Last week, the Northeastern University Police Department announced that it would equip some officers with semiautomatic rifles in order to react effectively in the event of active shooter situations on campus. Northeastern is not the first Boston area university to expand its arsenal: The police forces of Boston University, Tufts University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and University of Massachusetts, Boston, already carry semiautomatic rifles. But Northeastern’s decision is particularly notable because it comes in the wake of several high profile mass shootings, and without any coordination with the Boston Police Department or the community, both of which oppose the measure. Though we do not envy the job of university police departments in this age of political myopia around gun violence, Northeastern’s choice is a poor one that underscores just how unmoored from reality our response to mass shootings has become.
The most basic issue with Northeastern’s decision is that it is unnecessary. As Boston Police Department spokesman Lieutenant Michael McCarthy, quoted in the Boston Globe, put it, “I’m not sure I see the need to arm inner-city college campuses with these long guns when their officers already have firearms.” In other words, Northeastern’s officers already have guns, and equipping them with paramilitary weapons for which they will need additional training has no obvious connection to the force’s ability to protect students. Two BPD stations are located within two miles of Northeastern’s campus, and Boston police headquarters is only a half-mile away, making the school within easy reach of heavily armed SWAT teams should a situation develop.
Moreover, Northeastern showed enormous temerity in reaching this decision without consulting local police or community members, the two groups most likely to deal with any unintended negative consequences from the addition of more assault weapons to the area. Incidents like this summer’s killing of an unarmed, off-campus motorist by a University of Cincinnati police officer have a destructive effect on police-community relations and highlight the sometimes-tragic results of poorly trained officers and overlapping jurisdictional boundaries. This is not meant to suggest that the Northeastern police force is unprofessional in any way, but rather to acknowledge that the training of officers in urban neighborhoods demands far more attention, as do the Boston Police Department’s worries about increasing the number of heavily-armed officers in the city.
The Northeastern decision comes in a climate of increased fear on campuses nationwide after shootings like the October tragedy at Umpqua Community College in Oregon. Colleges and their police forces are grasping for ways to protect students and receiving no support from lawmakers, who continue to fail in passing even the most basic gun control measures to stem the violence. While simply arming urban campus police with higher-powered rifles is a poor response to the problem, the search for solutions is understandable and reflects the total paucity of political movement on the issue.
Nonetheless, colleges and universities should have no part in furthering the destructive logic that posits more guns as the only sensible response to gun violence. If anything, more resources for mental health and student support may have a greater preventive effect given the backgrounds of school shooters like the one in Oregon. Ultimately, however, the solution to the problem of mass shootings lies in a real effort at gun control, not in the unnecessary arming of campus law enforcement.
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