Members of Congress and other legislators around the country have worked up a considerable frenzy enacting laws and regulations governing campus safety and sexual assault. Colleges and universities are coping with an increasingly bewildering and burdensome morass of often-conflicting legal rules aimed at guaranteeing absolute safety for students on the nation's collegiate campuses.
Where is the same legislative fervor when it comes to making sure that students are safe when they leave campus? Gun violence is an appalling reality in this nation; the death toll mounts each day. I can spend millions trying to make my campus secure only to have tragedy stalking just beyond the campus boundaries. Trinity Washington University, where I am president, takes student safety and freedom from sexual or other violence very seriously -- both on AND off-campus. We do what we can on campus; we rely on a well-functioning government to protect us in the rest of the city. When government fails, we are all at risk.
To raise even a small quibble about any aspect of the current campaign to make college campuses completely free of sexual assault and other crimes is to invite immediate condemnation and the accusation that disagreement with specifics of the rules means we must be harboring rapists. So, let me be clear: colleges and universities have a huge moral (as well as legal) responsibility to ensure the welfare, health and safety of every person on campus. Any college president that tolerates a climate for sexual assault or other offenses against safety and human dignity should face serious consequences. I understand that a reasonable amount of legislation is important to satisfy the legislative responsibility to protect citizens from harm; ALL citizens deserve just as much legislative fervor.
But colleges and universities are soft targets for legislators; it doesn't take much moral courage for a Senator to beat up on a university that allows a predatory quarterback or arrogant frat boys to get away with horrible offenses against women. Shame on the university presidents who have looked the other way, incurring hellfire and brimstone on all of higher education.
But where is the spine of Congress when it comes to an even greater risk for our students, faculty and staff, families and neighbors -- the risk of being random victims of gun violence out in the city? Justice cannot stop at the campus gate. To spend so much time and effort (and money!) on law and regulation for campus safety while ignoring the blood flowing down the streets of America due to gun violence is a shameful abrogation of legislative responsibility. Protecting college students while ignoring the dangers that all citizens face every day is a mockery of equal justice.
Campus security is my greatest concern and a constant worry. On the day after the unfathomable murders of the television crew in Roanoke, some colleagues came to me demanding to know how Trinity will increase security in light of the latest horror. Of course we are reviewing our security protocols and procedures for threat assessment, alerting the campus to good safety procedures, reinforcing messages about alerts and escorts and IDs and repeating the basic rule "see something say something." Short of installing metal detectors at each entrance and making going to college as pleasant as boarding an airplane, there is a limit to how much protection any college or university can provide.
Yet, the same legislators that would impose nearly fail-safe security requirements on colleges are doing nothing about the guns that, over the last 50 years, have killed more Americans than all of the wars in which the United States has ever fought. Yes, that's right. Guns have killed more Americans than all of the wars combined.
Still, Congress sits on its hands, terrified of losing the financial support of the gun lobby that bankrolls campaigns and delivers victories to politicians who dropped their moral compasses in the swamp of self-interest. The Second Amendment, even badly read, is not greater than the "inalienable rights" of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" that sparked a revolution and led to the founding of this nation. The threat that guns pose to the most fundamental American values of life and freedom is clear. Legislators who claim that guns are a "right" seem to have skipped a lot of classes on what constitutes true justice in this nation. Too many politicians hypocritically claim to be "pro-life" while ardently embracing the gun lobby.
And let's stop indulging the "oh, but consider knives" excuse. Yes, murders occur with the most astounding array of devices. That's not the point. Guns are the symbols of the violence that plagues American life in the 21st Century, and Congressional tolerance of --- and often abject homage to --- the most warped dimensions of the gun culture encourages the persistence of violence in all forms throughout our supposedly civilized society.
On the same day that colleagues came to me demanding what we will do to make security even tighter in response to Roanoke, a neighbor wrote to me asking that Trinity remove the old iron fence that defines a portion of our campus perimeter in northeast Washington, D.C. He said that the fence suggests that Trinity is fostering a climate of exclusivity, making Trinity a "gated academic environment," an "island" remote from the city. My students who are mostly D.C. residents might find that amusing. Brushing off my explanation about how the fence is part of our security program, he went so far as to suggest that the $1.5 million we spend on security (quite a lot on a $32 million budget) is harmful to our students because it fosters a false sense of safety when the streets just beyond our fence are dangerous. He cited local crime statistics in case I did not know just how dangerous -- this in a city where the 105 homicides at the end of August are as many as all of last year.
Trinity's fence will stay in place, but my neighbor is right about one thing: all the money and time and expertise and vigilance we devote to campus safety is for naught if the prevalence of gun violence throughout society continues to snuff out thousands of lives each year and to wound and warp countless others.
Even as we must accept the rules that govern safety and security on our campuses, college and university presidents must demand more of Congress and state legislators. Justice does not stop at the campus gate. Keeping college students safe is important, but safety and security are important for all people. Just as I accept my responsibility for my students, the government's greatest responsibility is to ensure the safety and welfare of ALL citizens. It's high time for members of Congress to get some moral spine, stand up to the gun lobby, and enact the long-sought legislation that will help this country find its way back to at least a modest level of peace of mind and public safety.