Op-ed: We're afraid, and can you blame us?

Sunday, March 24, 2019 - 3:28pm

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I was sitting with my two best friends in a dorm room, laughing after an afternoon of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, when one of us received the first text from a friend. “There’s an active shooter in Mason Hall,” he said to me. “That’s not a funny joke to make,” I responded, hoping he was kidding but knowing he wasn’t from the serious look on his face. This initial message, followed by many more, sent us into a frenzy of checking all our group chats, texting and calling everyone we knew and telling them to stay away from the Diag, stay indoors and stay safe. My brother was in the Shapiro Undergraduate Library, and I had to beg him in a series of texts to interrupt his exam studying and call me, thinking he was a minute away from an active shooting. The only sound among the three of us for the next 30 minutes was the tapping of our phone screens and the static of an online police scanner that we should not have been listening to.

Saturday’s false alarm was stressful and damaging for a variety of reasons — the University of Michigan’s blatant emergency response problems, the further trauma inflicted on the Muslim community, the spread of misinformation and conflicting rumors that heightened fear. But what struck me most deeply about this event was how, despite it being a false alarm, students were instinctively preparing for the worst. The second that an initial report went out, and before the University or the Division of Public Safety and Security or any news source addressed campus, students sprung into a variety of immediate, fear-driven actions. An unconfirmed report with no official comment gained instant credibility and led to prompt student response. But living in the United States, can you blame us?

Columbine. Virginia Tech. Sandy Hook. Parkland. Growing up in a country that from 2009 to 2018 had 57 times more school shootings than other industrialized nations, is thinking that the University of Michigan could join the list of places national tragedies have occurred irrational? The recent, targeted shooting at two New Zealand mosques was the first mass shooting to occur in the nation in over 20 years. Conversely, the United States has had a conservative estimate of 90 mass shootings since 1997, according to an open-source database by Mother Jones. In a study published earlier this month by The BMJ, it was shown states with weaker gun laws had more mass shootings, and there are more mass shootings in areas with higher rates of gun ownership. But even outside of these horrific stories that are oftentimes claimed by conservatives as being sensationalized, the United States still has the highest rate of murder and manslaughter by firearms in the developed world. It’s hard to not see the connection between access to guns and harm.

Being exposed to this scale of gun violence has pushed the threat of an active shooter situation to the forefront of my mind more than a few times, and that weekend made that fear all the more prominent, while making me more sensitive to an issue I have been culturally trained to tune out. This is something I know that many of my fellow students have felt too. This is the time to channel that fear and concern into productive dialogue about gun policy and emergency procedures.

The gun debate in the United States is tense and passionate. But as much as our current political climate has made us feel increasingly polarized on either side, the only way to achieve what should be a common goal among all Americans — decreasing deaths — is by considering the data, looking to international comparisons and enacting compromises that bring us closer to safe gun regulation. Because as of now, I see no reason why roughly a third of American gun owners have been able to buy their guns without a background check. So instead of screaming “no guns, yes guns” at each other from opposite sides of the chamber, why don’t we enact common-sense gun laws that will keep the volume of guns down while ensuring that the remaining firearms are in the hands of nonthreatening citizens?

The events of last weekend have caused a lot of residual stress within our campus climate, but there is potential for it to be used for beneficial progress, both politically and within the University community. In the foreseeable future, continue to demand the University has a line of communication about its emergency response measures, and actually give your input on how they can be improved upon. Use these spaces to encourage the University to enact clearer and more comprehensive active shooter protocols to keep us safe in the instance of an actual emergency. And in a continuous push, contact your local and national representatives. Press gun control as a platform plank. Keep it at the forefront of the conversation and don’t wait for another tragedy to occur. Work so the next generation doesn’t have to be so afraid.

Erin White can be reached at ekwhite@umich.edu.