Umpqua Community College, the site of the latest mass shooting, has grappled firsthand with the complex questions of gun violence, opting last year against having armed guards and developing plans to deal with an active shooter after a fatal incident at a nearby high school in 2006.
The college — along with all other public institutions in Oregon — was forced to allow guns on campus after a 2011 court ruling, but Umpqua does not allow students to carry them into classrooms, which was where Thursday’s tragedy unfolded.
Former UCC President Joe Olson, who retired in June after four years, said the school had no formal security staff and just one officer on a shift. One of the biggest debates on campus last year, he said, was whether to post armed security officers on campus to respond to any attack.
“I suspect this is going to start a discussion across the country about how community colleges prepare themselves for events like this,” he said.
Across the country, from statehouses to Capitol Hill to federal courtrooms, the debate over whether students should be able to carry firearms on campus, whether the nation needs to rein in gun rights in the name of public safety and how to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill continues with little in the way of progress.
An outraged President Obama weighed in Thursday night on the side of more restrictive gun laws, a position many Democratic lawmakers support.
“This is a political choice we make — to allow this to happen every few months in America. We collectively are answerable to those families who lose their loved ones because of our inaction,” Mr. Obama said before turning his fire on the National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups.
“We need more guns, they’ll argue, fewer gun safety laws. Does anybody really believe that?” he said. “There are scores of responsible gun owners in this country. They know that’s not true.”
Mr. Obama has sounded a similar call after shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, Charleston, South Carolina, and other sites of tragedy across the nation. Some Democrats quickly cited the incident Thursday as the reason they believe Speaker John. A Boehner, Ohio Republican, should reverse course and bring gun control legislation to the floor of the House — a move that seems virtually impossible in the current political climate.
Previous efforts to push gun control bills through Congress in the aftermath of mass shootings have failed.
In 2013, a coalition of senators tried to enact background check measures in the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Although the measure garnered a small level of bipartisan support, it ultimately died amid strong opposition from the National Rifle Association and other groups.
Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin, who is overseeing the investigation of the Oregon campus shooting, was among those opposing the legislation. He sent a letter to Vice President Joseph R. Biden in 2013 after the Sandy Hook shooting, saying he and his deputies would refuse to enforce new gun control restrictions “offending the constitutional rights of my citizens.”
While the president and other gun control proponents argue that the U.S. needs more laws, a majority of Americans disagree. Forty-seven percent of Americans say the nation needs more restrictive gun laws, according to recent Gallup polling, even amid a rash of shootings across the country in recent years.
Since the 2012 Newtown massacre, there have been at least 142 shootings on high school and college campuses. Just this year, there have been 45. Although homicide rates in the U.S. are the lowest in decades, the number of multiple-victim active-shooter events has jumped to about 16 percent in the past seven years, according to FBI statistics.
After Newtown, the NRA rolled out its own plan to post armed guards at the nation’s schools, arguing that a “good guy with a gun” is the only way to stop a deranged shooter bent on killing innocent people.
On college campuses, lawsuits have been filed challenging restrictions on carrying guns while others are openly defying laws allowing firearms on campus.
In July, a Michigan man filed a lawsuit claiming the University of Michigan violated his constitutional rights when it denied his request to openly carry a gun on campus. Similar lawsuits have been filed in other states.
At the other end of spectrum, more than 160 professors at the University of Texas this week signed a petition saying they would ban their students from carrying guns to class, even though a new state law allowed students to do so. Amid all of those developments — and with Congress unwilling or unable to pass federal gun legislation — both sides of the debate have found common ground on the need to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.
Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon running for president, said Thursday that the focus should be entirely on mental health, not on gun laws.
“That happens every time we’ve had one of these incidents. Obviously, that’s not the issue,” he told radio host Hugh Hewitt. “The issue is the mentality of these people, and we need to be looking [to] see if there are any warnings, clues we can gather that will help us as a society identify these people ahead of time.”
But identifying the mentally unstable and preventing them from buying guns has proved to be a serious challenge.
Some states, such as Virginia, have made progress and enacted their own mental health reforms. The state’s package included steps to update psychiatric bed registries more regularly and give judges more power to require evaluation and treatment of those with mental illness.
At the federal level, Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, last month proposed a bill to strengthen federal background-check systems while beefing up programs to treat the mentally ill. But even that legislation highlights the deep divides on the issue.
Mr. Cornyn’s bill, for example, reportedly would require court action before barring gun purchases by veterans declared incompetent by the Veterans Affairs Department. Those veterans can’t get guns, and critics say the change would be dangerous.
“Sen. Cornyn would make it easier, not harder, for seriously mentally ill people to access guns,” said Arkadi Gerney, a gun policy specialist at the liberal Center for American Progress.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.