Biden invites VCU into national discussion

Mechelle Hankerson
Executive Editor

Katherine Johnson
Capital News Service


While VCU isn’t the center of the gun debate triggered by December’s school shootings in Connecticut, Vice President Joe Biden got the university’s help Friday in continuing the national conversation on the matter.

In the wake of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Biden assembled a panel of White House officials, former members of the Virginia Tech Review Panel, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott and three VCU community members: President Michael Rao, VCU Police Chief John Venuti and psychiatry professor Bela Sood.

The official announcement of Biden’s visit cited the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech as the reason for coming to Virginia and involving Virginians in the discussion.

“I think when looking at this problem, mental health is probably one prong of many, many prongs that really, really define what the problem is,” Venuti said.

Photo by Chris Conway

In his remarks, Biden said some states fail to report convicted felons, people with a documented mental disability or incapacity, and those convicted of domestic violence – all people who are prohibited by law from purchasing weapons – to the National Instant Check system. As a result, those people can manage to buy weapons.

Venuti said one way he thinks gun violence can be prevented is to constantly evaluate plans that are in place. Following the Virginia Tech shootings, every public university was required to create and maintain a threat assessment team, which is charged in preventing violence on campus and the “assessment and intervention” of individuals whose behavior is considered threatening.

“On a daily basis, we are constantly working on our plans and preparing our responses,” Venuti said. “We’re always looking for ways to enhance our plans … how can we involve the whole, how can we involve students as being part of the solution so that everything is not just dependent on just the police department.”

In addition to legal ways of preventing illegal gun ownership, Biden’s round-table discussion focused on ways to develop and implement more personal strategies for curbing gun violence.

“There are other things that universities can bring to the table in terms of understanding what causes a lot of these things to be problems,” President Rao said. “Understanding human nature (and) understanding what makes us so complex as human beings is a part of the conversation.”

Although the discussion was closed to the public, in his closing remarks, Biden said the panel discussed universal background checks, gun safety, gun trafficking and the expansion of mental health resources across the country.

“We talked about how we deal with that problem overall in our cities and our counties, our communities,” Biden said of gun violence. He also said the discussion focused on “how we can detect earlier than later” in identifying those who may commit violent crimes involving guns.

Kaine, who previously served as mayor of Richmond and then as governor of Virginia, spoke of the history of crime in the capital city. He noted that Richmond had the second-highest homicide rate in the U.S. when he was on the City Council.

“We don’t have to despair about being able to reduce gun violence. There are things you can do that work to reduce gun violence. You can do them by working together,” Kaine said.

Sood, who was part of the Virginia Tech Review Panel in 2007, said access to mental health resources at universities is another way to avoid large-scale gun violence.

“Did you see the signs coming? Were there things that could have been done to predict that this was going to happen? (That) kind of speaks to the notion of mental health and … the types of things you need to do to implement strategies for access to care (and) appropriate services early on where you pick up and catch things that might be going on.”

Sood said it’s important to have adequately staffed counseling centers on campuses and a way to make sure students in need use the centers.

“The No. 1 issue is reducing the stigma around mental health,” she said. “Students who are having major trouble, who have major diagnoses such as depression, schizophrenia can come out of the woodwork, get an education but also have their mental health needs met.”

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