UNC threat unsubstantiated: How schools are dealing with fears of mass shootings

A false alarm at the University of North Carolina highlights the increased seriousness with which administrators and law enforcement respond to threats of gun violence on school campuses. 

Ryan Kang/AP/File
Gun-rights activist Michael Johnson wears a firearm as he waits for the arrival of President Barack Obama in Roseburg, Ore., Oct. 9. Eight students and a teacher were killed on a community college campus, but Mr. Johnson isn't the only one advocating for the allowance of concealed carry on school campuses.

Early this morning officials issued an alert for a possible armed man on the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill campus, but police officials gave the all-clear after no threat was found.

Reports of active shooters and campus lockdowns have become routine at US colleges and universities in recent months. Many, like this one, turn out to be false alarms, leaving schools and students with the delicate challenge of coping with the emotional strain of repeated alerts without becoming so complacent following false alarms that students and faculty do not respond appropriately to confirmed threats.

Following confirmation that Wednesday's threat was unfounded, University of North Carolina police chief Jeff McCracken emphasized that he’s “glad someone reported seeing a possible gunman on campus” and “wants people to continue reporting what they see,” particularly as mass shootings across the United States continue to make headlines.

On Monday, the University of Chicago campus was shut down after the FBI alerted the administration of a gun threat specifying a time and place was posted online. No one was hurt and an arrest was made, but the response from university administrators underlines how shootings this year have forced campuses to view even online threats as credible and to take action to stop violence during a time when fear seems to be at record levels.

At least 23 shootings have occurred on campuses this year and it remains to be seen how to effectively ensure safety on open college campuses.

“[A] college campus is free reign. It's not like you have to show an ID to walk on the sidewalk or go into a building in broad daylight. Anyone could come to a big lecture hall, sit down, and listen to the professor without having to pay a dime,” wrote Olivia Wright, a University of Missouri student for the millennial-driven social content platform Odyssey Online. “And that means that anyone could come to a big lecture hall and open fire without anyone stopping them.”

State lawmakers are divided on whether to ban concealed weapons on school campuses or make it easier for teachers and students to come to school armed. Nearly 15 states have debated legislation allowing concealed weapons on campuses, nine of which have passed legislation based on the argument that allowing guns increases safety.

“Supporters say the best way to subdue a campus assailant is ensuring that certain people on the scene can mount an armed response before the police arrive,” wrote The New York Times in October.

However, Keep Guns Off Campus, a campaign to oppose such legislation says, “The gun lobby’s legislation would not stop college shootings: allowing guns on campus could, in fact, make mass shootings even worse.” As of February, the campaign cited that over 370 individual colleges and universities in 42 states had signed their resolution to oppose gun allowance.

Florida is one state proposing legislation to allow guns. “All of these shootings occur in gun-free zones,” said Greg Steube, a Republican member of the Florida House, according to The Times. “Gun-free zones don’t protect innocent people from a criminal walking onto a campus and shooting people.”

But in Texas, where lawmakers made concealed weapons on campuses legal beginning in August 2016, some private colleges and universities are opting out. On Monday, Rice University in Houston announced it will maintain its current policy prohibiting weapons on campus after consulting students and faculty. Baylor, Trinity, and Texas Christian University are among others that have decided not to comply with the red state’s policy.

California, on the other hand, passed legislation banning concealed weapons on school campuses. “Putting more guns on campus, they said, could confuse the police arriving on the scene about which armed person is the assailant and potentially result in more carnage during a crossfire,” reported The Times.

Students for Concealed Carry, a national non-partisan grassroots organization, says though that this is not a legitimate issue. “[R]eal-world shootouts are typically localized and over very quickly. It’s not realistic to expect police to encounter an ongoing shootout between assailants and armed civilians,” they write on their website. Furthermore, “police are trained to expect both armed bad guys AND armed good guys – from off-duty/undercover police officers to armed civilians – in tactical scenarios.”

The Virginia Tech massacre in 2007 which killed 33 remains the deadliest campus shooting, but provided a catalyst for a nationwide debate. “[C]ampus carry was [once] considered one of these very rash ideas that was simply not acceptable to a majority of people,” said Reid Smith, a member of Students for Concealed Carry. “That’s changed a lot in the last seven, eight years.”

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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