In the wake of the Newtown, Conn. tragedy, heavy attention has been placed on the debate surrounding stricter gun control regulations. Public and private universities have entered the conversation as well, calling for tougher laws to protect students, faculty and staff. Last week, President Richard Brodhead joined his colleagues from nine U.S. universities in calling on the Obama administration and Congress to address gun violence.
The executive committee of the Association of American Universities—of which Duke is a member—issued a joint statement lamenting the acts of violence that have occurred under current policies. They note that guns have caused schools and campuses to become “centers of national mourning” and request that significant action be taken in three areas: gun control, mental health care and the violence-focused culture of contemporary media.
These issues—especially those of gun control and mental health services—are extremely important to any university. Their significance has only been amplified by the violence of Columbine, Virginia Tech and now Newtown.
The gun control debate has largely been characterized by two things: American cultural values of gun ownership and the possible benefits of restriction. Those that support gun ownership rights frequently cite the need for self-defense as a crux for their argument. While certainly understandable, this argument has been exploited to allow for the possession of a variety of weapons—such as automatic firearms—that have no business with civilians. The tension between these two concepts has created a variety of individual state gun control legislation, with varying levels of rigor.
Even in states like North Carolina—where it is illegal to have concealed weapons on university property—there is still potential for weapons to be used. In 2010, three Duke football players were dismissed from the team and the University after firing several shots from a handgun on East Campus. In November of that year, a University employee was fired after a gun in his bookbag accidentally discharged in the West Union building. Stricter enforcement of policies and new federal regulations can help reduce the threat guns pose.
However, gun regulation will not be enough to limit the danger of weapons in educational facilities. The AAU rightly points out that it will also be necessary to improve mental health services for those likely to resort to violence.
An improved focus on mental health is especially relevant to collegiate environments where stress and overextension are constant pressures. For those that lack the support, this frequent stress can exacerbate poor mental health putting students and others at risk.
Duke has done much to support at-risk individuals, including counseling through CAPS, support through the offices of Case Management or the Vice President of Student Affairs, and if necessary, the involvement of Duke Police or the Office of Student Conduct. The Duke Reach website also provides resources on how to get help for someone if they seem to be at-risk. However, it is imperative that the University improve its process for tracking at-risk individuals.
Members of the University community need to be aware of the dangers posed by weapons and seek to help those in poor mental health.