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Debating gun control on campus: Virginia Tech shooting inspires another round of reflection

During a routine traffic stop on the campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., a young man shot a campus police officer before fleeing through campus and opening fire upon several others. Though the shooter had been found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot and the "all clear"signal given at the end of the day, two people — including the police officer — were confirmed dead, and a campus community was once again rocked by tragedy.

School shootings nearly always guarantee national headlines. For those of us who work and study at the University of Texas, these situations hit especially close to home. The Sept. 28, 2010 shooting incident involving a 19-year-old student remains fresh, especially in light of Thursday's tragedy. In fact, the university’s text message alert system was developed in the aftermath of the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech. In the year since the shooting, many have credited the system for providing critical updates to keep students safe.

The similarities do not end there. UT has its own history of gun violence. Last year’s shooting occurred on the same day the campus was to host an address by an advocate of concealed weapons, and the university has already been a focal point in the national debate over whether to allow concealed weapons on campus. John Woods, a UT graduate student, was on campus during the first Virginia Tech shooting and has spoken out against concealed-carry laws.

I remember the chaos and confusion of that day last September; I was at home but several colleagues of mine were teaching during the shooting. One in particular was teaching in the buildings across the street from the Perry-Castaneda Library referred to as the "Six Pack." In an interesting twist, when the S.W.A.T. team tried to enter her classroom, she initially refused to let in the armed gunmen, highlighting the confusing nature of these scenarios. Video of the event was documented by student cell phone cameras and was uploaded to YouTube.

UT is often referred to as a city within a city. That may be true but, just like any other city, it has open borders. Protecting those who enter is no less difficult than it is anywhere else in a major populated area.

Barry Brummett, professor and chair of the Department of Communication Studies at UT, is a strong supporter of gun rights, yet also suggests that the issue is much more complex than whether or not to allow guns on campus.

"The new shooting incident at Virginia Tech reminds us that university campuses are not the ivory towers people think they are," Brummett states. "The university is porous to the world. As pressure grows to put classes online or 'in the community,' this porosity will increase. Given that, we need to think about how to 'do university' in ways that are sensible adaptations to that porous nature, and that includes the possibility of violence."

I could not agree with Brummett more. To be clear, this isn't to say that “this is just the price we pay for the world we live in,” nor is it an endorsement of a specific legislative policy regarding concealed weapons. Instead, it is a reminder that the solutions are not simple. Regardless of what side of the gun control debate one falls upon, it is important in situations such as these to not fall into our predictable responses when gauging reactions.

Allowing more people to carry guns on campus might solve the problem. It might not. But what is more important is that, try as we might to think otherwise, our colleges and universities are a microcosm of the country at large. They are not locked away separate from the rest of our daily lives.

What the events of Virginia Tech or the the University of Texas should remind us is that these decisions are not easy. Instead, it is important to realize that our university communities can continue to lead the way in how we respond to crises that spread beyond their own borders — whether we like it or not.

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