Thirty-Two Victims, Two Guns?

How did Cho Seung-Hui kill so many people with such small weapons?

Glock 9 mm pistol with two clips

On Monday, Virginia Tech student Cho Seung-Hui killed 33 people, including himself, and injured many others during a campus shooting spree. According to a CNN timeline, the gunman killed most of the victims over a span of about 10 to 15 minutes, carrying only a Glock 9 mm semiautomatic handgun and a .22-caliber pistol. How could he have killed so many people with just a couple of guns?

He had lots of extra ammunition. Neither of the guns he carried—authorities haven’t announced yet whether one or both were used—is particularly powerful or dangerous. In fact, the tiny .22 might be considered a “Saturday night special“; it’s one of the smallest-caliber firearms available. (In contrast, the Columbine killers used a 9 mm handgun, a 9 mm rifle, and two shotguns.) The caliber of a weapon refers to the diameter of the inside of the barrel of the gun, expressed in either inches—as in the case of the .22—or in millimeters. (A 9 mm weapon translates to about .35 on the inches scale—much more than a .22, but smaller than the .38 or .45 that a police officer might use.) The higher the caliber, the bigger the bullet, and the more likely it will cause serious bodily harm. Of course, a bullet from any gun could cause death if it struck the heart, brain, other vital organ, or a major blood vessel.

The deadliness of a gun also depends on the number of cartridges it holds and the speed with which the shooter can reload and fire. A magazine for a 9 mm handgun can contain between eight and 24 cartridges. Reloading one can take a little while, but Cho may have been carrying preloaded extras; in that case, he could have released an old magazine and replaced it with a new one in just a few seconds. There has also been speculation that Cho may have used high-capacity magazines that would have allowed him to shoot more without reloading. (These are illegal or restricted in some states, but not in Virginia.) If the .22 was a revolver—police have not yet announced whether the .22 was semiautomatic—it may have taken more like 10 to 15 seconds to reload.

Both of Cho’s guns are common and easily obtained, depending on state and local laws. Cho was born in South Korea but moved to America 14 years ago. Legal permanent U.S. residents are permitted to purchase guns if they pass background checks and meet other requirements, even if they are not citizens. However, possessing a gun on the Virginia Tech campus was a violation of school policy—the campus has long required that they be checked with the campus police. Recently, a state bill that would have forced colleges to allow guns on campus failed to make it out of committee.

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Explainer thanks Edward Robinson of the George Washington University Department of Forensic Science and Pete Striupaitis of the Northeastern Illinois Regional Crime Lab.