Tag Archives: Virginia Tech incident

Students and Guns in the United States: What is the ‘Concealed Carry on Campus’ movement?

The last post explored the feelings of blame aimed at the ban on allowing staff and students to carry concealed firearms at Virginia Tech University. This post intends to expand upon this idea of an individual being responsible for their own safety, detailing what the ‘concealed carry on campus’ movement actually entails. Concealed carry laws at public colleges and universities generally fall into three categories: completely banning firearms on campus, including for ‘concealed carry permit’ holders; allowing individual institutions to determine whether to allow concealed carry on campus through mandatory or discretionary policies; allowing permit holders to carry their weapons on campus. Overall, thirty and nineteen states follow into the second and third categories respectively. (1) The movement known as ‘concealed carry on campus’ aims to achieve the third category of allowing students and staff to carry concealed firearms at public colleges and universities.
The official reports sanctioned by the government after the Virginia Tech shooting recommended that educational institutions continue to prohibit guns in campus. (2) Despite this advice, there were still a number of concealed carry on campus proposals after the 2007 Virginia Tech tragedy. In 2008, Utah’s state Supreme Court concluded that, in order to comply with state law, higher and further education institutes did not have the authority to ban on guns on campus and so it became legally viable. The Utah case then became a model for other proposals in seventeen states in 2008, all of which failed. In 2013, five states introduced bills to forbidden concealed firearms on campus; however, all of these failed. At the present time, the states of Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Oregon, Utah and Wisconsin now allow concealed carry on campus.(3)
Further complicating matters are two United States Supreme Court cases putting some legal parameters on this debate: the Heller (2008)ruling maintained that the second amendment protected an individual’s right to a firearm in the home; whilst McDonald (2010) incorporated this right into the laws of states and localities, so any policies have to take this into account. Further complicating matters, the Heller ruling did not specify whether the right to carry firearms for self-defence purposes applied only to the home. The Heller and McDonald rulings also favoured retaining concealed carry bans in ‘sensitive places’ like government buildings and schools. Of particular interest in the ‘ concealed carry campus debate’ is that educational institutions fall under the rubric of ‘sensitive places’ as defined by Heller; however, at the same time, it is unclear whether this only applies to K-12 schooling where minors are present. The fact that colleges and universities do hold K-12 field trips and education camps and so forth may strengthen the ‘sensitive places’ argument.(4)
Consequently, it remains to be seen whether this movement will gain legislative traction in a post-Heller world. Despite this, the fear driving the desire to have concealed firearms on campus is ever-present — the next few blog posts will further elucidate the linkages between fear and this movement.

[This blog post was put together by reading the works of legal scholars and findings from the National Conference of State Legislatures. The next few blog posts will interrogate this movement further, looking at the reasons why people support it and the possible problems with the reality of allowing concealed firearms at colleges and universities.]

(1) See: L. M. Wasserman, ‘Gun Control on College and University Campuses in the Wake of District of Columbia V. Heller and McDonald V. City of Chicago,’ Virginia Journal of Social Policy and the Law 19(1), 2011: 4, 6. It is important to note that these restrictions apply to state-sponsored colleges and universities; hence, private institutions determine their own restrictions.
(2) Leavitt, Michael O., Alberto R. Gonzales, and Margaret Spelling (2007) ‘Report to the President on Issues Raised by the Virginia Tech Tragedy.’ 13 June, Washington, D.C.:U.S. Department of Justice
Virginia Tech Review Panel. (2009) ‘Mass shootings at Virginia Tech April 16, 2007: Report of the Virginia Tech Review Panel presented to Timothy M. Kaine, Governor, Commonwealth of Virginia (updated edition)’ November. Available at: http://www.governor.virginia.gov/tempcontent/techPanelReport-docs/VT_Addendum_12-2-2009.pdf
(3) National Conference of State Legislatures.(2015) ‘Guns on Campus: An Overview.’ Available at: http://www.ncsl.org/research/education/guns-on-campus-overview.aspx
(4) For further information, consult the following scholars: Joan H. Miller, ‘The Second Amendment Goes to College,’ Seattle University Law Review 35, 2011: 248; J. E. Pratt, ‘A First Amendment-Inspired Approach to Heller’s “Schools” and “Government Buildings,’ Nebraska Law Review 92, 2013: 618, 620; M. Rogers, ‘Guns on Campus: Continuing Controversy,’ Journal of College and University Law 38(3), 2012: 665; M. L. Smith, ‘Second Amendment Challenges to Student Housing Firearms Bans: The Strength of the Home Analogy,’ Law Review 60, 2013, 1053.

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“I think we should forget about more gun control, what we need is bullet control”(1): Could regulation of bullets reduce school shootings?

A neglected aspect of the gun debate in the U.S. is the notion of ‘bullet control’: this would take the form of conducting background checks for buying ammunition. The selling point is if someone owned a gun and became ineligible after committing a felony, this would prevent them from buying ammunition for that gun. Since ideology has been defined as an interest-linked perspective, there exists a ‘struggle for legitimacy’ (i.e. confirmation of that particular ideological perspective) predicated on existing divisions within society (2). Something like ‘bullet control,’ therefore, could possibly depoliticise the issue away from the debate on ‘gun rights’ and ‘gun control.’ A number of my interviewees, however, were sceptical about this being a way to circumvent the politics of gun regulation, believing the National Rifle Association would fight against it.

Ammunition regulation used to be a part of the federal-level ‘Gun Control Act’ (1968) prohibiting mail order sales and requiring a log of ammunition sales. This ended, however, in 1986 due to the ‘Firearm Owners’ Protection Act’ diluting elements of the 1968 law. This means it will now fall to individual states to make decisions regarding the regulation of ammunition. California, for example, has just implemented a law mandating: the marking of bullets, background checks for purchases, and recording buyer information. Notably, the gun violence prevention groups to whom I spoke indicated that California was the progressive ‘model’ for gun regulations to aspire to, as this state is able to take further steps than the rest of the nation. As a whole, California, District of Columbia, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York require licenses to purchase or possess ammunition.

Suggestions were made from gun violence prevention groups about regulating the quantities of bullets able to be sold. This seems particularly applicable to school shootings since the Virginia Tech shooter carried almost four hundred bullets with him; whilst the Columbine perpetrators fired almost two hundred rounds and wore utility belts containing clips of 9mm bullets. Taxation of bullets was dismissed as a viable strategy, however, since mass shooters are unlikely to be deterred from their goal based on the cost of ammunition. An alternative strategy is perhaps New York’s recent law requiring logs of purchases, so the police can be informed if someone is stockpiling bullets.

Another recommendation was restricting bullets that increase the severity of wounds. There seems to be a link between harm-inducing bullets and school shootings. The Virginia Tech shooter used 9mm ‘hollow point bullets,’ which penetrate further parts of the body rather than exiting it and are designed to inflict higher levels of damage than ordinary bullets. Similarly, the Sandy Hook shooter used bullets the same size as those used by military troops designed to tear bone and tissue apart. Tighter regulations of these could, at the very least, serve to reduce the severity of injuries in a school shooting situation; henceforth, framing the problem in terms of medical costs. Furthermore, a legal scholar (3) claimed that limiting certain bullets, such as .50 calibre ones, would be constitutional because it would not affect self-defence; meaning this is definitely something which could viably be pursued as a legislative goal.

[This blog was compiled through a number of sources: interviews with gun violence prevention groups and other experts in matters relating to gun legislation; studies by legal scholars; data about state laws. The next blog post will look at using YouTube as a tool to analyse school shootings.]

(1) The quote in the title appeared in episode ‘2162 Votes’ (2005) in season seven of the fictional television show The West Wing.
(2) Philo, G. (2007) ‘Can Discourse Analysis Successfully Explain the Content of Media and Journalistic Practice?’ Journalism Studies 8(2), 175-196.
(3) Volokh, E. (2009) ‘Implementing the Right to Keep and Bear Arms for Self-Defense: An Analytical Framework and Research Agenda.’ UCLA Law Review 56, 1443-1549.

Punishing Educational Institutions for School Shootings: The Case of Virginia Tech University and ‘Timely Warnings’

As the last blog documented, the attributions of blame after a school shooting tend to focus on parties that are claimed to have failed to notice the warning signs given by the perpetrators and/or respond to the shooting properly. School shooting lawsuits are predicated on varying degrees of blame: firstly, the assumption that the schools are partly to blame for not pre-empting the shooting (whilst full responsibility for the attack would lie with the perpetrators who carried them out); secondly, that they are either partly or wholly responsible for their response to the attack. Establishing this blame against schools is the lawsuit which has a twofold purpose: getting the school to accept some responsibility regarding their negligence (i.e. acknowledging that they have failed to properly fulfil their institutional duties) and receiving monetary compensation. The accountability dimension has the additional purpose of making an example of the schools in question and, by implication, motivating other schools to ensure that such an attack does not occur on their premises. This idea is backed up by Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory that the primary purpose of punishment is to deter others. The imposition of a ‘negative wage,’ an undesirable payment of compensation settled by the wrongdoer, is the secondary component of this punishment. Monetary compensation paid by the wrongdoer has been the case in early Roman, Norse and English law and was typically awarded to the head of a household when a person or animal in their household was unjustly killed. Interestingly, in most languages, the notions of payment and punishment have been interconnected: for instance, in English there is the phrase ‘pay the penalty.’

The postings on the 23rd and 30th July discussed the delay in alerting staff and students the day of the Virginia Tech incident. As it transpired, the delay in communication constituted a violation of federal law, resulting in Virginia Tech being fined fifty-five thousand dollars by the U.S. Department of Education. The university appealed this and it was decided in early 2012 by the Education’s Chief Administrative Judge that the fine should be overturned. In late 2012, however, this fine was partially reinstated by the U.S. Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, who ruled that the university should pay a twenty-seven and a half thousand dollar fine for their alleged failure to provide a ‘timely warning’ on the day of the attack. The argument by the attorney of the claimants was that, upon hearing about the WAJ dorm shootings, the university locked down its Center for Professional and Continuing Education and cancelled that day’s bank deposits. These actions were said to have demonstrated ‘concerns that the crime might represent a continuing threat to the campus,’ yet steps were not taken to relay this information to students and staff until later on. In addition to this, ‘the respondent had not located the suspect, had not found the weapon, and was confronted with the distinct possibility that the gunman was armed and still at large.’

With that line of thought in mind, a number of the families of those killed and injured in the Virginia Tech incident filed claims for the attacks and received an eleven million dollar settlement from the state. Recently, the parents of two students killed brought a case against the university predicated on the basis that their daughters may have survived if communication had been more prompt. According to the attorney of the families, the evidence of the error was ‘the bodies of the young people on the floors of Norris Hall.’ Virginia Tech President, Charles Steger, and other VT officials attempted to counteract that charge by stating the VTPD investigation was misleading, because it concluded that the WAJ murders were the result of a domestic dispute rather than the start of a school shooting. In the end, the jury found the university negligent and the two families were awarded damages. The mother of one of the victims was quoted as stating: ‘Today we got what we wanted. The truth is out there.’ This gives further credence to the idea that these lawsuits act as a means of highlighting answerability.

[Material for this blog has been published in a chapter in the edited volume Reframing Punishment: Silencing, Dehumanisation and the Way Forward. The next blog post will return to the issue of threat assessment and managing threats post-incident.]

Emergency Communication after Virginia Tech: Legitimising Laws and Policies

The Virginia Tech shooting provoked a number of ‘crisis’ or ‘emergency’ communication measures being implemented in colleges and universities, and also led to changes in federal law. In the last blog, I documented the emergency communication problems highlighted by the Virginia Tech shooting: the delay in emailing the emergency alert to staff and students; the vague nature of the first alert sent out, coupled with it failing to really inject any urgency into the message; the inconsistency between the institutional emergency management plan and emergency communication policies about the parties with the relevant authority to issue emergency alerts. In the next two blogs, I intend to take this further by looking at changes to federal and state laws, Virginia Tech University itself and how this created a market for the emergence of a mobile phone safety application.

Analysing the need to ‘take action’ after the Virginia Tech shooting brings to mind the argument of Power about secondary risk management, where institutional responses are guided by “cultural demands for control, accountability and responsibility attribution.” The lawsuit which was filed against Virginia Tech University following the delay in communication highlighted the need for accountability and responsibility. Notably, the delay in communication on April 16th 2007 was said to violate the ‘Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act’ — commonly known as the ‘Clery Act’ — (1991) applying to all colleges and universities that participate in federal financial aid programs. The purpose of the law was for transparency around crimes occurring on colleges and universities, by keeping a public crime log, publishing an annual crime report and disclosing security policies. More specially relating to the Virginia Tech incident, the ‘Clery Act’ (1991) requires that higher education institutions provide ‘timely warnings’ in emergency situations posing a threat to students and staff. As it transpired, the federal-level ‘Clery Act’ (1991) was amended in 2008 to include changes to emergency communication: notification is now required to be immediate, unless to do so would impede efforts to resolve the situation somehow; notification methods are to be publicised to staff and students, plus tested and annually reported; the authority of campus law enforcement to issue emergency messages is to be clearly defined in institutional policies. In terms of measurable effects, research conducted by Campus Safety Magazine found that, a year after Virginia Tech, 73% of survey respondents had bought or intended to purchase mass emergency notification systems. A survey by Rasmussen and Johnson found that 75% of respondents intended to incorporate mobile phone technology in their systems after the Virginia Tech shooting, compared to the 5% who had it in place prior to the incident.

At the state-level, the Virginia bill ‘First warning and emergency notification system’ (2008) mandated that emergency notification for public institutions of higher education be ‘comprehensive prompt, and reliable,’ with various communication mechanisms and the appointment of authorised, trained individuals to activate systems. In the case of Virginia Tech University institutional policies, the recommendations and subsequent changes made appear to be ‘corrective action,’ where the university sought to repair its image by reporting plans to improve its emergency communication system. In terms of improving mobile phone signals in buildings on campus, service providers sent over technicians to improve tower capacity. Sirens were also installed at two additional locations throughout the campus. Most notably, at the time of the shooting, VTU was in the process of updating the notification system, but the event — and perhaps the accompanying controversy and lawsuits about the delay in emergency communication — meant the process was expedited and so ‘VT Phone Alerts’ was fully installed and configured by July 2007. This system allows for users to either opt-in or out of subscribing to the system. Those opting in choose three contact methods ranked in order of preference: text messages, instant messages, emails (including non-university addresses), phone calls to office/residence, phone call to mobile phones, and phone calls to elsewhere (e.g. parents’ numbers). At the time of August 2007, almost eleven thousand students, faculty and staff had subscribed to the ‘VT Phone Alerts’ system. Further changes have been implemented since then. In 2008, digital signs linking with the ‘VT Phone Alerts’ system were added to classrooms; the year of 2009 saw the introduction of the ‘VT Desktops Alerts’ system sending a message to laptops/computers connected to the internet, both on and off campus; the system was expanded to six regions in Virginia in 2010. The most recent notification system consists of contacting mobile phones, telephones and instant messaging supplements, other systems of emails, desktop alerts sirens/loudspeakers, hotline, website, electronic message boards. Under these circumstances, policies have a ‘legitimising’ function outlining the course of action needed to fix the problem, where the implementation of these gives authority to the decision-making body.

[This blog was put together by analysing legislative documents and the institutional policies of Virginia Tech University, as well as other studies and academic scholars. It was first published in my doctoral thesis and will likely appear in future publications.]