The story of that morning in the college French class still send shivers through me - the loud noises that sounded at first like they were coming from an outdoor construction site, but then got closer; the look of terror on the teacher's face when she told the students to get under their desks; the sudden chaos and confusion and call to 911; the sharp stings and numbing feelings; a glance at boots and pants and then another shot that flips you over; more loud noise, then silence; a radio call of "shooter down" then voices saying "black tag, black tag, black tag"; and finally the tragic realization as to what had just happened in those few minutes.
After I hired Colin Goddard to work for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, I heard him speak many times about the April 16, 2007 morning at Virginia Tech when 32 of his classmates and teachers were murdered, and four bullets were shot into his body. Two weeks ago I heard the story again - this time for the first time as a Professor at Indiana University with 66 first-year college students who are part of a new Civic Leaders program that I direct.
One of the questions after the presentation was whether Colin could have done anything to stop the carnage, particularly if he'd had a gun with him.
Colin's answer was clear. Everyone wishes that the story could have ended differently. Many people -- including Colin -- wish they could have been the hero we see in movies. But even though Colin had been in ROTC and was familiar with guns, he felt that if he had a gun that day, it would have been difficult to get to it in time, would have made him and others around him even more of a target, and could have led to other students being injured or killed. In Colin's analysis, the main lesson from that morning is that we need to strengthen our weak to non-existent background check system for gun purchases and make it a lot harder for people like his shooter (who had earlier been found to be a danger to himself or others by a Virginia court) to get dangerous weapons so easily.
When we hear about massacres in our schools we all search for ways to keep this from happening again. I have no objections to trained police officers or school resource officers being in our schools if that's what the local school officials and law enforcement think is appropriate, but we need to be skeptical and concerned about having non-professionals (particularly those with other responsibilities like teaching, staffing or going to class) carrying loaded weapons in our schools. Even trained professionals hit their target only 20% of the time in shoot out situations. Do we really expect non-professionals to do better than this and not endanger more of our young people?
Often lost in this discussion is that statistically our schools are safer than our communities in general. When I speak to groups, I often ask people to try to calculate how much time they have spent in school over their lifetimes and then ask how many of them have ever been in a situation where there was someone with a loaded gun shooting people. Except for the many gun violence prevention advocates with whom I worked - and who had been at well-known school shootings, I've never had a person indicate that they'd seen this situation that we all fear.
Then I ask how many had seen someone in school get drunk, high, angry, or depressed. Almost everyone had that experience. Studies show that college students particularly are more likely than the general population to engage in dangerous activities like binge drinking, using illegal drugs, and having serious depression related to grades and relationships. Adding guns to this environment is obviously risky. Combine these factors with relatively easy access to student rooms, lockers, and backpacks and even guns in the hands of the lower-risk students can cause problems.
As a relatively new professor (with family members who have taught at all grade levels), and as a former student activist leading marches and rallies, I worry too about what the presence of guns in schools could do to the free exchange of ideas, arguments about controversial issues, and the give-and-take we want to foster in our educational institutions. My classes have already had discussions touching on what role the US should play in Syria, abortion, same-sex marriage, and other issues of the day. We don't need more ammunition and guns on campus, we need more reasoned advocacy and educated civility.
And if we really want to reduce gun violence in our communities - including our movie theatres, shopping malls, and neighborhood streets - let's adopt legislation that will make it harder for dangerous people to get particularly dangerous weapons so easily. Then maybe we can all be safer too.