28 March 2011

Guns on campus: Thoughts of a concerned professor

Before I started teaching at Boise State University, I worked for more than a dozen years as a psychiatric nurse, a member of a hotshot crew of adolescent mental health specialists engaged in preventing violence and treating myriad mental-health conditions and substance abuse disorders. Many of our patients were gang members, adjudicated youth with a history of violence. We were fortunate to have these teens in treatment long enough to make a significant difference.

Our team used a primary prevention approach to help patients learn to settle disputes and disagreements, using words and other nonviolent means. We also emphasized protective factors and resilience measures to equip our patients with effective ways to deal with stress and recover from traumatic life events, including trauma resulting from violent acts. Ascribing to the belief that guns promote, rather than prevent, acts of violence, we spent countless hours reinforcing a teen’s ability and capacity to use non-violent interventions to deal with issues. We worked closely with law enforcement to oppose gun crime and reward youth who put down their weapons and “beat the odds” of recidivism.

My clinical work has fully informed my program of research on preventing campus violence and continues to fuel my passion for creating civility, not only on college campuses but everywhere. I realize there are opposing views, but I am steadfastly against allowing guns on campus. Our state legislature recently voted to introduce a law that would allow students, faculty and campus visitors with a concealed-weapons permit to carry firearms on college campuses. Fortunately, the bill died in committee, but some lawmakers vow to bring the bill forward in next year’s legislative session.

Allowing guns on campus deeply concerns me. I believe guns hasten conflict and instill fear in faculty and students. It’s worrisome to wonder who might pull a gun over a poor grade, a real or perceived act of incivility or being denied tenure. One of my colleagues mused that allowing guns on campus will forever alter the relationship between students and faculty—and among faculty.

According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, firearms are used in the majority of suicides and homicides involving college-aged people. If firearms are made more accessible to college students, there is a potential for more firearm-related deaths. If a gun is used in a suicide attempt, it results in a fatality more than 90 percent of the time.

For the most part, college campuses are safe havens and the last citadels of decorum and civility—a much-sought-after condition in these trying times. Boise State is a nonviolent campus with exceedingly low crime rates. It is also a campus that welcomes and hosts literally hundreds of children, adolescents and other visitors every day, all of whom may be placed in harm’s way by allowing guns on campus.

I believe that allowing guns on college campuses will potentiate and accelerate conflict, not prevent it. Thus, I am vehemently opposed to changing the status quo, as all members of the campus community will be placed at higher levels of physical and psychological risk. Gun laws, if passed, will change how faculty typically prevent and respond to disruptive student behavior. As my colleague noted, guns on campus will forever alter the dynamic between students and faculty, and among faculty.

I worry that, if a threatening situation does occur, having several guns firing will make it nearly impossible for trained officers to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys. I appreciate that some individuals believe we need weapons to protect themselves, but I also believe that these situations are extremely uncommon and that, in the rare circumstance that a dangerous situation emerges, the presence of guns will increase the chaos, and I worry that even more harm will follow. As faculty and citizens of the academy, we have a responsibility to create and ensure safe teaching and learning environments for all members of the campus community—including our students, our colleagues, our visitors and ourselves.

I welcome your comments.

For Reflections on Nursing Leadership (RNL), published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International.