginia Tech, a public university. This report also demonstrates how the loopholes in the background-check system failed to protect American citizens from an armed and dangerous Seung-Hui Cho, costing innocent lives—many of them young ones. This was compounded by the legal use of high capacity magazines which transform often traditional firearms into killing machines.

The loss of one innocent life to a mentally disturbed shooter should be reason enough to close the gaping holes in the system that permit gun purchases and access to high-capacity magazines that can cause such bloodshed. The Virginia Tech tragedy drives this point home in the most dramatic of ways because of the sheer number of deaths. For this reason, we recommend commonsense measures designed to curb gun violence without taking a single gun away from the great majority of Americans who have the right to own a weapon. These measures are detailed further in this report, but briefly we recommend:

  • Insuring state compliance with requirements to post appropriate mental health records in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (“NICS”).
  • Establishing clear reporting guidelines for when and how mental health records are required to be posted in the NICS so that states can be held accountable for compliance.
  • Requiring a full background check in all gun transactions, including private sales at gun shows and those online.
  • Fully funding state technology efforts to comply with the federal background check system requirements.
  • Requiring states to comply fully with the protocols of the NICS or they risk losing federal funding.
  • Mandating federal compliance with a proposed presidential executive order directing all agencies to submit records to this instant background check system.

In addition we offer two other recommendations for Congress to enact arising from the lessons of Virginia Tech:

  • Outlawing high-capacity bullet magazines, once again.
  • Requiring campuses to establish a threat assessment process.

Taking these sound steps would go a long way toward ending the spree killing rampages that continue to haunt our nation.

Determining the cost of the Virginia Tech massacre

The Center for American Progress undertook this first-ever study to estimate the cost to the public and the taxpayers of the Virginia Tech spree killing and, by extension, gun violence. This research found that the bill to the public arising from the Virginia Tech massacre is at least $48.2 million. These costs have been paid by parents, students, university donors, and state, local, and federal taxpayers.

We estimate that the cost to taxpayers totals $22.25 million. These are the costs that were paid for directly by federal, state, or local government. By way of comparison, the taxpayer costs are about 46 percent of all commonwealth of Virginia expenditures for Emergency Management Services and are five times the level of the commonwealth’s direct state general fund expenditures for this purpose. In this section of the report, we present the cost of failing to prevent Cho’s rampage to the public measured by the costs to the university, to the commonwealth of Virginia, and to the federal government.

One expense is telling in the painstaking way the University felt it had to prevent another similar tragedy. It was the need to change the door hardware and locks to secure students from the inside in 150 major buildings and more than 1,000 door handles—costing upwards $2 million. (Cho was able to block police from the building where he committed most of his shooting because of the configuration of the door hardware.) The cost to Virginia of conducting 33 autopsies (including Cho’s) was $69,650. Other examples include:

  • $3.3 million: Settlement with victims’ families and injured survivors as compensation.
  • $2.9 million: Five-year running cost for the addition of 11 full-time employees to the Virginia Tech Police Department, including seven sworn officers.
  • $1.5 million: Five-year running cost for the addition of four full-time mental health professionals
  • $531,000: The response and investigation by the Virginia state police
  • $465,000: Expert research firm’s fee to assist the investigative panel appointed by then-Governor Tim Kaine

The great majority of the costs were expended by the public university. At the request of the Center for American Progress under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, Virginia Tech conducted an accounting of the costs it sustained as a result of the April 16, 2007, massacre, obtained from various departments of the university. We used this accounting and subsequent interviews to provide examples of the significant costs in each category, though our report does not include every individual cost. The school estimated the cost to be at least $38,774,370, including the expenditure of federal funds it received. This was the first time for which these extraordinary costs were accounted.

What can we learn from spree killings?

One of the reasons to look at the Virginia Tech spree killing was that it gives us an opportunity to examine gaps in the system and the real-life economic consequences of those failures. The message is as loud as a gunshot from any of the 14 spree killings since 2007, including the Virginia Tech massacre: post-Virginia Tech tragedy reforms are not enough. The reforms we offer in this paper, however, would reduce gun violence—whether it’s a campus spree killing leaving 32 dead or one that ends a single law enforcement officer’s life; our reforms can reduce rampages such as the killing of eight at a hair salon arising from a domestic dispute or the shooting of a mother held up at a drive-through ATM and shot dead.


Ben Townsend (via Flickr)
A candlelight vigil held at Virginia Tech on April 17, 2007, one day after the shootings.

Another reason we focus on spree killings is because they capture the attention of the nation. This is similar to other shootings that receive national—and sometimes worldwide—attention. It is dispiriting that Americans are numb to the much more common examples of gun violence, but these headline-grabbing jolts to the nation have brought reform. They broke the nation’s hearts and led to the commonsense gun control laws detailed in this report.

A spree killing is extraordinary but so, too, is a single instance of gun violence death in terms of mourning, loss, society’s forfeiture of individual value and tax dollars.

Analysis of the background check system that failed Virginia Tech

Our report now looks specifically at how the background check system failed in the Virginia Tech case by examining Cho’s purchases and mental health history.

Cho’s mental health history

To purchase a weapon in America through legal means, we all must pass a background check that tests mental illness and criminal history, among other factors. Cho was mentally ill and was found to be so in a written court order.

Seung-Hui Cho, an extremely quiet boy, was diagnosed with selective mutism when he was in eighth grade. He went to counseling centers, but his anxiety disorder related to talking made traditional talk therapy impossible, and he was treated with art therapy. The antidepressant Paroxetine was prescribed for him. His writings were violent and ominous. In high school. He celebrated the April 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colorado—the spree killing by two mentally disturbed students that resulted in 15 dead and 23 wounded. He called the Columbine killers “martyrs.”

Cho’s mental state—at least as evidenced by his experiences with the Northern Virginia mental health services and in his writings—did not interfere with his ability to finish high school, graduating with a 3.5 grade point average nor with his acceptance at Virginia Tech. His parents and counselors opposed this choice because the school is so large—official enrollment is more than 28,000 students. Because Cho’s socialization skills were so meager, the question was: Could Seung-Hui make it there?

It soon became clear he could not. One of his professors, the noted poet Nikki Giovanni, threatened to resign if Cho was not pulled from her class because she found his classroom demeanor “menacing.” After a struggle, Cho withdrew from Giovanni’s class rather than being ejected. Cho also wrote disturbing text messages to two female classmates, which were rebuffed.

The exchanges with the two female students and a suggestion of suicide to his roommate resulted in Cho’s most intense contact with the criminal and mental health system. His suitemate reported his statement that he “might as well kill himself” to campus police. At the police station a pre-screener determined that he was a danger to himself and prompted a magistrate to issue a “temporary detention order” because of his mental illness. He was confined over night at a mental facility and the next day a commitment was held. There, a special justice checked a box on a commitment form indicating that Cho was an “imminent danger to himself as a result of mental illness.” But the special justice decided on the “least restrictive” alternative—outpatient care—and it was recorded as an order. The outpatient order was not reported to the state police because the practice in Virginia was to report only inpatient involuntary commitments. Despite the finding of mental illness, Cho’s encounter was not added to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System

Nor was the “temporary detention order” reported, the one that stated Cho was mentally ill and ordered him to be taken to an overnight facility. It is hard to understand why this was not forwarded for inclusion in the FBI’s instant background check system. An FBI spokesperson told Newsweek that while they depend on the states to interpret what records need to be sent, “based on what we now know, it would seem that it would have been a record that should have been in the NICS [National Instant Criminal Background Check System].” After reviewing this sequence of events, the review panel appointed by Gov. Kaine following the massacre concluded that “Cho, a person disqualified from purchasing firearms, was readily able to obtain them.”

In Cho’s case the criminal justice system had two bites of the apple to prevent Cho from buying a gun, both based on his mental illness. In spite of the language in the federal law, the bureaucracy and concerns about vagueness in what is intended as a reportable mental health record caused the system to fail.

Policy recommendations

Spree killings, and gun violence generally, can be reduced with commonsense reforms to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Similarly, banning high-capacity ammunition clips—as federal law did from 1994 to 2004—is a reasonable solution that we should enact again.

The Center for American Progress recommends the following policy initiatives. They improve upon or return to tested measures where there has been some consensus on an issue on which consensus has been elusive.

Improving the National Instant Criminal Background Check System Improvement Act of 2007. There needs to be an upgrade of the law governing the background check system. The post-Virginia Tech massacre law was an incremental advance, mostly by “providing assistance to States to improve the completeness, automation and transmittal to state and federal systems,” according to the Department of Justice.

But it is time for another look at the background check system. The way Seung-Hui Cho traveled easily under the radar to purchase guns is just one route an individual with a history of mental health issues can take. The purchase and preparation by Jared Lee Loughner, the Giffords town meeting shooter, is another.

First and foremost, reporting records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System must be boosted and accelerated. Computers can only do so much, even today. Every time a record of mental illness or a police record does not make it to its final destination at the background system’s West Virginia headquarters, the likelihood of gun violence increases.

The problem is not that the indicators of violence encompassed in records are too narrow. In fact, the Gun Control Act of 1968 did a good job of enumerating the nine categories of people who are barred from purchasing guns. With those principles in mind, we recommend the following reforms.


LaDawna Howard (via Flickr)
A March 29, 2012 protest against current gun laws, held in Washington D.C.

Making reporting requirements guidance more clear. The U.S. Department of Justice should issue clear guidelines to states and all agencies and institutions in the record-reporting pipeline about which records must be submitted for inclusion in the database. A clear example of the need for this is the experience at Virginia Tech. An ambiguity arose in the Virginia Tech massacre about an order that said Cho was mentally ill, but a bureaucratic distinction was made between inpatient and outpatient treatment, and Cho’s record never left Blacksburg, Virginia. Such an ambiguity can be lethal, and it was.

Moreover, an order was issued that did contain an order for confinement based on a finding of mental illness. It must be clear that an order that disqualifies a buyer based on state or federal law must be reported, even if an order is limited in time relating to involuntary confinement. Mentally ill is mentally ill.

Creating the most direct routes for record reporting. The long and winding road of how a record gets into the background check system must be made more direct. For mental records it may be beneficial if mental health practitioners and facilities were required to send the records directly to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. This would make for a more comprehensive NICS database and would speed up the process.

A gun purchaser should be required to waive any privacy rights in the form required for purchase of a gun. In the United Kingdom after a spree killing in western Great Britain, the medical community agreed to report individuals with mental illness who they know to possess a gun.

Requiring background checks for all commercial gun exchanges. Background checks must be expanded to all commercial gun purchases, including those at gun shows, flea markets, private sales, sales though newspaper advertisements, and online.

Federal Departments must be report indications of dangerousness to NICS. President Barack Obama should issue an executive order directing all federal agencies to submit records to NICS and certify that they have done so twice yearly to the U.S. attorney general. The federal government must be a leader in the reporting process, rather than the laggard that it is—in the effort to save lives. How can it credibly press states to report gun purchase disqualifications if it is not doing so itself?

Fully funding state compliance with federal law using money appropriated by Congress. Congress must provide full federal funding to enable states to comply with the background check aspects of federal gun control laws. In fiscal years 2009, 2010, and 2011, Congress authorized spending $937.5 million to help states improve their reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Yet Congress only appropriated a total of $50 million for those three years, or about $1 million short of the public costs we accounted for in the Virginia Tech massacre.

In addition, at least two other recommended congressional actions arise from the lessons leading up to the Virginia Tech massacre.

Outlawing high-capacity bullet magazines. The ban on the sale of high-capacity bullet magazines (11 bullets or more) expired on September 13, 2004, when Congress failed to renew the law. Congress must act to reinstate the ban, which was effective in Virginia until it lapsed. The Washington Post analyzed a database maintained by the Virginia state police and found that the number of weapons seized with high-capacity rounds declined markedly during the 10 years the ban was in effect but increased in 2004 once the law lapsed. “Of the seized Virginia weapons, 2,000 had magazines with a capacity of 30 or more bullets,” said the newspaper. In 2010, six years after the law lapsed, 22 percent of the weapons recovered by police had magazines. As the law was expiring in 2004, the rate was at a low of 10 percent. Long story short: far fewer supersized magazines were on the street.

Legislation has been introduced to reinstate the ban the high-capacity bullet magazines.

Requiring campus threat assessment processes. Universities and similar educational institutions receiving federal funds should be required to put in place a mental health threat assessment system to identify individuals in the campus community who might present a danger to others. The idea behind the threat assessments is to pick up conduct by a student (or other members of the campus community) that is unreasonable and outrageous. A threat assessment team would monitor the student and intervene with resources if/when necessary.

In Cho’s case there were numerous examples of hostile actions such as his conduct in the class of poet Nikki Giovanni. The professor found Cho’s conduct “menacing,” and other students failed to attend the class because of Cho’s behavior. Under a threat assessment system—such as the one recommended for Virginia Tech—once a student is identified as being in distress, there would be a system linking a troubled student to appropriate medical and counseling services.

Moreover, parameters should be established that guide how and when professors who encounter aberrant, dangerous, or threatening behavior should be required to report that behavior to the dean of their departments, and it should be clear that the professor would not be violating any student privacy regulations.


It’s not yet clear if the Aurora, Colorado mass killer had a history of mental illness. Was the strange message on his answering machine that the proprietor of a shooting range considered in denying Holmes access to his facility a tip of a mentally deficient iceberg? But what is clear is that the recommendations we propose would make it harder for persons known to be dangerous to get or keep a gun. That’s an important and necessary step forward in curbing gun violence.

And, we can do it without depriving a single American of the right to own a gun under the Second Amendment as long as they are not excluded for one of the 11 reasons set forth in the law passed 34 years ago, including mental illness. The exclusionary categories in the Gun Control Act of 1968, passed in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and before them, President John F. Kennedy, have not been amended; powerful lobbying efforts have not watered them down. They have never failed the scrutiny of the U.S. Supreme Court on constitutional grounds. They are solutions that have been tested and make common sense.

Common sense requires a genuine debate on these measures and a recalculation of the gun bureaucracy before another individual as mentally troubled as Cho or Jared Lee Loughner, guns in hand, commits the next spree killing.


Donna Cooper

Donna Cooper is a Senior Fellow with the Economic Policy team at American Progress. Formerly the deputy mayor for policy for Philadelphia and secretary of policy and planning for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,...


Anthony Green

Anthony Green is the Safe Kids’ Director of Public Policy. In that role he works with the Safe Kids team to press for policies—legislation, regulatory measures, educational programs and other tools—to...

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