Arming Our Campuses Is Not the Answer

If we can't rid campuses of guns, we must create security checks throughout them, argues Jeffrey Ian Ross.

October 12, 2015

In this country in 2015, we have had 294 mass shootings in fewer than 300 days. Some of the worst and more dramatic incidents have been at our institutions of higher learning. Two more just occurred last Friday -- one at Northern Arizona University and another near Texas Southern University. In fact, such mass shootings have been such a common occurrence that perhaps we’re becoming desensitized to the horrors of them. The initial shock seems to be followed, in a week or so, by a relatively quick return to normal life -- as if we’ve become resigned and unsure whether anything can actually be done.

What are the solutions? People who work and study at colleges and universities have offered various recommendations, some more reasonable than others.

I am a criminologist and teach at an urban university. Although I want every college and university to be a bulwark of freedom, I know we have to make some important changes to stay safe and improve our chances of surviving when an armed person comes onto a campus with the intention of doing harm. For starters, we can minimize the opportunity that these individuals can do harm. So here’s an idea.

Modern life is crowded, fast-paced, busy. When we go to public places or attend entertainment venues -- an airport, a football game, a concert -- or we even enter into many office buildings in large metropolitan centers, we are OK with passing through a metal detector or undergoing a security search, despite the annoyance and hassle.

We have accepted these forms of access control as part of our daily routine: show your ID, place your backpack on the conveyor belt, submit to a stranger looking through your things. Why do we do it? Because we believe that it works. As much as we may not like it, we accept it and usually feel safer. It is the price we pay for living in a society where we have the right to bear arms.

But something is not syncing up here. People are still losing their lives to individuals who have amassed an arsenal of weapons with seemingly few barriers. We have yet to come up with a solution, political or otherwise, to stop these murderers from doing us harm. In the wake of another shooting, some observers are quick to point to flaws in the mental-health system, while others say we need a dialogue about a culture that embraces violence. A number of stalwart citizens continue to advocate for better gun control. And others, reminiscent of the Wild West, talk about arming everyone to the teeth: if everyone is armed, then no bad person will dare to start shooting. Or so they say.

Meanwhile, we willingly, if not happily, endure security checkpoints in certain situations, while, at other times, we are totally on our own -- in a movie theater or college classroom or at a street party. Why have security in one public place and not in another? Is it just the cost?

This approach can be overcome. But first we need to analyze our commitment to access control to include virtually all public spaces -- malls, college campuses, festivals, theaters, public meetings -- not just some.

The new threshold has to be this: wherever people gather, in any number, for any reason, any duration and in any place, their security is paramount. Elementary and secondary schools are obvious sites. But we must include libraries, houses of worship, retail spaces and more. We have to take our willingness to pass through those gates -- and let that acceptance go forward as far as possible. Otherwise, the idea of feeling safe, of getting through a school day or a church service alive and well is, sadly, not realistic.

Obviously, this is going to cost a lot. But it is an investment: the payoff is in the lives saved and the families left intact, not destroyed by the trauma of another mass murder. And it would demonstrate to policy makers, in particular gun advocates, that there is a significant price to pay to better prepare public spaces and existing institutions for these times when all kinds of weapons are easily available.

Are the added security measures a slippery slope or a tragedy for our democracy? Some people would argue that embracing additional security will establish a true police state and that our freedom will be lost.

It is not wrong to worry about that. All of us should. But the more immediate problem is that innocent people are dying violently every day.

How will additional security measures change life on a college campus? Will freedom of speech and freedom of movement and association be compromised -- or even lost? I doubt it. It’s hard to imagine that a security check -- just like you would go through at a concert or a sports venue -- will destroy our ideals.

In many K-12 schools nowadays, students and adults walk through metal detectors, and bags and backpacks are passed through scanners. Some colleges and universities have instituted these systems as well. But this effort is far from comprehensive.

Initially, students, faculty members and staff members are probably not going to be at all happy with increased access control. But few people liked these new protocols when they were first introduced at airports and other sites, and they got used to it. Already, many colleges and universities in the United States require students, professors and administrators to swipe their cards to gain access to a building, and some ask for bags to be placed on conveyor belts to be screened by magnetometer or X-ray machines. Inconvenient as this might be, it is a far better option than, as some people suggest, arming people on campuses. The latter would probably lead students, teachers, staff members and administrators to be more reluctant to voice their opinions for fear of sounding controversial -- or worse, inciting and incurring someone’s anger and motivating them to draw and use their weapons.

Also, it all depends on where and how security measures are implemented, and the quality of the staff members who are responsible for managing the security checkpoints.

I am not suggesting that all colleges and universities should be gated communities, nor am I advocating that we post campus police wearing camouflage fatigues everywhere. But many higher education institutions, particularly in big cities, have extra security precautions like the ones I have recommended. And they have operated quite well.

Some may argue that this strategy is more appropriate for urban institutions that may appear to be more compact. This is not necessarily true. Think of New York University -- which is spread out among different buildings in Greenwich Village, the Upper East Side and Wall Street, not to mention downtown Brooklyn -- versus Columbia University, which is pretty self-contained. That said, campuses that are located in smaller towns or in more remote locations and effectively spread out would have to selectively choose the buildings where they want to increase access control. They might also consider cordoning off the most vulnerable buildings, if they have not already, by building some sort of fencing in an aesthetically pleasing manner.

Do not get me wrong. Implementing better security systems and protocols is not a cure-all for the far deeper systemic and complicated challenges surrounding gun ownership and use in American society. Yet none of those issues are going to be solved in the immediate future.

In the meantime, an average of close to one mass shooting a day in our country demands strong action. Improving security may be the best start. Let’s work on realistic ways that we can prevent somebody from taking more lives.


Jeffrey Ian Ross is a professor in the School of Criminal Justice at the University of Baltimore. He is the editor of Encyclopedia of Street Crime in America (Sage, 2013).


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