It's Memorial Day. Few of us are working. Most colleges and universities have gone into summer mode. And yet, tragedy has landed on our doorsteps once again. I actually had to Google "Newtown" to remind myself when that tragic set of murders had occurred (it was December 14, 2012). And every day since, on average, 289 people have been shot in this country. Eighty-six of those shot die from gunshot wounds. Let's do the math. That's over 150,000 shot and nearly 50,000 killed.
While these victims come from all parts of American society, colleges and universities are among the places that have mourned the dead – from Virginia Tech to the University of California at Santa Barbara. And college campuses have been where many pro-gun activists have sought, many of them successfully, to fight gun control.
Today, there are far more guns in people's hands in America than there were even 18 months ago. Over 200 million guns in the hands of individual Americans presumably keep us safe, and yet if more guns were the answer, we certainly wouldn't be seeing the number of gun-related deaths that we do.
Eighteen months ago, hundreds of college and university presidents came forward together and called for saner gun laws in this country. There are at least two things remarkable about that activism. First, it represented a rare moment for the leaders of institutions of higher education -- one in which we chose to speak out collectively on an issue of public importance only tangentially related to our primary mission of education. Second, at the national level and in many states like my own, Georgia, it didn't appear many legislators listened. As just one example, churches in Georgia have now been given the ability to welcome parishioners into their sanctuaries armed, locked and loaded.
We presidents have been largely silent since Newtown, on the issue of gun regulation and on most other significant issues facing our country – at least those issues not directly related to college budgets. The gun safety movement sparked a good bit of discussion among my colleagues on a president's role in the public discourse. I've certainly heard both sides of that issue expressed, even by my own Board of Trustees. Yet I still come out on the side of Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, former president of the University of Notre Dame, who memorably said, "How can we encourage students to speak out unless we have the courage to do so ourselves"? I received a personal note from Father Hesburgh, thanking me for being willing to set an example for our students, but most importantly, I felt I had given my colleagues and myself an opportunity to find our voice.
Which brings me to my next question: Is it time for us to speak out again?
Last night, in an almost unbearable news conference Richard Martinez, father of a beautiful, friendly, promising and now-slain 20-year old student at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Christopher Martin-Martinez, had this to say:
“Why did Chris die? Chris died because of craven, irresponsible politicians and the N.R.A. They talk about gun rights. What about Chris’s right to live? When will this insanity stop? When will enough people say, ‘Stop this madness; we don’t have to live like this?’ Too many have died. We should say to ourselves: not one more.”
When I was starting College Presidents for Gun Safety, one of the concerns I heard was the idea there were just too many issues on which to articulate an opinion. Where would it stop? Where would we draw the line? In light of this latest tragedy, on a college campus that could have been any of ours, I would say: "We are nowhere near the line yet. Let's worry about that one when we get closer."