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Three W.Va. college presidents join national efforts for gun safety

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Three leaders of West Virginia colleges are among more than 300 nationwide who have signed a letter asking lawmakers for stricter gun safety legislation.

The petition, started by two college presidents in Georgia, calls on Congress to oppose laws that allow guns on school campuses and asks for heightened consumer safety standards, a ban of military style assault weapons and increased gun purchasing laws.

Ed Welch, president of the University of Charleston; Scott Miller, president of Bethany College; and Michael Mihaylo, chancellor at Davis & Elkins College, are among more than 300 college presidents who signed the petition issued last month by Oglethorpe University and Agnes Scott College after the Connecticut school shooting.

Miller said the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary hit especially hard on Bethany's campus because Jeff Previdi, a Bethany graduate, lost his 6-year-old daughter, Caroline, in the shooting.

"While Sandy Hook was something that devastated the entire nation, it hit particularly close to home for us. It devastated our campus community. We're a very small, family-like college, and we stay very close with alumni," Miller said.

"It's always been our feeling that we need to take a proactive approach to societal issues because we think we'll be judged more by what we do as individuals, rather than just sitting on the sidelines. We have a duty to adopt policies that provide a safe environment for students."

In 2011, 18 states introduced legislation to allow weapons on college campuses, according to the National Rifle Association. Last year, three states also introduced legislation to prohibit carrying weapons on campus.

"For many years now, our nation's leaders have engaged in fevered debates on higher education, yet lawmakers shy away from taking action on one issue that prevents thousands of young people from living lives of promise, let alone realizing their college dreams. That issue is gun safety," the letter states.

"We are college and university presidents. We are parents. We are Republicans, Democrats and Independents. We urge both our President and Congress to take action on gun control now. As a group, we do not oppose gun ownership. But, in many of our states, legislation has been introduced or passed that would allow gun possession on college campuses. We oppose such laws."

Welch said last week he believes there is a difference in infringing on someone's rights and taking precaution. 

"We need to find a reasonable balance between the right of citizens to possess and use guns and the misuse of assault rifles and other weapons that can cause mass destruction," he said.

In 2010, more than 2,500 young people were killed by gunfire, with about 70 who were elementary school-age children, according to the petition, which cites the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery.

"If those children and teens were alive today, they would fill 108 classrooms of 25 each," the letter says.

The petition isn't the only effort for gun control being led by college presidents since the Connecticut tragedy.

The president of Emerson College, Lee Pelton, has written a similar letter to President Obama, which also has garnered hundreds of fellow education leaders' signatures. A group called Colleges and Universities Opposed to Guns on Campus also has been formed to lead efforts. Bethany College, West Virginia's only national liberal arts school, is involved in both of those endeavors as well.

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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