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Northern Arizona University: Where should campus gun debate focus?

Mass shootings have spurred some states to pass laws allowing concealed guns on campus, but a shooting at Northern Arizona University Friday, reportedly an argument gone wrong, is a more common threat, experts say.

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    Two people embrace outside a Northern Arizona University student dormitory, Friday in Flagstaff, Ariz., after an early morning confrontation between two groups of students escalated into gunfire.
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A shooting on the Northern Arizona University campus in Flagstaff early Friday morning has added another side to an already tense and multi-faceted debate.

As opposed to recent high-profile shootings – including the shooting spree at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., last week that left nine people dead, in addition to the gunman, and seven wounded – the incident at NAU was not a premeditated assault.

Instead, judging by news reports, the shooting was the result of an argument outside a campus party that escalated into a sudden, fatal attack.

The suspected shooter and the four victims were all NAU students, according to university officials. The cause of the confrontation remains unclear, but it occurred in a dormitory parking lot around 1:20 a.m. local time, according to NAU police chief Gregory Fowler.

The dormitory, Mountain View Hall, houses most of the school’s fraternities and sororities. The incident, he said, began as a confrontation between "two separate student groups."

"The confrontation turned physical and one of our students, Steven Jones, 18, produced a handgun and shot four of our other students," he said.

In this respect, the NAU shooting has more in common with most shootings that occur in the United States, says David Hemenway, a professor of health policy and director of the Harvard Injury Control Prevention Center in Cambridge, Mass.

"This is much more similar to most shootings in the United States – it just happened to occur on a college campus," he says. "If this occurs on the streets, it wouldn’t have got national publicity because it’s just so common in the United States."

The issue has become a lightning rod on campuses around the country, as mass shootings have spurred some states to pass laws allowing concealed guns on campus. Supporters say it’s a question of students and teachers being able to protect themselves, while others are concerned about the potentially lethal combination of guns, alcohol, and students.

Eight states have provisions allowing the carrying of concealed weapons on public college campuses, according to the National Conference of State Legislators: Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Oregon, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin.

Arizona is one of 21 states that lets schools decide if and where concealed carry guns are allowed on campus, according to Armed Campus, a group that opposes allowing the carrying of firearms on college campuses. Most Arizonans favor concealed carry laws, but NAU prohibits firearms on campus for the most part, though guns are allowed in vehicles if they are stored out of plain sight.

In Texas, the state senate passed a bill in May allowing for the concealed carry of guns on public college campuses. The bill, which goes into effect next August, has already proved divisive. Two opposing groups held rallies at the same time in Austin, the state capital, last week.

Critics of the bill say guns don’t belong in the classroom, while supporters – including many students who had quickly organized a counter rally – say allowing students to legally carry guns on campus can help ensure safety.

“There’s no reason why campus should be this black hole for self-defense and protecting ourselves,” College Republican President Madison Yandell told the Daily Texan. “It’s not going to be open carry where we’re like waving our guns around in class using it as a threat to our professors or other students in class…. It’s a matter of self-defense.”

But one University of Texas at Austin professor, Daniel Hamermesh, is quitting his position at the university next fall because of the new law. In a letter to UT President Gregory Fenves, he said the risk that he might be shot by a disgruntled student "has been substantially enhanced by the concealed-carry law."

"I cannot believe that I am the only potential or current faculty member who is aware of and disturbed by this heightened risk," added Professor Hamermesh, who is an emeritus professor of economics. "No doubt this law will make it more difficult to attract faculty, especially those who are willing to teach large groups of students."

More than 160 University of Texas professors have signed a petition vowing to ban their students from carrying guns to class despite the passage of the law.

The Nevada legislature proposed a similar law earlier this year, but met with opposition from administrators, faculty, and students at some of the state’s colleges. The “campus carry” amendment was later removed from a larger firearms bill.

While mass shootings like the one in Roseburg receive more attention, experts such as Dr. Hemenway argue that everyday shootings, like the one at NAU on Friday morning, are much more common and a much more important issue. There were 11,208 firearm homicides in the US in 2013, according to the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hemenway co-authored a study in 2002 surveying more than 10,000 undergraduate students. The results found that students are more likely to have a firearm at college and be threatened with a firearm at college “if they are male, live off campus, binge drink, [and] engage in risky and aggressive behavior after drinking.”

"A whole lot of shootings – especially among young people at 1 in the morning – are from arguments, and someone has a gun," he says.

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