Earlier this week a 43-year-old man killed three people and injured five others on the campus of Michigan State University.
The shooting, which occurred on the eve of fifth anniversary of the Parkland school shooting, marked yet another example of what appears to be a uniquely American problem related to the use of guns to create mass casualty events on soft targets like schools, places of worship, grocery stores, parades, and a slew of other events where people gather.
As of February 14, 2023, there have been more mass shootings in America than there have been days of the year. In January 2023 alone, there were 52 mass shootings that left 87 dead and 205 wounded.
Let that sink in for a moment.
This is not a column about repealing the Second Amendment, or creating a movement to take away people’s legally obtained firearms.
This is not a column about the move in some states to loosen laws that seem to make it easier for individuals to gain possession of guns and ammo.
This is also not a column about lawmakers who fail to act to pass simple legislation that could make it harder to get and use guns to kill citizens just trying to go about their daily lives.
No, this is a column about the sad fact that everyday people are unprotected from falling victim to senseless gun violence in the most prosperous country in the world.
While no one is immune from falling victim to the plague of mass shootings, for this column my main focus is mass shooting events on college campuses which represent a small fraction of the hundreds of mass shooting events that occur in America each year.
Since 1966 when a gunman killed 15 people and injured 31 at the University of Texas in Austin, in what many consider the first mass shooting event in America, there have been 12 mass shootings on college campuses where over three people were killed leading to 99 deaths.
Prior to the Michigan State shooting, the most recent college shooting was in 2022 at the University of Virginia where three people were killed and two were injured.
Colleges and universities from sea to shining sea serve as both institutions of higher learning, as well as soft targets for would be mass shooters to prey upon.
Last year, while visiting the University of Florida to be inducted into an Honor Society, I found myself on high alert looking in the shadows for potential threats as I walked the sprawling campus.
Like many other colleges and universities, UF is a large campus that acts like a mini city surrounded by various homes, businesses, and infrastructure with no walls or gates to funnel visitors through central entry and exit points to control who comes and goes.
The same was true for Michigan State University where it appears the gunman entered a publicly accessible building on the edge of campus and opened fire before opening fire in another publicly accessible building full of students.
It is impossible to fully secure a college campus. So, the blame for the shooting does not fall on Michigan State University.
During my tenure as the Public Information Manager for a college, I constantly drilled myself on how I would respond to a crisis communication event on campus. Many of my colleagues thought I was crazy to spend so much time cooking up responses to scenarios that they assured me would never occur.
Then the attacks of September 11, 2001 occurred and we found ourselves faced with the need to evacuate the campus for fear that the highly explosive oil tanks that surrounded the campus would be the next target of the terrorists.
Although, the oil tanks and the campus remained unscathed, from that moment on, my “hope for the best but always plan for the worst strategy” did not seem so farfetched to my previously doubting colleagues.
Although the campus I worked on was small, it was spread out with numerous unsecured entry points. It also lacked armed security officers. While thankfully it never happened, it would have been very easy for someone to walk in off of the street and start shooting.
Unfortunately, like many campuses both then and now, there is really no way to prevent an individual from bringing a gun inside a classroom and creating a mass casualty event.
Of course, in Texas and other states, the response to mass shootings by some lawmakers would be to say that the armed good guys in the classroom would take out the armed bad guys.
There is so much wrong with that statement, but I will leave that for another column on another day.
Like I said, this is also not a column about lawmakers who fail to act to pass simple common sense legislation that could make it harder for people who should not have access to firearms from getting and using guns to kill citizens who are just trying to go about their daily lives.
Since it appears most are unwilling to take proactive steps to prevent gun violence, that leaves us in the category of reacting. Throughout my career in public affairs and strategic communication, I have always held firm to the practice of being first on the scene to deliver credible information while also being transparent about what I do not know during a fluid situation.
There is nothing wrong with saying, “I don’t have that information right now, but I will bring it to you as soon as I do have it,” in the heat of communicating in a crisis.
It is a far worse crisis communication blunder to say nothing at all as a scene unfolds leaving unqualified experts on social media to fill in the voids left by the silence of the official sources.
Based on what I have seen so far, the Michigan State University response to the shooting should be hailed as a textbook example of how to respond to an event.
Multiple jurisdictions worked in harmony with a clear command structure to secure the scene and protect all people on campus. Additionally, regular updates were provided to the media and other concerned individuals while the scene was still active.
That is a stark contrast to what occurred during the 2022 Robb Elementary shooting in Uvalde, TX. The Robb Elementary response should be added as a case study to every crisis communication and law enforcement practitioner as a prime example of what not to do during a mass shooting.
As great as the response at Michigan State was, the simple fact is something needs to be done to stop these mass shooting events from happening.
As a crisis communicator, I was pleased to see the transparent way that the incident at Michigan State was handled.
I will be more pleased if a day comes when crisis communicators and law enforcement personal do not have to respond to calls of shots fired at campuses where people are just trying to learn, or stores where people are just trying to bring home some groceries to feed their families.
America has twice as many firearms per 100 residents as the next country on the list of Top 10 gun owning countries.
We should be better than this.
And yes, I know that there are people who may not know anything else that is in the United States Constitution, but they use the Second Amendment as their lodestar allowing them to collect an arsenal of firearms.
Again, I am not suggesting that the government come and take away everyone’s guns. However, we should not be willing to just accept mass shootings as a way of life and pray that we and those we love are never the victims.
We should demand that politicians make common sense changes to gun laws to make it harder for people to use guns in mass shootings and easier for people to get the mental health resources that they need.
That can be done while still protecting people’s Second Amendment rights as well as all of the other rights outlined in the Constitution.
The real question is whether any politicians are willing to take those steps, or if they will remain content to putting on their shocked and outraged face for the cameras every time someone takes an easy to obtain firearm and kills a bunch of innocent people while crying “lone wolf” to anyone who will listen.
Students of all ages from preschool to grad school should be able to learn in their classrooms without living in constant fear that someone is going to barge in with a gun.
Likewise, people should feel safe going to see a parade, going to their house of worship, or picking up some groceries on the way home without wondering if the sound they heard was a car backfiring or someone firing a gun.
How many innocent people must be killed before politicians acknowledge there is a problem with gun violence in America and take common sense steps to prevent future attacks on everyday citizens?
The number of victims of mass shootings is already in the thousands. Will it have to reach the tens of thousands before people take proactive steps?
Or, will American society be left in a constant state of reaction where praise is given to the first responders who do things right, criticism is heaped upon those who botch the response, and thoughts and prayers are sent out to the victims along with prayers that the violence stays away from the people sending out the thoughts and prayers?
I guess this was a column about urging elected officials to do something about the unacceptable rise in gun violence and mass shootings after all.
Now if you’ll excuse me, as I said during a column last year following the mass shooting at Robb Elementary, I am off to see if I can make sense out of that another senseless act of violence and see what steps I can take to prevent another one.
Copyright 2023 R. Anderson