Guns at Brandeis — A Year Later

About a week and a half ago, Brandeis saw something that had never happened before.  Several Public Safety officers responded to an on-campus incident by drawing their firearms, the first time that has happened since the guns were issued last June.  After the fierce debates over arming campus police last year, there’s been surprisingly little said about the decision now that it has gone into effect, so I think this incident is as good an excuse as any to revisit the initial controversy and take stock of what we’ve learned since.

The incident in question occurred Friday, April 24th.  The Hoot described the circumstances:

According to [Director of Public Safety Ed] Callahan, a responding public safety officer had been looking at footage from a closed circuit camera placed in the quad after receiving a call about marijuana use near Shapiro residence hall when a scan of the quad revealed a huddle of male students by Deroy residence hall holding what appeared to be a small caliber firearm.

The officer watching the live feed waited until the group of boys pulled the back slide of the fire arm back and forth—something that could not be done on a toy gun— and then put the gun in a paper bag before responding to the quad with armed officers….

Once on the scene, the officers drew their semiautomatic handguns from their holsters in order to secure the scene before ordering the three male students to put their hands in the air and to get on the ground…

Unlike most others on Innermost Parts, I was not involved in Students Opposed to the Decision to Arm last year, and I never had a problem with the idea of arming our officers.  It was clear to me that Public Safety considered access to a firearm a necessary precaution in their job and that officers felt perpetually vulnerable without one.  I understand and respect the concern that many students had about changing the culture on campus by introducing weapons.  However, I’ve never had any reason to doubt the intentions and competence of Public Safety, and I felt that all necessary precautions were being taken to make wielding firearms as uncommon and controlled as possible.  If I do not trust an officer of the law with a gun, then I don’t trust him to be a police officer at all, and I never felt that this level has been crossed at Brandeis.

This incident only serves to strengthen my conviction that arming Public Safety was the right decision to make.  Because it took so long for firearms to be drawn, we can see that it is only under the most critical of circumstances that they will be employed.  In fact, the only reason they were drawn at all was in response to an illegal weapon, and though the student’s gun turned out to be a relatively harmless pellet gun, the threat of bodily harm to the officers was still all too real.  In a broader sense, I don’t feel that guns have become the uncomfortable presence that many feared they would be, and I’ve never heard anyone suggest otherwise.  The idea of students possessing illegal firearms is far more troubling to me, and we now know this to be a reality (the Hoot story mentions that this wasn’t the first firearm apprehended this year).  There is comfort to be found in the knowledge that these situations can be dealt with safely.

Still, I feel that SODA’s efforts last year were noble, and there have been tangible and positive effects coming from the outcry that students raised.  The increased emphasis on student rights we’ve seen this year comes directly from the concerns that were shared last year.  The formation of the Office of Student Rights and Advocacy, the distribution of “Know Your Rights” magnets, and the support and progress towards a Student Bill of Rights all owe something to the vocal presence of SODA.  The Senate Social Justice Committee put on some great events like the Search and Seizure Forum under the leadership of SODA member Lev Hirschhorn, and Innermost Parts itself might never have been founded had it not been for the reaction against arming.

Ultimately, the anti-arming movement was successful in some respects, even if they weren’t the goals it initially had in mind.  Healthy debate is never a bad thing, and the fact that students showed how much this issue meant to them could have something to do with the transparency over our one firearm incident.  But we should all be glad that a threatening situation was safely diffused, and it’s important to note that this is exactly what arming the police was for.