Rifles, foreground, and handguns are displayed for gun show participants in Marietta, Ga., Saturday, Dec. 22.
When President Obama spoke at a prayer vigil in Newtown, Conn., Dec. 16 to honor the 26 lives lost in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, he declared that the United States “can do better than this” to prevent future tragedies.
Obama’s words left Oglethorpe University President Lawrence Schall thinking about what steps he could take, both personally and in his role as a university president, to address the issue.
“I felt that being silent any more wasn’t the right choice and that there’s a rational place to end up on this,” Schall said.
That night, he drafted a letter expressing opposition to legislation that would allow the possession of guns on college campuses. And the letter, published online Dec. 19, has since garnered the signatures of more than 300 college presidents across the country.
The tragedy in Newtown has brought the gun-control debate back into the national spotlight. Colleges and universities have become a focal point of the conversation, especially as lawmakers in states such as Georgia push for legislation permitting the carrying of concealed weapons on campus.
Schall, along with Agnes Scott College President Elizabeth Kiss, released the letter as part of the College Presidents for Gun Safety initiative five days after the Dec. 14 shootings at Sandy Hook, where a lone gunman killed 20 children and six staff members.
“We are college and university presidents,” the letter states. “We are parents. We are Republicans, Democrats and Independents. We urge both our President and Congress to take action on gun control now.”
The Sandy Hook shooter, identified as Adam Lanza, 20, committed suicide shortly after the rampage. New details have since emerged about Lanza’s background, including the fact that he may have had Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, or other mental and emotional issues, according to USA TODAY.
The Associated Press reported that Lanza’s mother, Nancy, might have been considering admitting him to a psychiatric facility — a possible motive for Lanza’s shooting spree.
The college presidents wrote that in addition to gun laws, “identification and treatment of the mental health issues that lie beneath so many of the mass murders to which we increasingly bear witness must also be addressed.”
Some opponents to new gun-safety regulations, however, say mental health, not concealed weapons laws, should be the main point of discussion.
“No amount of gun control can stop someone from getting a gun when they want to get it,” South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “What we can do is control mental health in a way we treat people who don’t know how to treat themselves.”
Still, lawmakers are currently divided over the future of gun control on college campuses specifically.
In the state of Georgia last week, an incoming House Republican filed four bills that would eliminate restrictions for those with concealed-weapons permits on where they can bring their guns, which includes college campuses.
Meanwhile, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder vetoed legislation this week that would have allowed those with permits to carry their concealed weapons on college campuses and in other areas where they are currently prohibited, such as public day-care centers.
The states of Oregon, Mississippi, Wisconsin, Utah and Colorado currently allow concealed weapons on college campuses. Twenty-one states have laws that ban guns on campuses, and in 23 states, the decision is left up to the colleges and universities.
National organizations supporting or rejecting the notion of gun control on college campuses have also emerged in the last decade.
“If federal law and a controlled school environment cannot control a shooting spree, how are signs on college campuses expected to prevent them?” said David Burnett, director of Students for Concealed Carry. The organization supports the belief that those with state-issued concealed weapons licenses should be allowed to carry their guns on campus for personal protection.
Other organizations, like the Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus, urge school officials to sign a resolution opposing laws that permit concealed weapons at colleges.
As for the future, Schall said the college presidents’ letter is “just a start.”
“It’s been leading to other kinds of conversations,” he said. “There are a lot of voices coming out to speak out on this from both sides of the political spectrum.”
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