After two more of these horrific events this fall – one at Delta State University in Mississippi, and then again last week at Umpqua Community College in Oregon – I have found myself pondering what should be done and what can be done beyond wringing our hands and shallowly hoping that not saying the shooter’s name or reporting it publicly will somehow lead to fewer of these tragedies. This bit of magical thinking – that by not speaking Chris Harper-Mercer’s name will somehow convince other potential mass shooters that they won’t become famous through their assault – assumes that there is some sort of logic and rational thinking underlying these actions. But I can’t see logic or reason in these. Instead, avoiding his name strikes me as blindly casting about for something, anything, to do regardless its absurdity because we have hit such an impasse on actually taking any responsible steps to address the issue.
The easy, nearly painless activism of avoiding his name stands in stark contrast to the extremely difficult debate over an important issue that has individuals on both sides with deeply felt values and beliefs. Truly solving something like creating a society where these mass school shootings no longer take place will require hard choices that all come with some or all of us giving up some part of those values and beliefs. But instead of taking that road, we do something simple and symbolic and then we will move on. This makes me exceedingly sad and worried about the future of colleges in Kansas and the safety and security of our students. Because every policy so far seems to follow a level of wishful thinking rather than clear-eyed realism.
In Kansas, we’re just over one year away from the deadline for all our Regents universities to begin allowing concealed weapons in campus buildings. Last spring, the legislature removed essentially all restrictions on the carrying of concealed weapons anyway – there’s no longer any training required, and there’s no licensure. In fact, while concealed weapons no longer require a license, here are a few things that Kansas requires me to have a license for:
- Casting a vote in a Kansas election
- Becoming an accountant
- Becoming a hair stylist
- Becoming a massage therapist
- Opening a car dealership
- Going fishing
Back in 2012, I was optimistic that our political leaders would look at the carnage at Sandy Hook Elementary School and elsewhere and see reason. Everyone one of us knows the emotional and psychological turmoil that exists on college campuses. Even for the most well-adjusted college students struggle with balancing academic work, living away from home for the first time, and social anxieties from interacting with a far more energetic and far more diverse community than they may have ever encountered before with far more freedom from “adult” supervision than ever before. Insert the influence of alcohol into the mix and the dangers grow even higher. As much as we might wish it, college is already not necessarily a place where “rational thoughts and behavior” always comes first. Allowing handguns in our dorms, classrooms, dining halls, libraries, and student centers will come with more risk than reward.
I know the argument made in opposition: if there were more guns on campus, than everyone would be safer because those who wished to commit mass shootings like at Umpqua would choose to pursue their crime elsewhere. Just as the hope that erasing the name Chris Harper-Mercer from the newspapers and our lexicon strikes me as foolhardily asking for reason to triumph over passion in the cases of gun violence on campus, arming everyone on campus – or at least presenting the possibility that anyone might be armed – has a similar ring of expecting these individuals to act rationally and predictably.
I long for a reasonable discussion, at least in Kansas, on how to proscribe gun possession in and around college campuses with the least amount of infringement on students’ rights. I know this will require me to sacrifice some of my deeply held convictions. I hope those who fall on the other side of this debate are willing to listen so the avoidable tragedy at Umpqua Community College (and Delta State, and Santa Monica College, and others) doesn’t become the avoidable tragedy here in Kansas.
About the Author: Matt Lindsey is the president of the Kansas Independent College Association & Fund, where he coordinates a range of programs designed to strengthen Kansas' private, non-profit, colleges through collaboration, governmental advocacy, and public engagement and to support the ability of college students to choose and afford an effective, high-quality college education that fits their individual goals. Lindsey previously worked as the Executive Director for Kansas Campus Compact and as an adjunct faculty member with Kansas State University's Staley School of Leadership Studies. He also worked in Washington, DC as the Senior Associate for Freedman Consulting, where he advised non-profits, philanthropies, and civic groups on public advocacy strategies.