Some Texas lawmakers have claimed that forcing universities to allow guns in classrooms will “prevent another Virginia Tech.” I was a student at Virginia Tech when the shooting happened; I lost the girl I loved. I am now a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin.
Maxine, my girlfriend, did not own or carry a gun, and a gun would not have helped her. She never saw the shooter - a fellow student - come in.
Some argue that the mere presence of firearms in classrooms could deter shootings -- an absurd argument given that most active shooters are suicidal. Even if correct, the incredibly rare individual bent on doing harm could instead pick a class of freshmen, a preschool, or an athletic event, and surely no one wants that.
There are two obvious ways to deal with campus violence: policing and prevention. Guns in the hands of students, no matter how responsible, make both of these goals more difficult. Lawmakers have utterly ignored policing and prevention, and in some cases have actively opposed them. They have completely ignored the experts and key stakeholders on these issues.
One such group of nonpartisan experts, the Virginia Tech Review Panel included a wide array of experts from emergency medicine, law enforcement, homeland security, criminal psychology, adolescent psychiatry, the judicial system, and victims’ services. Among the members was former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, President Bush’s first Homeland Security Secretary. The chair was Gerald Massengill, the same man entrusted with leading the investigation of the 9-11 attacks on the Pentagon and the 2002 D.C. sniper killings.
The members of the Panel dedicated three months of their lives to understanding a terrible tragedy, to speaking to survivors, to families of victims, to first responders, to police, and to campus administrators. They became experts on the tragedy, and made over seventy recommendations for preventing a repeat.
Two of these recommendations involved requiring background checks at gun shows and reporting mental health information to the background check system. Last session, fifty representatives -- most of them sponsors of this legislation -- voted against keeping guns (and CHLs) out of the hands of the mentally ill.
The Review Panel also recommended unequivocally that guns be banned from campus. Senator Wentworth, the lead author of the Senate campus handgun bill, called that recommendation “ill-advised” -- an extremely disrespectful statement, given the total lack of intellectual curiosity he has shown about Virginia Tech as he uses our tragedy to push a deadly agenda.
Sen. Wentworth has no idea what campuses are like today. He has not been a part of the campus safety dialog. If he wants credibility in that dialog, he should start by filing legislation or calling hearings on any of the other seventy-plus recommendations of the Review Panel, or by asking survivors, or by listening to the parents who’ve had to take the phone calls that all parents dread.
Lawmakers would also do well to listen to this state’s higher education institutions and law enforcement experts. An overwhelming number have spoken against this legislation, and thus far not a single one has testified in favor of it. Chief Acevedo of Austin Police Department testified against the bill in the House last Wednesday; he is one of only a very few law enforcement officials in this state with real-life active shooter experience.
The fact that so few police chiefs have that experience is a sign of exactly how safe our college campuses are. At the University of Texas at Austin, we have had only three homicides in thirty years. If lawmakers really want to help, they should start by looking at the suicide problem on college campuses -- a problem which is certainly not going to be helped by additional guns.
Students, parents, and faculty need to let lawmakers know that they can’t get away with voting for these bills. We have an opportunity this Tuesday, at 1:30pm, when the Senate Criminal Justice Committee will take public testimony on the legislation. They tried to cut us out of the discussion last week by scheduling the House hearing over most students’ spring break. We need to show them that we’re watching and we care.
This legislation will make our campuses less safe. Tell your lawmakers before it’s too late.
About the author: John Woods is a survivor of the Virginia Tech shootings and one of the founders for Students for Gun-Free Schools. He is currently a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin.