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More than 300 college leaders voice support for tougher gun laws

  • Cristina Woodsworth
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In the wake of the tragic Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings on Dec. 14, more than 300 college presidents voiced their support for tougher gun laws in an open letter to President Barack Obama and Congress.

Neither University of Nebraska President J.B. Milliken nor the four NU chancellors signed the letter that mostly included signatures from leaders of private, liberal arts colleges around the U.S. Three college leaders from Nebraska did sign the letter, including the presidents of Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, Bellevue University and College of Saint Mary in Omaha.

The letter, which was made public on Dec. 19, calls for the reinstatement of a ban on military-style semi-automatic assault weapons and for requiring consumer safety standards for all guns, such as safety locks and regulations to prevent manufacturing defects. The letter also expresses opposition to any legislation allowing guns in university classrooms or on college campuses.

Lawrence Schall, president of Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, was one of the co-writers of the letter along with Elizabeth Kiss of Agnes Scott College in Atlanta.

In a blog post about the letter, Schall said he wrote the first draft of the letter after watching a televised vigil for the 26 victims of the mass shooting spree at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. Twenty of the victims were young students at the school.

“I got into bed and just could not fall asleep,” Schall wrote on his blog. “It often helps me to write down what I was feeling and that’s what I did. The next morning I decided to share it with a few friends who are also college presidents.”

The letter was originally circulated by several different groups of private colleges including the Georgia Independent College Association, according to Renee Vary, director of university communications at Oglethorpe University. About 160 signatures had been gathered before the letter was made public, which was when the number of signatures grew to around 320, Vary said.

Only a few leaders of public universities signed the letter, including Marc Johnson, president of the University of Nevada, Reno.

“I signed the letter to express the position of this university that concealed carry weapons should be permitted only in certain circumstances, such as, evidence of a direct, specific threat to an individual,” Johnson said.

Johnson said he believes the letter wasn’t widely circulated to public university presidents, which is why it mainly includes signatures from private college leaders.

UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman said he had not been provided an opportunity to sign the letter.

“I generally do not sign petitions that are not directly related to university issues,” Perlman said. “I am opposed to guns on campus.”

Doug Kristensen, chancellor at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, said he also had not heard about the letter.

“I was not aware of the letter,” Kristensen said. “My focus is on safety at the Kearney campus, and we have a policy of no guns on campus. I think my time is best spent enhancing our local procedures and policies.”

Milliken could not be reached for comment.

As of August 2012, 49 states had concealed carry weapons laws, with Illinois in the process of passing concealed carry legislation. Nebraska is among the 21 states that ban carrying a concealed weapon on a college campus, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. NU has their own policy that also prohibits the possession of concealed weapons on property controlled by the university.

Five states currently have provisions that allow the carrying of concealed weapons on postsecondary campuses, including Colorado, Mississippi, Oregon, Utah and Wisconsin, according to the NCSL.

The signed letter voices the signees’ opposition to provisions like these, also stating that gun legislation will not prevent all future gun crimes.

“As a group, we do not oppose gun ownership,” the letter states. “But, in many of our states, legislation has been introduced or passed that would allow gun possession on college campuses. We oppose such laws. We fully understand that reasonable gun safety legislation will not prevent every future murder. 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.”

In his blog post, Schall wrote that he believes more college presidents need to speak out about issues they feel strongly about.

“Anything important we say can and will offend someone and what if, God forbid, that person is or could be a donor?” Schall said. “So, for the most part, we stay quiet, each focused on the work of our own schools. This was not always the case. A century ago, college presidents spoke out all the time on the issues of the day and sometimes people even listened to us.”

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