Content warning: This post discusses gun violence and includes a detailed account of a mass shooting.

Fourteen years ago, on a windy and sun-soaked spring afternoon, I ran out of my dorm room and into the arms of a few of my friends who I had only been able to chat with on and off over AOL Instant Messenger in the hours before. All entrances to our campus dormitories had been automatically locked and no one could move between buildings or even floors. Administrators asked that dormitory phone lines be kept open, but the cell towers were being inundated with calls from family and friends of students to verify their safety and whereabouts. I didn’t know what to feel, but it was an uncomfortable combination of fear and anxiety that made it hard to sit still, but also made me a little numb. The only information outlets were the local news channel and a short series of emails advising everyone to stay where they were, that a gunman was “loose” on campus, and that two people were fatally shot in a dorm not far from mine.

Once the lockdown was lifted, my friends and I gathered at a friend’s apartment just off campus. I wanted to be with my closest friends to watch the news together. In a press conference, the number of fatalities was said to be “at least 20”, but was not confirmed. As we watched over the next few hours, everything came into clearer view, as law enforcement and emergency personnel began carrying body bag after body bag from Norris Hall, and my anxiety turned slowly into dread. When the final death toll was announced, the dread turned to shock and disbelief. 33 people dead: 32 victims and one shooter.

If you have been a student (or parent of one), instructor, administrator, or other employee of a higher education institution within the last 13 years, you likely signed up to receive emergency safety communications via text message notifications, tweets, emails, and/or phone calls. Those systems and apps exist because of the shootings at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007. The initial system, launched by Virginia Tech for its students and surrounding community, was fairly primitive compared to the robust processes that exist today. The system I subscribed to in graduate school several years later was extremely efficient, sending text messages with information about the nature and location of an emergency or dangerous situation, as well as recommendations or orders from local law enforcement with regard to the situation, which were followed immediately by an automated phone call.

The shootings in Blacksburg, turned a universal spotlight on campus safety on college campuses around the country. What is encouraging is that higher education institutions have continued to improve their systems to be both accessible and timely after learning from what Virginia Tech had to learn the hard way: inefficient emergency communication costs lives. On the morning of April 16th, over two hours passed after the first two victims were killed when emergency notifications were sent via email, a recorded message posted on the emergency/weather phone line, and a news release posted to Virginia Tech’s website. As I prepared for a presentation in my chemistry lab, though, I did not check my email before leaving my dorm to walk across campus to the lab. And because there was no reason to think twice about the mild weather that morning, I didn’t even think to call the emergency line or check the main page of the website. Apparently, I wasn’t alone, because I met a crowd of about 50 other students at the edge of the drill field, looking across at the scene of campus and local police, state troopers, and SWAT personnel in front of Norris Hall. The sound of gunfire told us we needed to get back home. There’s no telling how different that day could have been if those emergency messages had been sent sooner and directly to each person.

Although April 16th revealed major faults in the overall safety and security measures on college campuses, one of the driving factors behind the major improvements to safety and communications systems is compliance with the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA), an amendment to the Clery Act of 1990, signed in 2008 as a result of the Virginia Tech shooting. The HEOA requires universities receiving federal aid to issue reports with specific campus safety statistics and outlines emergency notification requirements that were not in place on April 16th. So, while campus safety is surely a concern, we can’t ignore that policy was a real motivator here.

But what laws were passed to prevent the threat of gun violence that was the impetus for strengthening these systems in the first place?

Over the years, mass shootings have only increased in frequency and the annual death toll from firearms in the U.S. has risen to nearly 40,000. Much of the national conversation about gun violence refers to it as a “public health crisis” (for a detailed explanation, this fact sheet from the American Public Health Association is a great resource). I think this is related as much to the burden to the health of our communities as it is to the type of approach to take toward reducing that burden. As we have witnessed throughout the pandemic over the last year, a public health approach requires collaboration among all of the actors who work to promote and protect the health and safety of their communities. This includes community members, scientists, educators, government agencies, healthcare workers, law enforcement, community-based organizations providing safety net services or mutual aid, just to name a few. It also includes legislators and policymakers at the local, state, and federal levels.

When it comes to gun control policy, it’s not breaking news that Congress has, for years, failed to take a united stand in an effort to reduce gun violence. Bills from many sponsors have moved on and off the House and Senate floors, usually ending in a stalemate along party lines. Lawmakers say there is not enough evidence to show that the proposed restrictions are actually effective at decreasing injury and death as a result of gun violence. But for more than two decades, a law prohibiting the use of federal funds for research on firearms to gather that crucial evidence was a major roadblock. Fortunately, as reported by the New York Times, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) can now fund research examining effective gun violence prevention strategies. The hope, some say, is to “pave the way for gun policies that avoid partisan gridlock – and ultimately save thousands of lives.”

To put this into perspective, the National Center for Injury Prevention Control, Department of Violence Prevention has committed over $7 billion in research grant funds to 16 different firearm injury prevention studies. Each of these studies is funded for two or three years. That’s two or three years more that we have to wait for the data that will hopefully help lawmakers actually pass legislation that both parties can agree on. While each of these research projects ultimately aims to shed light on policies, practices, and behaviors that can prevent and reduce the number of gun-related deaths and injuries, the fact is we still don’t have the data that will convince Congress. In the meantime, mass shootings will continue to claim hundreds of lives every year in places such as school and work, at grocery stores, concerts, nightclubs, movie theaters, and wherever we begin to gather again once it is safe to do so.

Gun violence is an extremely complex issue (and encompasses much more than mass shootings) that will require a complex solution and intersectoral collaboration, which is why a public health approach is not only appropriate but necessary. The data on effective strategies of gun violence prevention may be scarce, but it does exist. In the Policies That Work to Reduce Gun Violence Forum, experts in public health, criminal justice, psychology, policy, and medicine present evidence to support strategies that can help save lives. And states are taking steps toward gun control and its many facets. To see what policies and initiatives you can support in your state, you can search the library of state gun laws managed by the Giffords Law Center.

I lost friends and classmates that day in 2007, as did so many of my fellow Hokies. And the horror and sadness felt by our entire university community is something I hoped no one would ever experience. 14 years later, though, our story is the story of too many others, those in Atlanta, Boulder, and now Wilmington being the latest to be affected. At the time of the Virginia Tech shooting, the only similar tragedy we had to compare to was the shooting at Columbine High School (which was an hour away from where I was living in Colorado at the time). But now, the list is too long to remember the names of all the cities or schools. Restoring funds for gun control research is an important step in identifying promising strategies to improve gun control and save lives. But it’s not the only step and it shouldn’t be the first. What is clear with every day that passes, is that inaction at the federal level only results in more lives lost to guns.

By Project Manager Beleny Reese for HOP’s series of monthly staff blog posts.

Image source: New York Times