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19 April 2007
A College Professor's Perspective on Campus Security Issues from VT Standpoint

By Christopher Westley
Special to The Anniston Star

Reprinted here in its entirety.

Sad Days in Blacksburg

My mind keeps going back to the students in those engineering classrooms and the incredulousness mixed with fear that they must have felt. And anger, based on the idea that some incredible and unknown creep was in the process of cutting their lives short.

Hey, buddy (I'd think to myself), do you know how much I sacrificed to get into this engineering program? And my parents? I was up all night studying for a test! Please just go into the men's room and shoot yourself now. I have too many plans for my life to allow this to happen.

The police are getting much criticism, and I don't know how much of it is warranted. They do seem to follow a predictable script when bad things happen. Secure the perimeter. Don't let anyone in or out, and when the victims finally do get out, make them hold their hands over their heads. And while the preparations are taking place outside, the shooter's rampage continues unabated. It isn't until he kills himself that the police seem to decide on an entry plan. Just like Columbine. Is there a better argument for private, decentralized security?

There are questions that the police need to answer. They claim they had good reason to believe that after the initial shootings that took two lives, the gunman had left the campus and was leaving the state. I'd like to know why they concluded that, and whether it was based on nothing more than case studies. It sounds like a story that evolved after it was clear that their treatment of the first crime scene as an isolated, one-time event proved deadly.

But still. These are campus police for whom an average busy night involves making sure drunk fraternity members keep their parties inside. That's the way it should be. Frankly, if my son was considering a school that I knew trained its police to respond to mass murderers, I'd convince him to apply elsewhere. There is a point at which a lack of preparation is a badge of honor for civilization, simply because it reflects a lack of miscreants that need addressing. So the deer-in-the-headlights response we saw at the press conferences on the day of the shootings is (in some ways) to be preferred.

I have less sympathy for Virginia Tech's administration, which after all sets much of the rules and policy under which the police and student body must comply. Not long after the shootings were made public, a news story surfaced on the Internet about how the Virginia Legislature recently killed a bill that would have allowed university students and employees to carry concealed weapons on campus.

The Roanoke Times' story included a quote from Virginia Tech spokesman Larry Hinker saying that I'm sure the university community is appreciative of the General Assembly's actions because this will help parents, students, faculty, and visitors feel safe on our campus. Why do I think that Hinker's 15 minutes of fame is not going to be terribly enjoyable?

It shouldn't be. Gun control policies violate our natural right to self-defense. Would the killer have even ventured out of bed that morning had he thought that one or two people in those engineering classes would have shot back? Still, posted a story on Monday afternoon asking whether stricter gun-control laws should now be called for, thus trying to frame the ensuing political debate and squelch criticism of existing gun control laws at the same time. A re-evaluation of immigration controls seems appropriate, but one doubts ABC News will devote resources to that angle.

Besides, some perspective is in order. A recent Surgeon General study showed school-related homicides are less than one percent of all homicides involving students, and that the number of school homicides has been falling. Kids are safer on college campuses than they are at many other public venues. The political class (and the political media) should refrain from using this event to bolster platforms.

It dishonors those students whose lives were lost this week. It is to them, and their families, that my mind keeps returning. Rest in peace.

Christopher Westley teaches economics at Jacksonville State University.

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