It was a productive start to a long weekend. While I was visiting friends at UC Berkeley, we decided to study at Doe library, the only worry on our minds being our looming final exams. The soft afternoon wind pushing through the high windows was the only sound that filled the quiet hall — until it wasn’t.
Loud popping noises abruptly pierced the silence, followed by terrified screams. Heads started slowly lifting from laptops and notebooks, pulled out of their studying trances. They lingered, scanning the room and searching the faces around them for clues as a cloud of agitation set in.
When the screams intensified, every student in the crowded library jumped out of their seats like clockwork. Some ran out of the room and smashed a window, opting for the 15 foot jump over the confines of the library. Others began to barricade themselves into the room, shutting off the lights and huddling in the corners. There was no hesitation. No one said a word, but the silence spoke volumes.
We later found out that the noises were actually caused by a campus club playing a balloon popping game outside, not an active shooter. But that didn’t make the experience feel any less real. Perhaps the most upsetting aspect of this bizarre incident to me was that everyone’s mind automatically assumed it was a school shooting. There was no pause to peer out the window and check for the source of the sound. We were in America, a country that makes up nearly a third of the world’s mass shootings despite only housing about 4% of the world’s population. Of course it would be a shooting. As one of my friends put it, unsolicited loud noises have become “the modern equivalent of yelling fire in a crowded room”
While many liberal politicians are starting to back stricter gun control legislation, there lacks a direct focus on the protection of students which has resulted in over 292,000 students witnessing this sort of gun-driven terror at school before even reaching college-age. Lawmakers need to narrow their immediate focus toward banning guns from school grounds, K-12 and college campuses alike, especially as 2021 saw the largest number of school shootings in the past two decades.
As of today, there are no federal laws that explicitly restrict guns on college campuses, leaving the decision to the discretion of each state. Only 16 states have enacted a ban on concealed weapons on campuses. K-12 campuses, on the other hand, have slight federal protection through the Gun-Free School Zones Act that aims to regulate gun possession in and near these schools. However, the act has a major loophole that exempts those who are licensed by a state to carry a handgun. Given that this law was enacted back in 1990, and there have been over 300 K-12 school shootings since then, something clearly isn’t working.
It would be tragically naive to imply that simply banning guns from these campuses would completely prevent gun violence from occurring. However, minimizing the accessibility of these weapons and replacing them with non-lethal alternatives if needed, is a start.
Currently, 33 K-12 schools lack definitive laws against faculty carrying guns and, as of 2012, around 75% of university police departments carried guns. Despite this freedom, some states are fighting for even looser gun restrictions on school grounds, and others are making it easier than ever to obtain a gun in the first place.
What initiatives like these fail to acknowledge is that adding more guns to the equation won’t decrease gun violence rates and may actually do the opposite. Many of the states that are fighting for these looser restrictions, and that are already allowing faculty to carry guns, are also the states with some of the higher rates of gun-induced deaths.
Take, for example, the California public school teacher who accidentally shot a student during a safety demonstration, or the Alabama public school teacher who unintentionally fired a gun in a classroom, injuring a first grader. Teachers are trained to educate, not operate lethal weapons.
The risk that comes with having these weapons in close vicinity to students in the first place is palpable. Over the past five years alone, there have been numerous instances of guns being left accessible to students due to negligence of the faculty in possession of these weapons. Given that the number of children that have accidentally fired guns, whether that be at home or in public, has only increased during the pandemic, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
On college campuses, the necessity of armed university police departments has been a topic of debate in recent years, with many students explaining that the presence of these armed university police makes them feel unsafe and agitated. It’s not hard to see why. In Georgia, 21 year old student Scout Schultz was shot and killed by university police when he was experiencing a mental health crisis. In Cincinnati, an unarmed civilian was shot and killed by university police during a minor traffic stop. There is already immense distrust in policing systems, with public confidence in police dropping to 48% in recent years. Given that a majority of campus crimes are property related, it seems excessive to have university police so heavily armed.
In today’s day and age, the desire of those working at K-12 or college campuses to be equipped for disaster is unfortunately understandable. Addressing the general lack of gun control in America that causes much of this fear is a much bigger beast to tackle, one that is slowly being chipped away at by democratic lawmakers across the country. While gun laws continue to spark controversy, students deserve for schools to be undisputed safe spaces, and securing K-12 and college campuses by replacing guns with non-lethal alternatives would prevent putting students at any further risk.
I haven’t been able to get the incident at Doe library out of my head since it happened and neither have the friends that I was with. The blur of moments keeps replaying in my head. The way my stomach dropped to the floor as yells and clusters of pops filled the air. The desperate dash to the back of the room, sliding under the table so frantically that someone’s laptop charger got tangled around my neck. The shaking mass of bodies coiled together, frantically texting loved ones but not knowing what to say.
This sense of fear, this collective trauma, has been instilled into American youth from a young age. Growing up and watching one massacre after the other on the news, one can’t help but wonder if it’ll happen to them. This wasn’t my first active shooting lockdown experience at an educational institution, and it wasn’t for my friends either. Until lawmakers are able to implement strict federal laws that make it more difficult to obtain and carry a gun in public, these weapons must at least be cleared from the classroom. After all, the goal should be to protect students, not guns.
Art by Angela Liang for the UCSD Guardian.