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Guns on Campus: Ask the Virginia Tech Survivors, Not the Armchair Quarterbacks

Posted: 03/15/2011 8:42 pm

At the Texas Capitol this Wednesday (March 16th), at 2pm or "upon final adjournment," there will be a public hearing on four bills that would force colleges and universities to allow handguns in classrooms. This hearing appears to have been scheduled -- while most students are away on spring break, and on the same day another controversial issue reaches the House floor -- in order to cut those affected out of the discussion. For the proponents of such legislation, the strategy is old hat: ignore the experts, the students, the parents, and the survivors.

In 2007, I lost my girlfriend, Maxine Turner, in the worst school shooting in American history. Only six weeks later, I began graduate school at the University of Texas. I spent a great deal of time during that first year in Texas asking difficult questions and searching for ways to prevent campus violence. When lawmakers first began pushing for guns in classrooms, I thought they must be confused.

It never occurred to me that lawmakers would stoop to using our tragedy to push an ideological agenda. I believed, naively, that if someone showed them the findings of the Virginia Tech Review Panel -- the nonpartisan commission tasked with identifying strategies to prevent future tragedies - they would work with me and the survivors to find a way forward that would improve campus safety.

The VT Panel included experts from law enforcement, national security, higher education, criminal psychology, adolescent psychiatry, the judiciary, and emergency medicine -- including Tom Ridge, President Bush's former Homeland Security czar, and Gerald Massengill, who led the investigation of the 9-11 attacks on the Pentagon and the 2002 D.C. sniper killings. This group of professionals dedicated their lives, for three difficult months, to understanding a terrible tragedy. They made over seventy recommendations for preventing future incidents (including one that guns not be allowed on college campuses).

The authors of the campus handgun legislation, in contrast, have expressed zero intellectual curiosity about the Virginia Tech shooting. They have filed no legislation relating to any of the other recommendations; they have called no hearings about the relevant issues; and unlike the Review Panel, Driver and Wentworth have not spoken to a single first responder or survivor of the shooting.

The bills' authors don't even seem to know what college campuses are like today, with Wentworth claiming that all teachers post grades rather than handing back papers personally (posting grades has become more difficult), and that there are no bars on campus by law in Texas (there are).

They clearly haven't even asked the experts right here in Texas: our higher education institutions and campus safety professionals, which overwhelmingly oppose these insidious bills. They're doing everything they can to cut students, parents, faculty, and staff out.

Only one other piece of legislation the Review Panel suggested has made it as far as the floor of either chamber: keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. That bill passed, despite many of the sponsors of the campus handgun legislation voting against it in the House.

If lawmakers want to improve campus safety, they should start by talking to the parents of the victims of tragedies. They should talk to Dr. Cowie, who testified in Florida against a similar bill after his daughter was accidentally shot by her boyfriend at a fraternity party. They should talk to the family of Devin Zimmerman, a librarian at Northeast Lakeview Community College who was murdered by a Texas handgun licensee.

They should ask Virginia Tech survivors Colin Goddard, Lily Habtu, Kristina Anderson, Garrett Evans, Erin Sheehan, and Emily Haas. Lawmakers should consult with the Samaha family, who lost their daughter Reema; and with Jocelyne Couture-Nowak's family. They should talk to Maxine's parents.

If lawmakers really want to push this legislation when faced with so many other important issues, they should at least be willing to hear what it's like to receive that phone call that every parent dreads. But they haven't done that. They haven't done their homework, because they care more about their ideological agenda than campus safety.

That agenda is guns everywhere, no questions asked. Utah and Iowa are seriously considering bills that allow concealed carry in public without permits. Arizona already passed such a bill in 2010. Utah has already reduced its concealed handgun permit requirements to a point that many Texans get Utah permits instead of the Texas license.

But most tellingly, the gun lobby went venue shopping in Lubbock, Texas, with an absurd lawsuit: they want to lower the minimum age for Texas concealed handgun licenses to eighteen. The judge, Sam Cummings, is almost certain to find in favor of the plaintiff. And Rep. Driver and Sen. Wentworth don't bat an eye while arguing their bills only apply to students who are over twenty-one.

I want students to feel safe on college campuses again. I want parents to feel safe when their kids are away at college -- and that safety is best left in the hands of our peace officers, not students. Parents have every reason to feel safe: at the University of Texas, for example, there have been only three murders in thirty years. Ninety-three percent of the violent crime against college students happens off-campus. When crime does occur on campus, it tends to be simple assault rather than aggravated assault. More guns cannot possibly make our campuses safer.

Reporters have occasionally said that the victims of the Virginia Tech shooting were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Philosophically, these lawmakers are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Maxine, my girlfriend, was in the right place: she was in German class on a Monday morning. Our students belong in class. Guns do not.

 

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