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What’s been done to protect university students from shootings?

Sun behind a building on the campus of UVA.
Sanjay Suchak
Three people were shot and killed Sunday at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. (Photo: Courtesy University of Virginia)

After the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech, some colleges and universities enacted measures to keep campuses safe from gun violence. But according to Tom Kapsidelis — author of “After Virginia Tech: Guns, Safety, and Healing in the Era of Mass Shootings” — more needs to be done.  

VPM News reporter Ian M. Stewart spoke with Kapsidelis —  a visiting assistant professor at the University of Richmond — after  the shooting at The University of Virginia.

The following has been edited for length and clarity. 

Stewart: Can you tell me what has been done since the shooting at Virginia Tech to make colleges safer? 

Kapsidelis: Well, colleges and universities in Virginia and elsewhere have adopted a number of safety procedures in the aftermath of the tragic shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007. And indeed, many of the reforms that were brought up in the report by Governor [Tim] Kaine’s committee after the shootings have become widely adopted across the nation. In Virginia, in 2020, we had significant gun safety legislation passed after years of lobbying by Virginia Tech family members and other survivors of gun violence.

So, there have been a number of steps taken in Virginia to make our campuses and communities safer. But there's still much work to be done — as we've seen with repeated gun violence in our communities, in our neighborhoods and in our schools. 

Can you talk about some specific steps taken by those institutions, such as, when students and faculty get a text message to seek shelter?

I think there's no question that timely notification has become a standard procedure in colleges and universities. In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings, [colleges] were also required to form threat assessment teams. Virginia was also a leader in doing this, on the primary and secondary school level and its public schools. Threat assessment teams are made up of representatives across a campus community — law enforcement, faculty, residential services — as a way to better communicate possible dangerous circumstances. 

So, what else needs to be done to help protect college students from events like the shooting at UVA? 

I think there's some real strong measures that have been taken at colleges and universities. But I think we have to also look at our communities and our culture, and what we can do to protect ourselves against gun violence.

In general, there are far too many guns in our country. It's far too easy for people who should not have access to weapons to gain that access. There have been some reforms made, but we still have a ways to go to rid our communities and our schools of gun violence. 

Are you talking about getting more help or legislation from state and federal officials? 

That's right. And of course, we saw some reforms, also, at the national level: a rare, bipartisan action by Congress in the aftermath of the Uvalde, Texas, shootings. But I think there really needs to be a consistent focus, where we continue our efforts in this area, not just after the most recent shooting, but day in and day out, and try to find some way that we can elevate this as an issue that that people have front and center in front of them... . There are far too many lives being lost ... . And we need to do something about it. 

What would a more consistent focus look like? 

We react as a nation appropriately when there's a problem with product liability, airplanes, airline safety, food safety — these are all appropriate and forceful measures that we take to make ourselves safer. We've taken action to protect ourselves against the hazards of secondhand smoke. These are all important areas; we need to put our energy toward what we can do to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them, and to keep guns out of places where they should not be present. 

Your book talks about the healing process. Can you tell me what the students and faculty at UVA are up against in the coming weeks? 

Healing is a long and indirect process that takes many turns along the way.

My heart goes out to everyone who has suffered a loss this weekend at the University of Virginia, and there's so much support for trying to help people through these difficult, difficult situations. At the same time, people who have survived shootings elsewhere are traumatized by the repeat occurrences of gun violence in our country. And we need to also emphasize with them as they continue their struggle to heal. 

Ian M. Stewart is the transportation reporter and fill-in anchor for VPM News.