guns

Colleges continuing to monitor threats with threat-assessment teams

Three students were recently arrested at three separate colleges for potentially being a threat to the campuses. Institutions are monitoring these risks more closely in an age of increasing gun violence.

Florida appeals court rejects right of public universities to regulate guns on campus

Florida appeals court rules that, in most cases, public colleges and universities can't regulate weapons on campus.

College presidents urge Obama to act on gun violence, pledge support

Hundreds of college presidents sign open letters written by their colleagues, vowing to help Obama in curbing violence.

The growing importance of academic research into gun violence (opinion)

As this most unusual academic year gets underway, with classes meeting mostly in virtual spaces, it might be tempting to assume that campus carry is, if not irrelevant this fall, at least a less urgent concern than in years past. While we educators scramble to adapt our campuses and our pedagogical practices to meet the challenges of a pandemic, must we be thinking about guns, too?

For their part, proponents of campus carry haven’t let COVID-19 stall efforts to expand the policy to more colleges and more states. Gun rights advocates in Tennessee introduced legislation this year that would allow students to carry concealed handguns on campus with a license, while lawmakers in Kansas (one of 10 states in which campus carry is already generally allowed) fought over a proposal to lower the age for legal concealed carry from 21 to just 18.

Gun sales, meanwhile, have been booming. In June, the FBI reported a record 3.9 million background checks (an approximate indicator of gun sales), and figures remained nearly as high in July and August. How many of those newly acquired firearms were back-to-school purchases?

We don’t really know, and that’s part of the problem -- information about who owns guns is legally shielded, even from law enforcement. Consequently, where campus carry is allowed, college police and other staff have to operate on the assumption that any student they interact with might be armed. As Atlantic staff writer Derek Thompson articulated in a recent article, the proliferation of guns in American communities is an intrinsic obstacle to police reform.

Similarly, the proliferation of guns on college campuses complicates many of the other interventions intended to protect student wellness. Over the past several years, higher education institutions have been taking increasingly proactive stances toward suicide prevention and drug abuse. Rather than wait for students to seek help from counseling centers on campus, many colleges now deploy behavioral intervention teams to contact at-risk students directly.

"When we move forward with a violence risk assessment, or VRA, the real threat here is to the evaluator, not knowing exactly who's carrying [a gun],” explained Brian Van Brunt, president of the National Association for Behavioral Intervention and Threat Assessment, who spoke with me via videocall for this article. “There are many VRA’s where the question arises of ‘Does the person have a weapon?’ Or ‘Might they use it during the assessment if they become agitated?’” For these reasons, Van Brunt is wary of recent calls to separate law enforcement from other types of interventions (or to “defund the police”) which he says might put “some of the first responders who work in social work and psychology in a potentially dangerous situation in a college setting."

Van Brunt co-authored a chapter on suicide prevention for the new book Campus Carry: Confronting a Loaded Issue in Higher Education (Harvard Education Press), co-edited by Patricia Somers and myself. That chapter addresses the well-established link between firearms access and the risk of completed suicide, one of the most troubling implications of campus carry policies. It’s difficult to measure rates of suicide among college populations specifically. Unlike homicides and other crimes, which higher education institutions must report to the U.S. Department of Education in compliance with the Clery Act, the federal government doesn’t require colleges to report student suicides. Likewise, suicides often go unnoted in the news, since many media outlets have editorial policies not to report on them. Emerging evidence, though, from surveys of college counseling directors indicates rising rates of completed suicide in places where campus carry policies have been implemented. Like many of campus carry’s impacts -- on pedagogy, on campus climate, on faculty recruiting and retention -- the effect is sufficiently opaque that it can be obscured or ignored if politically inconvenient.

On the one-year anniversary of the implementation of campus carry in Texas, Governor Greg Abbott hailed its success in a tweet: “Campus carry poses no danger on Texas college campuses. The dire consequences never happened.”

Educators and students in campus carry states know that the outcome is not so simple. In Campus Carry, we’ve collected generalizable research as well as personal anecdotes from stakeholders whose lives have been affected by guns in their classrooms, or the threat thereof. But we’ve also documented the growing interest among scholars in researching gun violence, an area long neglected by academics. New gun violence research initiatives have popped up throughout the country, concurrent with the spread of campus carry, and now supported by an unprecedented swell of funding -- such as the $10 million in research awards recently funded by the National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research, and the $25 million Congress authorized last year for gun violence research (following a decades-long freeze). Among the many consequences of the imposition of guns on academe, a boom of new academic research might be the most unintended.

Campus carry legislation will emerge again in statehouses throughout the country. When it does, faculty members should respond not only by protesting the specific policies we may find objectionable but also by engaging issues of gun violence through our scholarship and pedagogical practices. In the classroom, we can adapt our course materials and lesson formats to avoid retraumatizing students who have been affected by gun violence. In the library and laboratory, we can collaborate across disciplines to understand gun violence and craft new interventions.

In addition to original research in the fields of medicine, social psychology and public health, there’s room as well for contributions from ethicists, engineers, historians, architects, computer scientists and artists -- the problem of gun violence has dimensions that intersect nearly every academic discipline. After decades of gun policy informed primarily by dubious, industry-affiliated research, it’s time for academic scholars to lead the way.

Matt Valentine teaches writing at the University of Texas at Austin and is co-editor of Campus Carry: Confronting a Loaded Issue in Higher Education (Harvard Education Press, 2020).

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How colleges can help K-12 schools deal with violence (opinion)

Across the nation, high school students are now selecting the colleges and universities where they will spend the next formative chapter of their lives. They are making their choices against a backdrop of unprecedented public attention to gun violence, thanks to a bold and galvanizing uprising that they themselves have led. While they are high school students today, they will be college students next. Higher education has to be ready.

To understand the students soon coming to our campuses, it helps to acknowledge some essential facts that have shaped their coming of age. The 18-year-old students graduating high school this spring have known schools as sites of violence their entire lives. They were born the year after the Columbine, Colo., massacre. They were seven years old when a shooter killed 32 people at Virginia Tech, one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history. Most weren’t even teenagers when a 20-year-old shooter killed 26 people at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School. And while mass shootings receive wide attention, other forms of ongoing “silent violence” shape the lives of thousands of students in their schools, neighborhoods or homes.

How can higher education support students and help advance the movement they have started to prevent gun violence in schools?

First, as new students arrive on our campuses, we must recognize that many come to college without the sense of a classroom as a place of safety, something we know is essential for teachers to teach and students to learn. Some students have experienced gun trauma directly, while virtually all have been affected through news reports and social media. They seek -- and deserve -- explicit institutional commitments to their safety. Those commitments might take the form of emergency preparedness drills, active and repeated safety training for faculty and staff members, and detailed planning around emergency protocols in the classroom and residence halls. It involves counseling services and other forms of trauma-informed mental health support.

Second, we must support our faculty in making space in the classroom to acknowledge incidents of violence. Even when the topic is far outside the faculty member’s discipline or comfort zone, even if the approach may be tentative or awkward, students feel supported when professors acknowledge traumatic events. In reference to the Sept. 11 attacks, research by Therese A. Huston of Seattle University and Michele di Pietro of Carnegie Mellon University has found that students believe it is always best to do something rather than nothing, “regardless of whether the instructor’s response required relatively little effort, such as asking for one minute of silence … or a great deal of effort and preparation, such as incorporating the event into the lesson plan or topics for the course.” In my experience as a professor and a president, students are grateful when you acknowledge events that are hard for them to process.

Finally, as college and university leaders, and as campus communities, we cannot be silent about school violence. Students are leading a bold, essential movement against gun violence, and we must stand with them. We must amplify their voices and join them in demanding change. Many college and university admission deans set this tone pre-emptively in the wake of the shooting at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School this spring. They made explicit public pledges not to penalize prospective students -- even if the students’ high schools chose to -- for their activism.

Gun violence is not a partisan issue. It is a human rights issue. Every educator should care about the prevention of gun violence -- indeed, violence in any form -- that cuts short the futures of young people, many as their educations have barely begun.

Kathleen McCartney is the president of Smith College.

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The growing movement to divest from gun manufacturers (opinion)

TIAA-CREF, the largest provider of retirement funds for employees of academic institutions, often emphasizes its good works to appeal to its socially conscious customers. The investment firm’s Facebook page and other materials are filled with accolades such as “Best Overall Large Fund Company” and “named one of the World’s Most Ethical Companies.” TIAA has long promoted its Social Choice investment option, which I chose for my own retirement savings. Customers can invest in green bonds devoted to “environmentally beneficial projects or activities” and in emissions reduction. TIAA also touts its investments in affordable housing in its Social Impact Investing Portfolio.

But despite TIAA’s evident interest in providing socially conscious investment products, the firm has not responded to their many customers now urging them to divest from gun and ammunition manufacturers. Customers first pressured TIAA to divest in 2012, the year of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, where a lone gunman killed 20 small children and six adults with an AR-15. At that time, University of Miami English professor John Funchion circulated a petition requesting that TIAA divest from the manufacturers of semiautomatics, and it was signed by 2,112 TIAA-CREF clients. Funchion wrote, “Imagine my shock and dismay … when I realized that my own retirement funds were being invested in Smith & Wesson and in Sturm, Ruger, two companies that manufacture versions of the same AR-15 semiautomatic rifle used to take so many lives in Newtown -- and used, also, in the massacre in Aurora, Colorado. We are calling on TIAA-CREF to ‘do right’ in this post-Newtown moment.”

Many in academe are taking part in the growing movement demanding legislation to prevent mass shootings such as the most recent in Parkland, Fla., where 14 students, a geography teacher, the school’s athletic director and a coach were shot dead. Academic activists have been inspired by the eloquent young survivors, some of whom are just months away from enrolling in college.

Academic activists have also spoken out against gun manufacturers’ lobbyists, particularly the National Rifle Association, which has drawn stark battle lines between its members and educators. In a 2017 video available on YouTube and broadcast on NRA-TV, spokeswoman Dana Loesch uses a tone of militancy and disgust to denounce an unspecified “they” who use schools to indoctrinate young people. Loesch then encourages the NRA’s five million gun-owning members to raise “the clenched fist of truth” as an answer to this outrage.

Since the mass shooting at the high school in Parkland, activists and concerned citizens have pressured companies offering NRA discounts to cut their ties with the organization blocking meaningful gun reform. Many have done so. But despite recent victories for activists, semiautomatic weapons, bump stocks and high-capacity magazines remain easily attainable in many states.

Faculty members, who interact regularly with 18- to 22-year-olds in unlocked classrooms and offices and who encourage vigorous discussions, are finding themselves on the front line of the battle over gun rights. Mass shooters have repeatedly targeted educational settings, and in a number of recent instances, teachers and students have been gunned down side by side. While elementary and secondary school teachers are upset that their job description now includes being “ripped apart by a spray of bullets,” in the words of one K-12 art history teacher, college faculty also worry that their students, under intense deadline and grade pressure and often suffering from depression or other mental health disorders, might bring a deadly weapon to class.

The sheer number of shootings taking place on campuses or resulting in mass casualties has a numbing effect. Many of us working in academe downplay the alarming patterns and continue to be accessible to our students despite our fears. At the same time, we can’t forget the student who in 2015 brought three guns to his community college classroom in rural Oregon, where he murdered his 67-year-old English instructor along with eight of his classmates before turning the gun on himself.

We also remember the graduate engineering student who killed first his wife and then his dissertation adviser in 2016 while the professor was working in his office at the University of California, Los Angeles. Another professor on the gunman’s kill list escaped death only by being away from campus at the time of the shooting. I find the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech particularly disturbing not only because so many died -- 32 faculty and students were shot and killed in a residence hall and in classrooms -- but also because I teach at a STEM-focused institution and take seriously my institution’s mission to provide “individual attention and support” to students. That supportive relationship with students -- evident in Rose-Hulman’s open office doors, small classes and approachable faculty -- has become difficult to maintain in an era of active-shooter drills and campus lockdowns.

Remarkably, these horrific events in educational settings have led gun-rights advocates to argue that students and teachers should be armed. Following heavy lobbying by the NRA, legislatures in 10 states have passed laws to allow concealed weapons on public university campuses. The indiscriminate mass and targeted killings will apparently be allowed to continue, but with “good guys” wielding weapons as well. Gun-rights advocates have created the perfect conditions for Wild West-style gunfights in college classrooms, yet with more deadly, organ-lacerating and bone-splintering weapons thrown into the mix.

Given the potentially deadly working conditions at colleges and universities, it is unsurprising that many academics are demanding that their retirement funds be “gun free.” Tim Watson, another English professor at Miami, who co-administers a members-only group on Facebook called “Tell TIAA-CREF: Stop Investing in Assault Weapons,” recently explained that he bombarded TIAA’s social media accounts with messages urging divestment following Sandy Hook, but to no avail. After the February school shooting in Florida, Watson wrote to the divestment group’s 1,444 members to inform us that TIAA is still invested in semiautomatic weapons manufacturers. Watson again posted a comment on TIAA’s Facebook page urging divestment and reported that it was swiftly deleted.

Soon after reading Watson’s post-Parkland update, I offered to write a new petition urging TIAA to divest. The 2018 version includes a list of the most prominent mass shootings since Sandy Hook, including the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., where 49 died in 2016; the 58 shot dead on the Las Vegas strip in 2017; and the 17 killed at the high school in Parkland this year. I mentioned as well TIAA’s mission and distinct customer base, which includes educators who wish our work and investment money to have a positive social impact and who do not want our retirement portfolio swelling with gun manufacturers’ blood-soaked profits. So far, over 4,000 people have signed the new petition, and many have written comments including warnings to TIAA that they will transfer all their holdings to a gun-free fund elsewhere if nothing is done.

Divestment was highly effective during the movement against South Africa’s apartheid in the 1970s and ’80s. That iconic struggle’s success has inspired new activist groups to seek political change by divesting from ethically tainted institutions, industries and products -- even though in some cases the gesture is symbolic rather than financially significant. Divestment is one of the three strategies of the controversial boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which calls on academic institutions and organizations and their members to divest from Israeli companies as long as the occupation of Palestinian land continues. Divestment also has been an effective strategy to combat climate change, pushing academic institutions to end their reliance on oil, gas and coal company profits. In 2016, after students conducted sit-ins at Harvard University and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, UMass became the first major public university to divest. And in 2017, Harvard agreed to “pause” their direct investments in polluting energy sources.

Divestment is not enough, of course. Many people working in academe want gun-free campuses, affordable medical and mental health care for their students, and adequate public funding for higher education to relieve financial pressures such as ballooning student loan debt. While we continue to work toward those larger, elusive goals, we should  at the very least be able to control where our own retirement money is going.

Divesting from gun manufacturers would send a strong message. Yet TIAA is ignoring customers’ clear demand -- expressed again and again since at least 2012 -- to end investment in products or services causing suffering and death. The companies producing the weapons of choice of mass shooters surely fit into that category. I welcome other customers of TIAA-CREF to sign and share the petition linked above, and I urge once again, along with the other signatories, TIAA’s complete divestment from gun manufacturers.

Rebecca Dyer is an English professor at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. Her research examines how works of fiction (both texts and films) intervene in political controversies.

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After shooting, Georgia Tech's decision to withhold Tasers questioned

After fatal shooting of a student, experts question why Georgia Tech doesn’t arm its officers with stun guns.

Campus carry is about the right for individual self-defense, not preventing mass shootings (essay)

Campus carry is in the news again. Here in Arkansas, the governor just signed a bill (HB 1249) that will allow permit holders who obtain additional training to carry guns on campuses. Georgia’s governor recently signed a campus carry bill even though he vetoed one last year. In Kansas, a professor has resigned in part because of his concern about a campus carry bill.

The debate on this subject, which has always been highly emotional, seems to have drifted away from a focus on whether guns in the classroom stifle debate. It now hinges on the role concealed carriers might play in stopping a mass shooting or in hindering the police response to such an event.

Jacob Dorman, the history professor leaving Kansas, wrote in his letter of resignation, "Campus shootings have become all too frequent, and arming students has done nothing to quell active-shooter situations, because students do not have the training to effectively combat shooters and rightly fear becoming identified as a suspect themselves."

During the legislative tug-of-war over HB 1249 in Arkansas, one of the issues in play was the content of the additional training that would be imposed on people who wished to carry on campuses. One amendment would have required that that training should include active-shooter training, active-shooter simulation scenarios, trauma care and defensive tactics, among other things. The premise here seems to be that only people who are trained to the point where they are virtually junior members of the local SWAT team should be allowed to carry on campuses, because it is only they who would have the skills to deal with the complexities of an active-shooter situation.

Proponents of campus carry also view the potential for intervention in active-shooter situations as a central argument for campus carry. The author of the Arkansas campus carry bill wrote it with the specific intent of reducing the risk of mass shootings. So it’s not just the anti-gunners who see mass shootings as central to the argument.

But I don’t think concealed carriers are likely to make effective interventions in mass shootings. Nor do I think the presence of concealed weapons is likely to hinder the response to a mass shootings. Further, I think the focus on mass shootings distracts us from the best arguments for campus carry, which should be primarily about the individual right to self-defense and self-determination -- not about the ability or inability of concealed carriers to protect others from events like mass shootings.

It’s instructive to look at a real-life example. During the 2015 shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon -- where campus carry is legal -- several people who were present legally carried guns. None of them used their guns, and all seem to have done what everyone else did at the time: they cleared out in a hurry.

Why didn’t those armed students intervene? First, it’s terrifying to get shot at, and, as John Keegan’s The Face of Battle tells us, most people, when faced with a deadly threat and an avenue of escape, choose to flee rather than to fight. It’s people who are trapped and cannot flee who stand their ground and fight. Had the gunman trapped any of the concealed carriers in a room or corner, things might have turned out differently.

We should also keep in mind the types of weapons that concealed carriers bring with them. People who are less familiar with guns may assume that concealed carriers are armed in much the same way that the police are armed. They are not.

To be sure, some concealed carriers do lug around full-size pistols and extra ammunition. But those guns are heavy, bulky and uncomfortable to conceal. In practice, most concealed carriers favor easily concealed five-shot revolvers and pocket-sized autoloaders. While those types of guns are well suited to close-range self-defense, they are hard to shoot accurately beyond about 10 yards.

If you found yourself facing an active shooter armed with a rifle or even a full-size pistol in a large space like a library or student union, that little revolver with its two-inch barrel is going to feel pretty inadequate. It’s totally unreasonable to expect someone to take on a heavily armed shooter in such a scenario.

By contrast, cops usually have full-size pistols with four- to five-inch barrels that usually hold 15 or more rounds, and they carry lots of extra ammunition. They also routinely wear body armor and have rifles in their cars. Not only are they better trained to deal with these types of issues, but they are also much better equipped to do so.

As for the likelihood of concealed carriers complicating the response to a mass shooting, it’s significant that we have to talk about this as a hypothetical. Could it happen? Sure. There are thought to be over 14 million concealed-carry permits in the United States, a growing number of states allow permitless carry (legal since 1791 in Vermont) and campus carry has been legal in Utah for over a decade. Can anyone point to an example of a mass shooting on a campus or off one that was made worse because of the presence of a legally carried concealed weapon? I can’t.

A Question of Individual Choice

If concealed carry can’t be expected to prevent mass shootings or to increase the general level of safety on campuses, why support it?

The question itself is fundamentally illiberal. The only valid objection to legally carried guns on campus would be if the presence of those guns posed a significant danger to people other than those who carry them.

Given that the expansion of concealed-carry rights over the last 20 years has coincided with (which is not the same as caused) a declining murder rate and a reduced incidence of gun accidents, it’s hard to make the case that concealed carry poses a significant threat to others. So if legally permitted faculty members or students want to carry a gun to school because they think, rightly or wrongly, that it makes them safer, it’s hard to see why anyone else has a legitimate interest in preventing them from doing so.

Opponents of gun rights often point to studies that purport to show that owning a gun is more likely to make one the victim of gun violence (a misleading term that conflates homicides and suicides) than it is to protect one from violence. Even if those studies were correct on a broad level, that would not justify preventing an individual from making their own choices about whether to own or carry a gun, provided that those choices don’t put others at risk.

Finally, it’s easy to imagine scenarios where having a gun on a campus might actually be quite useful to the individual with the gun. When an irate student or colleague shows up at your office door armed and bent on mayhem -- as happened at Delta State and the University of California, Los Angeles -- having a gun handy offers better odds than not having one.

Walking through the dark parking lot when you leave the library or the lab late at night? If you think you are safer with a gun than without, why should anyone second-guess your decision?

If you happen to be locked down in a classroom during a mass shooting, wouldn’t you rather be able to shoot back if the shooter comes through the door? If you would rather resort to throwing coffee cups or iPads, as some campus police might advise, that’s valid choice and I would not try to dissuade you. But is there a compelling reason to impose that preference on others?

Campus carry is not going to end mass shootings, but it’s disingenuous to use that as an argument against guns on campus. Do we really want concealed carriers to act as auxiliary cops or vigilantes? The fact that thus far none have done so during a mass shooting is a testament to their good judgment and thus constitutes an argument for, not against, the individual right to armed self-defense.

Erik Gilbert is a professor of history at Arkansas State University.

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On left, a Glock 22, a police service pistol; on right, a Ruger LCP, popular with concealed carriers.
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Court upholds University of Michigan's gun ban

Against a tide of pro-gun rulings and legislation, a state appeals court ruled 2 to 1 that the University of Michigan -- a public institution -- has the right to ban guns on campus.

Lack of Comma May Derail Georgia Gun Bill

Georgia Governor Nathan Deal may be poised to sign new legislation to permit guns on college campuses this week, but the absence of a comma in a provision excluding some campus locations from legal firearms may have legal implications, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

Deal vetoed the campus carry bill last year after lawmakers chose not to honor his request that the measure make exceptions for certain areas of campus. However, the House and Senate recently compromised and approved a bill that would permit guns on campus but bar them in child care facilities, certain faculty and administrative offices, and spaces used to hold disciplinary discussions.

Although the new version of the gun measure is more in line with what Deal requested about a year ago, a Democratic aide identified a grammatical error that may stand in the way of the governor’s signature.

One of the exemptions is written to say that the bill does “not apply to faculty, staff, or administrative offices or rooms where disciplinary proceedings are conducted.”

The aide, Stefan Turkheimer, wrote on GeorgiaPol.com that the absence of a comma after the word “offices” could change the application of the legislation. The bill is meant to exclude “faculty, staff or administrative offices” as well as “rooms where disciplinary proceedings are conducted,” but as Turkheimer said, “without that comma, it’s just two clauses both modifying ‘offices or rooms.’”

He goes on: “This reading becomes even more persuasive when you consider that both of these area exceptions, if they were meant to be separate, could, and perhaps should, have been put into different clauses. … So unless faculty offices are also rooms where 'disciplinary hearings are conducted,' they would not be exempted. Let’s just ignore whether these rooms are off-limits only when they are being used for disciplinary hearings or whether they are off-limits from carrying at all times because sometimes they host disciplinary meetings (makes less sense, but that’s what the bill says).”

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