In wake of the recent school shooting in Newtown, Conn. – a shooting that involved a potentially mentally unstable person and an assault weapon deemed inappropriate by many anti-gun advocates – college presidents have taken a stance. More than 300 presidents from colleges and universities around the country signed an open letter addressed to American lawmakers to appeal for a rethinking of gun laws in the United States.
The letter advocates four distinct reforms. The presidents oppose guns on college campuses, support a ban on military-grade assault weapons, want tighter restrictions on gun purchases, and oppose the “gun show” loophole.
EMU president Loren Swartzendruber is among the college presidents who signed the letter.
“The current status quo is not sustainable,” he said in an interview. The status quo Swartzendruber refers to defines the United States in a comparison of the world’s 23 wealthiest nations; 80% of all gun deaths in those countries occur in the United States, and 87% of all child gun deaths occur in the United States, not including suicides.
“The developed nations,” Swartzendruber tells, “are well below us in terms of homicides per 100,000 [people].”
The shooter in Newtown was also believed to have suffered from a mental illness, though that detail has not been confirmed. Regardless, it has prompted a large movement to recognize mental health issues in the United States. Swartzendruber also stressed the importance of addressing mental health issues in a proper manner, an issue that has perhaps been overshadowed by the current gun debate.
“It’s complex, because most mentally ill people aren’t violent. So we shouldn’t make the assumption that because someone is mentally ill, that therefore they’re going to be violent.” The debate, however, focuses on the ease of access the mentally ill have to guns, and Swartzendruber admits that “how you prevent that is a complex issue. There are no easy answers.”
Historically speaking, EMU has sat dormant in the arena of politics, along with many other colleges and universities. This letter marks an important stepping stone for college presidents around the country. “In the last 30 to 40 years, [college presidents] have been silenced, by our own doing,” Swartzendruber tells, “because we worry a whole lot more about what donors will think. And private colleges rely on donations.” But EMU stands slightly separated from many other private institutions specifically because of its foundation in a Mennonite driven Christian theology.
“If something lines up with the mission of the institution – the very reason for which we exist – we ought to be pretty careful not to allow possible negative feedback to silence us on tough issues.”
In spite of any potential negative responses to the signing of the letter, two EMU students affirmed Swartzendruber’s decision. Senior James Souder states that, “It’s good to have a president who acts on his beliefs.” Nels Äkerson, also a senior, says, “It’s good that Loren signed [the letter], particularly since we are a Mennonite university, and he’s acting on Mennonite convictions.”
Discussion on the issue has started in Washington. Vice President Joe Biden has signaled that the Obama administration will seek to provide safer gun laws for the country. It is yet to be seen, however, how this open letter will affect the policy makers’ decisions in Washington.
-Chris Yoder, Staff Writer