University Shootings Will Only Get Worse. Here Is a Solution

Last week witnessed the final day of classes at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte (UNCC).  It was also the last day of Riley Howell's life.  When a gunman entered his classroom, panic quickly ensued, and virtually everyone ran for the exits — everyone except Riley Howell.  With instincts that precious few possess, and tactics taught by the United States Secret Service, this young man ran toward the danger and tackled the shooter, knocking him off his feet, which enabled first-responders to subdue the gunman.  Howell would pay for this brave and selfless act with his life, an action that apparently surprised no one who knew him.  His friends and family would have expected nothing less from this twenty-one-year-old ROTC cadet, who envisioned a career in the military or in firefighting because putting others first was who he was.  His family stated, as a matter of fact, that had Riley turned and run when the shooter entered the classroom, he would never have been able to live with himself.  Riley Howell died too young, but he died a hero.

The statistics on campus shootings are grim.  Between the 2001–02 and 2015–16 academic school years, 437 people were shot, leaving 167 dead in 190 separate incidents on 142 college campuses.  This includes carnage on the campus of Virginia Tech that alone claimed 32 lives.  Other incidents in the headlines include the University of Iowa (1991, 4 dead), Northern Illinois University (2008, 5 dead, 21 injured ), Oikos University (2012, 7 dead, 3 injured), Santa Monica College (2013, 5 dead, 4 injured), and Umpqua Community College (2015, 9 dead, 9 injured).  This trend of increased violence on college campuses shows no sign of abating. The number of casualties over the last five years represents a 241-percent increase over the number of casualties during the 2001–2006 school years.  There are more ominous clouds on the horizon, including a concerning spike in hate crimes on college campuses.

The UNCC deaths of Riley Howell and another student (Ellis Parlier) will regrettably not be the last on college campuses.  Unlike airplanes and K–12 schools, universities are by their very nature open environments that have no natural choke points that facilitate screening for weapons and stopping those intent on doing harm.  In the nomenclature of the day, universities are your quintessential soft targets.  The lethal combination of large lecture halls (with capacities of several hundred), the attention of students focused elsewhere and ready access to rapid-fire weaponry, classrooms can easily become shooting galleries for those with evil intent.  The time has come for creative ("outside-the-box") solutions to this serious problem.   

A proposal that universities should seriously consider is to offer free or highly subsidized tuition to law enforcement personnel who are committed to advancing their education while carrying lethal force sufficient to neutralize any threat that may arise.  This proposal promises myriad benefits at little or no real cost.

First, this proposal reduces the likelihood of a bloodbath that would almost certainly have occurred at UNCC because we cannot expect every classroom to have a Riley Howell present.  What is more, we should not be asking college students to defend their classmates against the ongoing threat of lethal force.  This is a job for professionals who are trained to identify the threat well in advance of it becoming an "active shooter" situation.   

Second, not unlike the use of air marshals, knowledge of this plan should serve as an effective deterrent to those who would otherwise go unchallenged. The prospective shooters will be less likely to engage the campus environment because they recognize that the odds of success in carrying out their plans have been markedly reduced.

Third, this plan offers the prospect of easing the long held tensions between academia and law enforcement.  The "socialization" of law enforcement personnel with faculty and students should help to improve community relations in the aggregate.  Law enforcement will increasingly be seen on campus as friend, not foe.

Fourth, the quality of the learning environment on college campuses is likely to be enhanced when students can focus on their studies with less concern over the threat that is poised to walk into their classroom mid-lecture.

Fifth, this proposal offers the prospect of a win-win proposition for all parties.  The effective cost to the university for these tuition breaks is negligible.  (The marginal cost of filling an empty seat in a classroom is essentially zero.)  In turn, law enforcement personnel are able to invest in their human capital at virtually no cost to them.  This will serve to complement tuition assistance programs that many police departments across the country already provide.  These supplemental benefits should aid recruiting efforts and partly compensate for the increased risk borne by law enforcement personnel in modern society.

Finally, because these tuition benefits represent a de facto salary increase for those participating in the program, the quality of candidates attracted to careers in law enforcement can be expected to increase. At the end of the day, we can reasonably expect a more highly educated law enforcement community and an increase in the caliber of those attracted to this profession.  This may be expected to further improve relations between academia and law enforcement.

Riley Howell's selfless sacrifice enabled his fellow students to pursue their dreams even though it came at the high cost of never being able to realize his own.  He need not have died in vain.  Because he was armed with the courage to do what few others would, we owe it to him to devise smart solutions to this mounting threat on college campuses and reduce the risk that more students will be needlessly slaughtered.  Godspeed, Riley Howell.

Dennis Weisman is a professor of economics emeritus, Kansas State University.