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  • Alan Cohen, Staff Writer

Opinion: The Willamette community must focus more on gun violence prevention

Art by Lucy Devlaeminck.

As gun violence rises in the Salem community and across the country, Willamette students are left without a space to raise awareness, form community or take action to end gun deaths in the community. 

Gun violence is not a uniquely American problem, but the country ranks among the highest in gun-related incidents. According to NPR, the U.S. rate of gun deaths per capita is more than eight times higher than the rate in Canada and nearly 100 times higher than in the United Kingdom. Gun violence is also not an issue of the past, as the number of active shooter incidents in 2021 rose 52.5% relative to 2020 according to Pew Research Center, which also reported a record-high number of suicides involving firearms. 

The problem of gun violence has affected most cities in the United States, and Salem is not an exception. On March 7, 2024, a shooting at Bush’s Pasture Park ended the life of a 16-year-old high school student and wounded two other minors less than a mile away from the Willamette campus. Shortly thereafter, all Willamette students received emergency alerts to avoid the area. On April 6, another shooting took place at a different Salem park and ended with one person dead and another injured. 

There has been a 100% increase in shootings in Salem since 2018, and the city now has a higher violent crime rate than Eugene, Gresham, Bend, Hillsboro and Beaverton, according to the Statesman Journal

However pressing and visible the issue is in the Salem community, very few spaces at Willamette are ever dedicated to talking about gun violence, largely due to privilege and lack of exposure.  Willamette students are disproportionately white and middle- or upper-class and therefore do not face the burdens that those most susceptible to crime face every day, such as homelessness, food scarcity or discrimination. These factors, along with socioeconomic status and substance abuse, have been linked to higher rates of gun deaths and injuries. 

Likewise, the Willamette community enjoys many university resources — like free counseling and medical checkups, a highly trained campus safety team, and accessible services — which most members of vulnerable populations do not have access to. This privilege and lack of exposure render many individuals unaware of the issue of gun violence and make any student-led efforts to advocate against gun violence virtually nonexistent.

Just because most Willamette students are not personally affected by the issue does not mean they should not talk about it, raise awareness and take action to address it. Many academic programs and student organizations at Willamette focus on important issues like criminal justice reform, the rights of individuals in custody, the rights of undocumented immigrants and systemic racism, among others. But Willamette has yet to provide a space for students and faculty to talk freely about gun violence, share perspectives and experiences, engage with the broader community and enact political change to address the issue. 

The university has the agency and resources to conduct research on gun violence and incorporate it into academic programs, which is an effort that other institutions are starting to undertake. For instance, after the shooting that killed 17 and injured another 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, the University of Virginia created a research initiative for gun violence prevention and a call to action for “a change in mindset and policy from reaction to prevention.” Such initiatives are nonexistent at Willamette even after the rise in shootings in Salem and several mass-casualty incidents in other Oregon towns and schools

Likewise, the student body has the power to raise awareness, foster community with those personally affected and advocate for reform. Student-led initiatives and movements like Team ENOUGH, March for Our Lives and Students Demand Action attract thousands of student activists around the country but lack any significant presence at Willamette. 

Although most shootings take place on the street or in other public spaces, universities are by no means shielded from gun violence. On Feb. 13, 2023, a gunman entered the Michigan State University campus and killed three students and wounded five. On Aug. 28, a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill opened fire on campus and killed a professor. On Oct. 3, five people, four of whom were undergraduate students, were shot at a homecoming event at Morgan State University in Maryland. On Dec. 6, three people were killed and one injured in a shooting on the University of Nevada, Las Vegas campus. On Feb. 16, 2024, two students were shot dead in a residence hall at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. 

Willamette students, faculty and staff must not observe silently as other communities face these preventable tragedies. They can happen anytime, anywhere, and action starts with awareness.

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1 Comment

May 02

Article concedes  the burdens that those most susceptible to crime face every day, such as homelessness, food scarcity or discrimination. These factors, along with socioeconomic status and substance abuse, have been linked to higher rates of gun deaths and injuries. More homelessness and substance abuse in Salem might be the real reason for the up tick. I was up there last month only to see Salem has grown more homelessness and drug issue's on every street corner, making me afraid to visit your city. Action starts with helping get those 2 things addressed. Oregon has the 40th-highest rate of gun homicides and gun assaults in the US. In Oregon, 66% of all homicides involve a gun, compared to 76% nationwide. Talking…

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