Making College Campuses Safe in a Violent Era

In Connecticut, not far from the national horror that occurred in Newtown, we view the issue of gun control through a different lens. Perhaps because we feel closer to a monumental tragedy that has provoked such agonizing soul-searching about the place of guns in our society, perhaps because as educators we are tormented by the thought of so many young victims in what should have been a safe place of learning.

The moral outrage of Newtown should move all of us to action -- educators, parents, students and citizens -- because, ultimately, we can't rely on our political leaders to solve a problem that is endemic in our society. Violence permeates our culture. Violence infects our entertainment like a spiritual and psychological disease. Violence afflicts our relationships. And ending violence is a cause to which we all must be committed. Something must be done, and it must be done now by each of us.

As a nation, we are engaged in a vicious and protracted debate about gun control, in much the same way we had to endure the contentious debate about healthcare reform. Sadly, there will be much talk and little action.

For those of us in education, the issue of gun control is much more than a legislative disputation about the implications of the Second Amendment. It's a fundamental question of safety, particularly in the aftermath of Newtown.

Clearly, we must also give serious consideration to the question of violence in society, whether it's in video games, in music lyrics, on film or television -- even though such scrutiny may not be a politically correct or popular response. There's no denying that our society condones violence. The entertainment industry can no longer hide behind the First Amendment just as gun dealers can no longer hide behind the Second Amendment.

By age 18, our nation's children have witnessed 16,000 murders and some 200,000 violent acts on TV, and numerous studies have concluded this leads to anti-social and aggressive behavior. And when you combine that psychic conditioning with gun ownership, the results can be catastrophic.

Violent video games have also come under increasing scrutiny since Newtown, with recent reports that killer Adam Lanza was obsessed with them in much the same way that Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people -- including 69 at a summer camp -- was. Breivik reportedly said he prepared by playing the violent video game "Call of Duty," which is one of the most popular in America, with 40 million copies sold.

In addition to that tragic distinction, gun ownership in America is the highest in the world, with 89 guns per 100 people -- 47 percent of U.S. households have guns -- and we rank 28th for gun homicides at 2.97 per 100,000. Each year, some 31,672 people are killed by firearms; 19,392 are suicides, 11,078 are homicides, 606 are accidental deaths and 596 are of undetermined cause.

The Harvard School of Public Health calculates that American children ages five to 14 are 13 times more likely to be killed by gunfire than those in Italy, Japan and other industrialized countries.

As educators, making college campuses a safe place for students should be our primary concern, because in recent years, there have been too many tragic shootings at places like Virginia Tech, Hazard Community and Technical College in Kentucky, Lone Star College in Texas and Chardon High School in Ohio. According to the federal government, there is an average of 18 homicides a year on college campuses.

Our expectation -- and that of students and parents -- must always be that campus will be a safe place.

I recently joined some 270 college presidents in a letter to President Obama as part of a pledge that we would address the problem of gun violence in America. We encouraged the president in his efforts to stop "easy access to assault weapons, especially guns that can hold up to 100 rounds of ammunition without reloading."

In addition, we believe that "serious and sustained consideration be given to a comprehensive assessment of mental health and other societal issues in the United States that might have contributed to the numerous mass killings that our nation has endured in recent years."

Our commitment as educators to ending violence is resolute, and we plan to push this cause relentlessly in the coming months and years.

For our part, Sacred Heart University is taking the following steps:

  • We have scheduled a four-part lecture series on the major issues connected to the Newtown tragedy. One lecture will deal with the Second Amendment.
  • Students have been engaged in a political action campaign to push for gun control.
  • We have initiated a new partnership with the local police force dedicated to campus safety.
  • We have begun a student t-shirt business, and funds from the sale of the first shirt are being directed to a Newtown scholarship.

These are only preliminary steps in what will be a long process of changing the way we think about guns and violence in America.

Zero tolerance, public awareness and continued discussion are all necessary if we are going to change America and protect our schools. No one law will solve the problem, because our propensity for violence is woven into the fabric of our society. And that must change.