Eastern Mennonite University President Loren Swartzendruber is among more than 300 college presidents asking for tighter gun controls in the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn., shooting.
An open letter addressed to “our nation’s policy leaders” and endorsed by the educators asks legislators to enact “rational gun safety measures,” including a ban on military-style semiautomatic assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
“I certainly do not assume that guns should not be available for appropriate purposes,” Swartzendruber said Wednesday. “What I do think deserves a lot more attention is the availability of guns that have no other purpose other than to harm individuals.”
The letter also opposes any legislation that would allow guns on campuses or in schools, asks for an end to the so-called gun show loophole, which allows people to purchase guns without a background check, and asks for safety measures for all guns, such as safety locks and access-prevention laws.
“I agree with the basic premise of the letter,” Swartzendruber said. “This is an important time for the nation to have conversations about how we respond to acts of violence and how we can work together to decrease violence in our society.”
The issue of guns and schools has become a major topic of conversation in the weeks following the deadly shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. The shooting at the school claimed the lives of 27 people, including 20 children and the gunman.
One of the most contentious conversations that began following the incident was the possibility of training and arming teachers to prevent similar tragedies.
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell responded to the shooting with an executive order creating a school and campus safety task force as well as a separate one for mental health.
Local school divisions responded similarly. Evaluations of safety procedures are ongoing at Harrisonburg City and Rockingham County schools.
In addition to agreeing with the letter’s overall message, Swartzendruber said he appreciated that it acknowledges the complexity of the issue. While the letter advocates gun-safety legislation, it says that identifying and treating mental health issues is a key to preventing incidents similar to the Newtown shooting.
“I wanted to make sure, as the letter does, to say this is a complicated set of questions and the responses will be complicated,” Swartzendruber said. “The call for more attention to mental health issues I think is absolutely critical. We do have mental health needs and we need to find better ways for identifying and providing treatment for those who do need those kinds of support systems.”
Lawmakers also cite the issue’s complexity when talking about bans or a narrowing of gun ownership rights.
Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Mount Solon, and Del. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, both said they would have to formulate opinions about limiting the number of bullets in a magazine or the use of assault weapons based on actual legislative proposals.
“There clearly are types of munitions and types of weapons that should only be allowed to be sold and owned if the individuals have a very legitimate reason for doing so,” Hanger said. “[But] that’s something that tends to be a little more complicated in terms of Second Amendment rights.”
Still, Hanger and Wilt made clear they were wary of infringing on the gun ownership rights of their constituents.
“If you begin the process of selectively restricting gun ownerships it is a slippery slope,” Hanger said, adding that more focus should be put on identifying and treating people who are mentally ill.
Added Wilt: “We need to be very careful starting down a road when we start limiting and restricting and banning until we’re absolutely sure what we’re talking about.”
Courtesy Daily News Record, Jan. 3, 2013