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April 2008

Gun violence affects N.C. campuses

A little more than a year ago, on April 16, a gunman took the lives of 32 students and faculty at Virginia Tech. Our nation looked on in horror, and those of us who lead universities prayed that such senseless killings would not strike our campuses again.

But they did. In February, five members of the Northern Illinois University community died at the hands of a gunman.

Violence also came to our own campuses in North Carolina, with the senseless murders of Duke's Abhijit Mahato and Carolina's Eve Carson. Their deaths touched our communities deeply, just as fatal shootings had earlier at N.C. Central University, UNC Wilmington and elsewhere in the state.

This month, as we joined the rest of the country in remembering the Virginia Tech tragedy, we have learned to regard campus gun violence not as a television drama but as a life-and-death issue that directly affects universities across North Carolina. We need to do more than light candles and ring bells to remember the students we and others have lost. We must act to prevent such tragedies from recurring.

Universities have much to offer in this process, serving as a source of research, expertise and new ideas for reducing this toll. Indeed, our two campuses and others have many faculty members who could help in this process. At Duke, for instance, Phil Cook has conducted extensive research on the costs and consequences of the widespread availability of guns. Ken Dodge is an expert on guns and gangs, and Kristin Goss' recent book examines the politics of gun control.

At UNC Chapel Hill, Carol Runyan and others are experts on youth violence and handgun violence. Jonathan Kotch and Jon Hussey have studied the relationships between child neglect, aggression and crime. Jack Richman and social work faculty have shown how school performance and community and family concerns relate to risk factors for violence.

They and other faculty members would welcome opportunities to apply their expertise more actively on behalf of the people of North Carolina. We stand ready to help make this happen.

One good place to start would be with the deep systemic problems in our criminal justice system that have been highlighted with the murders of Abhijit Mahato and Eve Carson.

Technology exists to permit law enforcement agencies and the courts to share information about criminals virtually at the press of a button. It is appalling that North Carolina has not invested in systems that would help enable judges, district attorneys, probation offices and police departments to easily share this information. Such problems must not be allowed to persist. They demand immediate action from state and local officials. A common theme in all these tragedies has been that guns were in the hands of people who shouldn't have had them.

Hear us clearly: We are not advocating the elimination of Second Amendment rights. But we do advocate for the responsible use of and access to guns. Our country and state must get serious about keeping guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them, whether it's a troubled student at Virginia Tech or people with criminal records such as those accused in the recent murders on our two campuses. Issues of gun violence aren't simple in their solutions, but we must engage them with far greater urgency.

Over the past year, our schools have undertaken extensive efforts to strengthen their emergency response and communications systems, and to better identify and assist students who may pose a threat. In the end, however, there is only so much we can accomplish while guns remain so easily accessible.

We have had far too many anguished conversations with students who seek to understand why a bright and promising classmate has been shot dead, and with parents who worry whether their own children are safe. The best way to honor the memories of the students we have lost is to change this situation. This is why we pledge to focus our faculty expertise on these challenges and, more importantly, to engage with others in our communities to work together for a solution.

It is also why we believe that we, as a country, need to embrace common-sense laws about guns. This is not about politics. This is about liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, joining together in a reasoned and dispassionate conversation about gun violence on our campuses and across America.

Richard Brodhead is the president of Duke University. James Moeser is the chancellor of UNC Chapel Hill.



James Moeser is chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He welcomes readers’ messages at

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