In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Penn President Amy Gutmann has become the latest in a slew of university leaders urging the federal government to do more to promote gun control, calling the problem of gun violence a “scourge of American life.”
In a statement signed earlier this month by the Association of American Universities’ 11-member executive committee — of which Gutmann is a member — the AAU said that mass shootings like Sandy Hook and Columbine have transformed schools into “centers of national mourning.”
The AAU, which is made up of more than 60 leading United States and Canadian research universities, addressed three areas in which it hopes to see change: gun control, mental health resources and the culture of the contemporary media.
“The reason I spoke out is that keeping Penn safe is a prerequisite to everything else we do,” Gutmann said. “But this is not primarily about safety on college and university campuses — it’s about safety in this country, period.”
Among other things, the statement essentially called for a ban on certain assault weapons.
“Many high-powered weapons that have no legitimate use for hunting, marksmanship or self-defense continue to be bought and sold, as are the high-volume magazines often used by mass murderers,” the statement said. “Increasingly, universities find themselves prevented by state laws from keeping guns off campus and out of the hands of students.”
The statement comes on the heels of a similar call for change by more than 300 other college and university presidents last month, who wrote an open letter to Congress and the president asking for immediate action on gun control.
While Gutmann has generally avoided taking public stances on politically charged issues, she said that gun control and mental health-related matters “are central to what we do at Penn.”
In their statement, Gutmann and the AAU executive board also acknowledged the difficulty of balancing constraints on the media’s depiction of violence with a commitment to free speech, but said that “moral suasion seems clearly required if we are to stem this tide of the media’s addiction to violence.”
Members of the Penn community have responded favorably to the AAU’s public stance.
“I was happy that they were asking some serious questions, that people are finally recommending a more serious understanding of mental health issues in our country,” Counseling and Psychological Services Director Bill Alexander said of the AAU’s calls for better mental health resources.
On Penn’s campus, Alexander added, CAPS established the framework of its current protocol for dealing with individuals with mental illnesses who could pose a threat to the University community following the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting.
This protocol, he explained, seeks to ensure that there is a “network of communications” — which could include a student’s family, Student Intervention Services and others around campus — so that “no one office is isolated in a cell of information.”
Like Alexander, Firearm and Injury Center at Penn Executive Director Rose Cheney applauded Gutmann’s backing of the AAU statement.
“I think the fact that there is a public discourse is absolutely positive,” she said. “If this discourse can be translated into lifting the silence and gags on data and research [related to gun violence], that’s going to be even more critical.”
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