Thursday, September 06, 2007

Peace Through War; Security Through Weaponry

September 6, 2007, 6:30 a.m.

Weaponry on Campus: Wrong Reasons, Wrong Result

Republican presidential candidate, Governor Mike Huckabee, asked about his conservative credentials, once said "I'm a conservative all right; I'm just not angry about it."

That's kind of how I am about bringing guns onto the UI campus -- something that looks close to inevitable at this point. I think it's a terrible thing to do, but I'm not angry about it. Just disappointed and sad.

Since I'll be teaching this afternoon while the public meeting is going on, I thought I'd put some of my thoughts into the debate in this way.

We should not be surprised that, since this groundswell of support for weaponry has come out of the wrong governance model, using the wrong process, relying on the wrong reasons, the advocates have come up with the wrong proposal.

For satisfactory policies to emerge there must first be a clear and precisely articulated governance model, allocating responsibilities between policy boards and administrators. The Board of Regents (and Regents' universities administrators) have yet to spell out such a model.

Once responsibility for "ends policies" has been clearly established, the most productive way to create the wisest policies is an ongoing undertaking of the extremely difficult work of gathering data, analysis, and brainstorming, ultimately producing precisely articulated, measurable, shared goals -- unencumbered by the media's focus on the crisis of the day.

Constantly responding to crises, locking barn doors after the horses turn up missing, not only interrupts (if it does not actually prevent) a calm, ongoing policy formulation and review process, it also tends to cloud rational risk assessment and lead to unwise or inadequately-considered policies -- responding to yesterday's exceedingly rare specifics rather than tomorrow's probabilities.

So it was in this case.

Everyone concedes what the Regents are doing is a response to the Virginia Tech tragedy. That may or may not make sense from a public relations perspective -- but it makes absolutely no sense from a policy perspective.

"Aren't you going to do something to make sure it won't happen here?"

"OK, we'll do something, we'll provide our campus police deadly weapons."

"Oh, gee, that's good. Now I know my child will be safe on your campus."
So, even if arming campus police made sense, making such a decision because of the events at Virginia Tech is not a rational time or way to go about thinking about such a policy -- and is likely to result in our coming up with the wrong policy, which in fact has happened in this case.

The public relations advantage, if something does happen -- even though, as is almost always the case, armed campus police could not prevent it -- is that administrators can say, even if inaccurately, "Well, we did all we could."

Of course, they won't have. But they can say they did, and most people will be willing to accept that arming the police really is doing about all the public can expect of university administrators.

The fact is that the UI, and its sister universities, have been quite aware of campus security issues for decades. They have responded to those concerns with sensible policies not inconsistent with an academic institution. Most recently they have been putting in place uses of the new technologies enabling more rapid communication to the entire campus community -- something that would have made a difference at Virginia Tech.

In a rational consideration of weapons policy, uninfluenced by the media's understandably emotionally-laden coverage of Virginia Tech, to the extent that case study would be discussed at all, it would immediately be recognized as an instance in which the fact that the campus police were armed provided no additional campus safety and saved no lives.

1. "Everybody's doing it." I have never found the preferences of others determinative of my own decisions. I observe, I listen, and I sometimes come to the same conclusion as the crowd -- but if so, it is after my own analysis. And so it is in this case that I find revealingly weak the weapons advocates' argument that, "Well, look, we're the only school in the Big 10 without armed campus police." I am interested in the reasons they came to those decisions, their data, their anecdotal experiences. I don't find at all persuasive the mere fact that we stand alone.

Frankly, I think it a matter of some pride that we are different. There is something delightfully "Iowa" about our distinctions in terms of the quality of our K-12 schools, the education of our work force, the work ethic they bring to farm or factory, our friendly Iowa ways, the small towns with unlocked houses and pickup trucks with keys in the ignition -- and, yes, campuses without the presence of guns.

2. "The police would like to have guns." Most of the discussion and debate of armed campus police has been driven by the arguments of the weapons advocates. They have been given the opportunity to draft the documents and make the presentations.

Given the lack of any organized, academically respectable, data-driven, balanced presentation of the issues it is not surprising that they have won over some adherents.

Nor is there nothing to their case; they have some valid arguments; I just think they are more than outweighed by the contrary arguments. Of course, campus police would like to have more guns -- for some reasons that are understandable and other reasons that are far less compelling. Faculty researchers would like to have newer, larger and better-equipped labs -- also for equally mixed reasons, even if providing them would, usually, be far less hazardous than increasing the number of guns on campus.

3. "Guns make us safer." Guns did not make the tens of thousands of dead innocent civilians in Iraq any safer. The $1 billion worth of weapons Russia delivered to Indonesia yesterday won't make the Indonesians safer. The guns American urban gang members carry for "protection" don't make them safer.

Guns in the home don't make the family safer -- they are 16 times more likely to be used against friends and family members from misidentification, children getting them, accidents, deliberate intra-family homicide, and suicides, than used to protect family members from intruders.

Campus police with guns wouldn't have saved our physics department on November 1 any more than they were able to save lives at Virginia Tech. Iowa City's armed police didn't make Eric Shaw safer -- and accidental (and deliberate) deaths of the innocent from police firearms have occurred throughout the country with even greater regularity than locally.

There is no basis for the belief that guns on campus won't create the same risks as they do elsewhere -- including the risk that a campus police officer's gun will be stolen in a scuffle and then used on him or her, or someone else. As others have pointed out, with the number of misdemeanors campus police deal with, there's a real risk of conflict escalating.

At a minimum, campus police with guns will tend to encourage, rather than discourage, the additional possession of guns (both legal and illegal) by others on campus.

4. Where are the benefits? The costs of an always armed campus police are the additional deaths they may provoke. But where are the benefits in this benefit-cost analysis?

(a) There are few imaginable scenarios in which an always-armed campus police would be relevant to solutions. They don't help in tornadoes. They don't help in case of a chemical spill, natural gas pipeline explosion, or derailment of railroad cars carrying nuclear waste.
They are not, now, making any safer those women assaulted on Iowa City's streets at night. (A few hundred more City police might, but arming campus police won't.)

(b) The fact is, our campus police are armed -- just not all the time. So the utility of arming them all the time becomes even smaller. In the rare instances in which having weapons on our campus police might make at least a little rational sense, they can be armed with the weapons they have at headquarters.

Thus, the only time when it might have been useful to have them armed, and they would not be, would be on those even rarer occasions (if any), and those very limited times on those occasions, between the time a campus policeman confronted a situation in which he or she wished for a gun and the backup police (who presumably would need to be called in any event) arrived from headquarters, armed and with an extra gun.

5. Our fragile, precious campus. If you've walked the streets of countries at war, or under military rule, as I have, you know that they have a different feel to them than do the streets of downtown Iowa City.

There are limits to how much security can be provided with locks, fences, surveillance cameras -- and armed guards. There's a risk to life, and you never know when your time may come.

But the data shows that among the safest places in the United States are our K-12 schools, college and university campuses.

I believe that safety begets safety -- not to mention an atmosphere conducive to academic study -- and that "security" begets insecurity.

It's sad and inconsistent enough to have to warn students that they'd better watch their backpacks. But to have to warn them to watch their backs as well is worse. And that's a part of the message we send when they're told there is a need to keep constantly armed police on the campus to protect them from violence.

It's a message I believe is inconsistent with learning, inconsistent with the state of Iowa, and inconsistent with the University of Iowa's proud tradition.

But I'm not angry about it. Just sad.

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Anonymous said...

I share your pain here as someone who grew up in Iowa City of the 70's.

There is no logic to it really. It would not have stopped Gang Lu or things like Va Tech. How long now before a segment of students demands to be allowed to have firearms on campus?

Iowa City has lost a lot of its luster to me, and perhaps some of that is that I still see Iowa City through a child's idyllic vision delivering my papers or going to my grandparents house. I am not sure now I would ever return to Iowa City.

Anonymous said...

Let's look at the data. If campus police are to be armed, then the question is why? Hypotheticals do not matter, because we could be attacked, hypothetically, by uzi-carrying crips from Compton, which would mandate our police not only buy weapons, but also automatic weapons, light armor, and armed vehicles.

The latest report on campus crime ( indicates no murders or manslaughters on campus at the Univ of Iowa. There was one robbery in 2006. That might not have been an armed robbery.

There were 2 weapons violations in 2005 (and not in residence halls) and 4 in 2006 (again not in residence halls).

There were no disciplinary referrals for weapons arrests in ANY YEAR.

So where is the problem? Is it simply police machismo?

Having served at a hospital where the only gun death was that of a police officer, by an intoxicated patient, I can tell you with this record, the largest threat is something going wrong in an arrest. The arrest goes wrong, the violence increases, and a drunk student grabs the officers weapon...with deadly results.

Keeping officers unarmed on patrol, frankly keeps the threat of violence low. In emotional or intoxicated situations, a weapon involved clearly destabilizes the situation. And don't let anyone try to cover up that fact.

Yes there are crazies out there. However a crazy with a firearm is much more lethal than a crazy with a knife or a bat.

One can always look for wisdom to the movies :-)

Doc Holiday with a shotgun emboldened the law enforcement of Tombstone :-)