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The Silence Is Broken

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Americans like to forget the unpleasant. It's a new year and the politics of the day and other pressing issues have begun to push from our memories the brutal events that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary. But our waning interest and inability to focus for a sustained period of time will not fix that which has for so long been broken.

College presidents do not speak out on national issues today because the public deems them meddling when they reach beyond their profession. We have listened and remained silent -- even about issues that affect our communities. Gun control and mental illness are two such issues.
It wasn't always like this. Decades ago, presidents were regularly called upon to advise public figures and work in government. People listened -- even if they did not agree -- because they thought that by being involved in educating emerging leaders and engaged citizens, presidents might have something to say. Not today.

But that has just changed. Sadly, it took the loss of very young children and their protectors--teachers and administrators -- in Newtown, Conn. -- to do it. But it is done.

Presidents have signed onto an open letter initiated by Presidents Lawrence M. Schall of Oglethorpe University and Elizabeth Kiss of Agnes Scott College, calling for better gun safety legislation. I signed this letter, which had more than 165 signatures within 36 hours from presidents across the country. Ultimately 304 signed. This is a national crisis that crosses all boundaries and affiliations. We represent schools large and small, religiously affiliated and non-denominational and presidents who identify as Republicans, Democrats and Independents. As sentinels of our students, we cannot remain silent.

I shall talk to our students and let them know that I support the right to bear arms, but that I interpret the Constitution not to include those assault weapons and high-capacity magazines that are so readily available today.

I will share with them my own story. I shall share that my good friend from Baltimore was indiscriminately gunned down in 2005 because two people just wanted to kill somebody and they had the means to do so readily available.

I shall talk about my father and his attitude toward guns. He grew up in the deep rural south and, coming from a very poor farming family, frequently hunted for meals. He served in the U.S. Army for 30 years and was a veteran of World War II. I grew up in a household with a gun culture. But for my father that meant something definite: It signaled discipline, respect, care and responsibility.

My father sat me down with a rifle at a very young age and described its appropriate use and its irresponsible use. He told me that a rifle was a solemn object that was to be respected. It could be the source of sustenance and protection or, used inappropriately -- carelessly, the cause of loss and tragedy. My father impressed upon me that my .22 caliber rifle was just the right power for the purpose intended -- to chase away raccoons and rabbits from crops. I needed nothing more powerful. For me, a gun culture had absolutely nothing to do with an indiscriminate amassing of firepower radically out of line with intended purpose.

Yes, I grew up in a gun culture, but it did not carry into adulthood. This is a personal lifestyle choice, not a political statement. The last time I held and fired a weapon was while serving in the U.S. Army. But here again, the weapons were respected, firepower was adjusted to purpose, and discipline was strictly enforced.

I shall also direct our students to study the strong convictions toward mental health of our college founder, Dr. Benjamin Rush. A physician, signer of the Declaration of Independence and surgeon general of the Middle Army in the American Revolution, Rush also is known as "the father of American psychiatry." He advocated vociferously for substantial investment in the humane treatment of the mentally ill to improve their condition and the well-being of the emerging American society. And most remarkably, he both supported militias to win the war and admonished one of his sons for acquiring a gun without his consent and guidance.

I am encouraging our students to talk vigorously about gun control and then to do something. I am asking them to be activists. I am causing trouble on our campus and it's about time. As an Independent politically I shall make sure that all perspectives are represented in this conversation but, from the beginning, our students shall know where I stand. I expect challenges, but neutrality has its limits in life-and-death situations. Gun control shatters silence, political correctness and any concerns of alienation because of your stance on an issue of such magnitude.

So the silence is broken on American campuses. They will be noisy, but that is as it should be. And our energy and sense of purpose will be directed to Washington -- to Congress, the Supreme Court, lobbyists, national associations and the partisan politics of parties that increasingly cannot agree even to protect our people. Students will witness democracy by example. It's about time. We can do better.