Colleges Have a Role to Play in Reducing Gun Violence

Robert Kennedy has been dead longer than many of today's traditional age college students have been alive. Yet, his words surfaced recently calling for us to look directly at the need for gun control and to take some action. Speaking in Roseburg, Oregon, site of one of two mass shootings that occurred in the United States that day, Kennedy spoke directly to a world in which both four-year olds and convicted murderers could purchase guns. The year was 1968. The Kennedy era seems (and, indeed, is) long ago and yet his words resonate. "Is that reasonable?" he asked, over and over again.

The answer is no.

No, it is not reasonable to live, nearly 50 years later, in a nation where guns are the cause of well over 30,000 deaths per year and in a country "with less that five percent of the world's population. . . [that is] home to 35-50 percent of the world's civilian-owned guns."

No, it is not reasonable that compared to our neighbor to the north, Canada, and to many other countries, those in the United States experience substantially higher homicide rates and deaths by firearms.

I say this as a college president. We know that the Umpqua Community College in Roseburg is not alone. Indeed, there were campus shootings in Arizona and Texas only days later.

I say this as president of a college in Chicago, a city all too often offered up as "the" site of gun violence in the United States. But we, too, know we are not alone.

I say this as an American citizen, ashamed of our ranking alongside other countries when it comes to the negative impact of guns on individual lives. I say this, too, as a white woman knowing that gun violence in our country is deeply inflected by race, social class and other axes of difference. And, I say this in October, Domestic Violence Awareness Month, knowing how guns in homes contribute to this horror as well.

Kennedy asked mid-twentieth century America: "Is it reasonable?" None of this was reasonable then or now.

Spoken less than a month before his own assassination, Kennedy's words come from 1968, a mere two years after Charles Whitman shot and killed 16 people on August 1, 1966 on the University of Texas at Austin campus. Like Kennedy's words, Whitman's actions seem so long ago. Like Kennedy's words, Whitman's actions continue to resonate in the all too frequent school and college shootings that have occurred in intervening years.

While only a small proportion of the gun deaths in the United States occur on campuses, such events make it starkly evident that higher education must attend to the role of guns in American culture and bring the force of our roles to bear against the violence that is endemic in our country. Whether mass shootings or the murder of faculty for issuing low grades or tenure committees for denying colleagues, shootings on school and college campuses are so prevalent that they merit a Wikipedia entry. These are not the only shootings that matter, but they are one of the reasons colleges and universities must respond.

We cannot risk analysis paralysis, or, perhaps worse, allow the appearance of debate or political lethargy to substitute for change. That we need more education for critical thinking around such issues is both obvious and urgent. That we need action is obvious as well. What we have been doing in the 50 years since Kennedy raised his question and Whitman murdered those around him has been inadequate at best.

We can learn from neighbors like Canada, whose response to events like the 1989 Ecole Polytechnique shootings put our country to shame. And, we can learn from those whose lives have been shaped by gun violence -- from Jim Brady to the children of Sandy Hook, from those who moved on from Columbine to advocate for gun control to the men and women whose lives were wasted in Roseburg. We can learn that we need to change our world, our country, and our access to and use of guns.

This will require rejecting some voices and some dollars. It will require standing with others, and for others, like the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence or EveryTown for Gun Safety.

It will require us to risk more than talk. It will require us to be reasonable.

This October as Roseburg and UCC adjust to their unfortunate newly symbolic role alongside Columbine, Virginia Tech and, nearly 50 years ago, the University of Texas at Austin, Kennedy's ghostly words give us a crucial criterion for a role for higher education and for us all. He asked: Is it reasonable?

It is our responsibility to say no.