Faculty Fighting Back

Oct 26, 2015

Officials investigate the scene of a shooting on the campus of Tennessee State University
Credit AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

With a growing number of college campus shootings, it’s no surprise that some professors are feeling uneasy.  Others are coming up with some ways to limit firearm access without violating the Second Amendment.

As a senior writer at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Beth McMurtrie spends a lot of time talking to professors, and lately she finds they’re feeling angry and anxious.

“They’re angry because, as a number of them told me, this is not what they signed up for.  They didn’t go into teaching expecting to deal with a live shooter situation, and they’re also anxious because of the growing number of shootings on campus.  It’s become something that although highly unlikely is more easily imagined these days.”

And in perusing professors’ comments online, McMurtrie found frustration over the lack of legislation to restrict access to firearms.  One woman tweeted.

“If I’m the next professor to die because politicians refuse to act on gun control, please politicize my death.  Thank you in advance.’”

But other members of academia are using their expertise in law, social science and psychology to promote policies that would restrict access to guns.   At UVA’s law school, Richard Bonnie says Americans don’t have an absolute right to own a gun.  He quotes Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia who, in 2008, stressed government can impose limits.

“Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on the long-standing prohibitions on the possession of fire arms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”

So Bonnie says we could expand the list of factors that might disqualify someone from owning a gun. 

“Right now, I think that’s where the action is legislatively, both at the federal level  and at the state level – to take a look at the definition of those categories.”

Shootings are often linked to alcohol, for example, so lawmakers could bar access to guns by people convicted of driving under the influence.  Whatever we do, he says, it should be done by the states.

“It’s going to be a matter of local police and prosecutors, so making a federal case out of it is probably not the way to go.”

Besides, Congress has proven unwilling to address the problem of gun violence, even after an elementary school massacre.  States, on the other hand, are making a difference according to Jeffrey Swanson, a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke.

“The majority of Americans now live in a state with more sensible gun controls than when the Sandy Hook shooting happened.”

This state, for example, now bans the sale of guns to people who have not been diagnosed with mental illness but were brought to a hospital during a mental health crisis.

California, Indiana and Connecticut passed laws that allow citizens to get a restraining order against someone who has behaved in a threatening manner, barring gun sales and allowing police to take weapons away from people who already have them.  If Virginia had such a law, Richard Bonnie says it might have prevented the murder of a Roanoke TV reporter and cameraman by a former colleague.

“When he was fired, he was threatening to people at the station, and they had to bring in the police actually to restrain him and take him away.  If there had been an opportunity for a gun violence restraining order, it probably could have been issued in that situation.”

And  Jeffrey Swanson says such laws could give people who are depressed a second chance at life.

“There’s a lot of support for this idea of if somebody is really dangerous, let’s take their gun away for a while for their own good, and a lot of the experience with these laws in Connecticut and Indiana, has been for people where there’s a suicide concern. If they use anything but a gun, they have a very large chance of surviving. If they use a gun, 85% die, so you don’t get that second chance, and it might be the act of a young, temporarily distressed, intoxicated young person, and it’s a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”

The law already keeps convicted felons and people who are guilty of domestic violence from getting a gun here in Virginia, but Swanson and Bonnie agree that states would do well to ban the sale of weapons to anyone who’s convicted of a violent misdemeanor.  Again Professor Jeffrey Swanson.

“There are lots of people who are impulsively angry – maybe pathologically angry people who, when they get mad, they smash and break things, and they have access to guns.  Many of them don’t have a gun disqualifying criminal record, but they might have a misdemeanor assault charge.”

He also suggests states make it illegal for someone to buy a gun if a restraining order is pending.

“We could say people who are subject to a domestic violence order of protection, in the period before a judge makes it permanent, many states allow an abuser to keep the gun at that time, and it’s a very high risk time.”

Some of these ideas were discussed in Richmond during the last legislative session.  A dozen bills would have made it more difficult to buy guns in Virginia.  None was approved, but lawmakers say they’ll keep trying, and advocates of greater gun control  -- including college professors -- hope voters will keep the pressure on.