On the most recent Admitted Students Day, a day when prospective students and their families visit the St. Mary’s College of Maryland (SMCM) campus, the issue of gun ownership was a surprising topic of conversation. While many clubs came to Montgomery Hall to advertise their club activities to possible new students, the SMCM Chapter of the College Republicans did the same — only the materials they had on display caused minor controversy.
The Point News (TPN) highlights this event as it is demonstrative of the complicated discussions about the Second Amendment and firearms that have been taking place on and around campus. Though the issue of mass shootings has dominated national conversation since the Feb. 14 high school shooting in Parkland, Fl., it struck closer to home for the SMCM community after the March 20 shooting at Great Mills High School, which led to two deaths, including that of the shooter.
Gun violence was also brought to light after four SMCM students were arrested in connection to an on-campus “armed robbery” earlier this year, although despite initial reports it was later revealed that no actual firearm was involved.
The Great Mills High School tragedy was one of the first major school shootings that took place after the Parkland shooting, an event which itself sparked the “#NeverAgain” movement and led to national school walkouts — walkouts that Great Mills students took part in only six days before their own school would face a similar tragedy.
On April 6, Admitted Students Day, members of the College Republicans who were tabling for their club displayed materials related to guns; at least one student was wearing a shirt reading “Gun Rights Matter.”
President of the College Republicans, Grayson McNew, ’19, says that the materials displayed included “swag” like pins, bumper stickers and posters from the Maryland State Chapter of the College Republicans, as well as various “conservative think tank groups.” Pictures from the event show that the club was handing out small, brightly-colored water pistols, alongside a hand-drawn diagram of the water guns that pointed out where to load the “high capacity magazine” and said “NO HQL REQUIRED” at the top. “HQL” stands for “Handgun Qualification License,” which, starting in 2013, became mandatory for Maryland residents when purchasing guns. Although the club holds no formal stances on gun issues or any other political issues, says McNew, the College Republicans in general believe the HQL requirement to be an undue burden on gun owners and in violation of the Second Amendment.
At the Admitted Students Day event, club members were approached by multiple current students and faculty members who found the gun-related materials offensive or otherwise inappropriate for the venue. Professors Amy Steiger, of the Theater, Film, and Media Studies department, and Sandy Ganzell of the Math and Computer Science department, are said to have approached the students about their materials and apparel. Other students, some from the Black Student Union (BSU), also approached members of the College Republicans to say that their display made them uncomfortable.
Steiger responded to TPN’s questions about the incident, saying that she approached the students at the College Republicans table “mostly to support the BSU students who had already confronted them.” She, too, questioned the appropriateness of their materials, “especially given that many Great Mills students would be present.” College Republicans replied that some of their own members, including some of those present at Admitted Students Day, were GMHS alumni, and that their table display and apparel were protected by the First Amendment.
Steiger asked for the name of the club’s faculty advisor with intent to contact them, but later realized that the name she had been given was out of date; Steiger instead notified the Director of Admissions about her concerns.
In an email to TPN, Steiger said, “I didn’t say this at the time, but I think that, while the First Amendment offers legal protection, it doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t consider the consequences their words may have for other people … It doesn’t suggest that you shouldn’t expect to be confronted about what you say, or for people not to point out that your words are harmful.”
Professor Ganzell, who approached the student wearing the “Gun Rights Matter” sweatshirt, later responded to the incident, saying, “I am a gun owner. I tried to explain to the student … that having the right to express one’s opinion does not mean that you always should express that opinion. To be clear, at no time did I question the student’s rights. But I do seriously question his judgement. And I question his choice.”
The student in question posted a photo of Ganzell on his public Instagram, writing in the caption: “To the professor who thought it was appropriate to berate a student for wearing a shirt supporting gun rights: It is my right to wear what I want and while it is my choice to wear something possibly offensive it is also your choice to be offended and harass a student. You should be ashamed of yourself. #freespeech #2a #ptpgun.”
Ganzell continued, saying of the student, “He made a choice to be inflammatory at a time when many in our community are hurting, following the murder of a young woman by her ex-boyfriend using a handgun at a local high school. Instead, he could have chosen to be kind to others. He could have chosen to be thoughtful and caring, and to respect the feelings of other people. Those are also his rights. But he chose not to exercise those rights.”
While many were questioning the appropriateness of the presence of gun materials at an Admitted Students Day event, especially when the shooting at Great Mills High School took place less than a month ago, McNew said, “I think that’s exactly the time or place to discuss these sorts of things. Having these issues up front is something that St. Mary’s College never shies away from.”
He drew contrast to the caravans of students who went to the March for Our Lives in Washington D.C., something that was supported by the Student Government Association (SGA). “This was a national news story, and we’re trying to talk about it here.”
McNew emphasized that he wanted students to be talking about legislative efforts in Maryland that are addressing gun violence, including the Maryland Safe to Learn Act of 2018, which passed at the tail end of the Maryland legislative session and includes requirements for more school resource officers (SROs), like the one who returned fire at the school shooter during the GMHS shooting.
Looking beyond what took place at Admitted Students Day, it’s clear that students and other members of the SMCM community are searching for ways to respond to the issue of gun violence in our community — whether politically, emotionally, academically or socially.
For many, the Great Mills shooting, in conjunction with other gun-related mass tragedies, has sparked activism — a great number of SMCM students attended the March for Our Lives event in Washington D.C. on March 24, with at least 45 travelling there in state vehicles or through carpools organized by the SGA. SGA also organized peaceful protesting and poster making workshops in relation to the event. SGA President Whittni Pickens said in an email to TPN that “the SGA also donated all snacks left over from the events to Great Mills students and also $1,300 for the students” to do with what they wished.
Others have wanted to support the victims of the Great Mills High School shooting, either financially or through compassionate outreach. Assistant Director of Foundation Finance and Administration, Kelley Hernandez, sent around an all-student email on March 23 with links to fundraising pages for the victims of the shooting, as well as information about local fundraisers that were happening in the community.
The SMCM Chapter of InterVarsity, a Christian Fellowship group, organized a card-writing campaign, looking to deliver a hand-written notes of support to every Great Mills High School student in the week they returned to school following the tragedy. On April 10 students from InterVarsity delivered 1,673 cards for GMHS students, as well as notes for GMHS faculty and staff written by SMCM faculty and staff.
Ruby Bassford, SMCM Class of 2019 and an alum of Great Mills High School, felt compelled to respond to the GMHS tragedy through their art—their photo exhibit is now on display in Montgomery Hall. On Facebook, Bassford posted photos of the exhibition and wrote, “Two weeks ago a shooting happened at Great Mills High School. In response to the shooting, something that really hit home, I created an art piece that is displayed in my college’s Fine Arts building: it is a series of portraits of SMCM students that says ‘how many of us have to die in order for things to change?’”
The portraits hang in a long line down one of Montgomery Hall’s main hallways, and in the photos, SMCM students stare solemnly at the viewer, seemingly asking that question.
The SMCM community is at a strange crossroads in this moment that has reached the national stage. The issue of gun violence is, understandably, wrapped up in the emotional fallout that many members of our community are still dealing with, following the shooting at Great Mills High School, especially for local students who were either personally impacted by the tragedy or know someone who was. Students, staff, administrators and faculty at SMCM will all have to continue having these conversations as national attention continues to shine on the issue of gun violence.
If you are feeling like your emotional or mental health has been impacted following these local and national events, please remember that the Wellness Center provides free counseling services by appointment and walk-in hours Monday through Friday, 1-3 p.m.
Editor’s Note 4/19/18: This article has been edited from its original version to clarify Professor Amy Steiger’s account of the events at Admitted Students’ Day, and with updated information from SGA President Whittni Pickens.