Proven Tactics to Prevent Campus Weapons Assaults

Experience tells us that, to some degree, campus assaults are usually preventable. The following techniques have prevented hundreds of weapons assaults, and they result in significant reductions in assault patterns when applied appropriately. We must emphasize that not every measure listed here is appropriate or effective for every campus, so it is important to tailor a response for the level of risk at each institution.

While human nature causes us to focus our attention on our most horrific attacks, these are only representative of one type of campus weapons assault. Weapons reduction strategies must address the wide variety of violence that can occur. We must not focus exclusively on specific past events that capture our (and the media’s) attention.

While analysis of specific events can be instructive, too much emphasis on a few horrific yet atypical situations can create extreme vulnerabilities in other areas where problems are far more common. For example, an emphasis on the prevention of targeted acts of violence may result in the exclusion of other types of weapons assaults — such as gang-related shootings — that can result in an otherwise preventable incident.

Policies — Campus policies and procedures governing employee, student, and visitor conduct can be a powerful preventive component. Thinking beyond weapons policies is important, since two things are required for a weapons assault to occur: the presence of a weapon, and the desire to use it. Reducing the level of fights and bullying on campus is one proven method of reducing the risk of a weapons assault.

Consistent application of policies — Even the best policies can become ineffective when inconsistently applied. Increased consistency results in a decreased risk of an attack. Tragically, many campus weapons assaults have happened when administrators failed to follow established safety policies.

Development of procedures to handle weapons incidents — Every institution should develop clear staff procedures for the report of an armed individual, including procedures for situations where a weapon is believed to be present but has not been used as well as for an individual who has brandished or already used a weapon.

Reduction of triggering behaviors — After reviewing hundreds of campus weapons assaults, we have found repetitive patterns. While the media and the general public seem fixated on these horrific — yet rare — multiple-victim events, school officials must use a broader approach, since they are far more likely to be confronted by a non-fatal singular victim shooting, stabbing, or blunt force attack.

Triggering behaviors are one of the most pressing issues relating to campus weapons violence. Among the most common are basic acts of interpersonal violence — the most typical being the fistfight. Campus officials should understand that every fight increases the odds that a weapons assault will take place.

Multi-disciplinary threat assessment — The multidisciplinary threat assessment has become standard practice at many institutions when dealing with students who exhibit warning signs of at-risk behavior. The power of a two-person mental health and law enforcement partnership to conduct a thorough and balanced evaluation of at-risk individuals is a reliably effective means to resolve potentially deadly situations. A single mental health, law enforcement, or administrator’s assessment of an individual is not as effective as a multidisciplinary, team-based assessment.

Access control measures — Often, using technology and practice to establish reasonable access control can help prevent weapons assaults by outside individuals. Without a doubt, truly effective access control at most colleges and universities is quite challenging. Many colleges and universities have tightened access control in selected buildings, as well as to the campus itself. The concept of crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) can often dramatically improve access control passively without creating a prison-like atmosphere.

Criminal trespass warning slips — Criminal trespass warning slips from police have averted countless problems at colleges and universities. Banning high-risk individuals before they commit a serious crime can prevent homicides and aggravated assaults. Used judiciously with suspended/expelled students, terminated employees, known gang members, and others who exhibit the potential for violence, this proactive measure has proven to be a simple but powerful method to avoid violence.

Traffic enforcement — The International Association of Chiefs of Police research has validated traffic enforcement as one of the most effective methods of seizing drugs and firearms. Using aggressive traffic enforcement techniques in the 1990s, Bibb County Public School Police officers halted a series of gang-related shootings near public schools. When drive-by shootings are an issue in the community, intensive traffic enforcement will reduce the odds that this type of tragedy occurs near campus.

Information and educational efforts — The use of video presentations, policy review sessions, posters, weapons-free contracts, PSAs, and clearly written policies can go a long way towards weapons reduction. Clearly communicating state law and your organization’s policies concerning weapons possession on campus can help prevent violations. In addition, students need information on when and how to report another student, visitor, or employee to campus authorities.

Encouraging reporting of weapons possession and behaviors of concern — Efforts to encourage students to bring forward information about weapons and other at-risk behaviors are important. Never assume that students understand how or what to report. At the same time, we know that many weapons violators do not tell others they have a weapon, so other detection measures must also be in place.

Staff training — All staff should receive annual safety briefings on topics including visual weapons screening, warning signs of at-risk individuals, basic security awareness, conflict de-escalation techniques, and others. Staff should be trained on proper reporting procedures for individuals of concern.

Visual weapons screening — Visual weapons screening has helped avert planned weapons assaults around the world. These simple and proven techniques are effective and inexpensive as well. Visual screening involves training staff to note physical behaviors often exhibited by weapons violators due to a direct physical response to the weapon. Training all staff and faculty on this technique is a low-cost way to include all employees in a layer of passive security.

Home search — This simple technique has successfully prevented planned attacks. When campus officials suspect that a student may have a gun, bomb, or other weapon in their residence hall, an attempt to search the student’s room for those weapons should be made. This technique is applicable any and every time a student is caught with a gun, explosive device, or bomb-making components. The search can be conducted with a search warrant (often referred to as a gun warrant) or more commonly through consent. If a warrant is utilized, the items sought should include papers and computer records indicating how the weapon(s) were obtained. This will broaden the scope of the search and often allows seizure of other crucial items such as written plans to carry out an attack.

Metal detection and x-ray equipment — When adapted properly to the situation, security technology can achieve dramatic results. Many colleges and universities have used metal detection to reduce the number of weapons assaults at dances, athletic events, and other special events. However, it is generally not cost-effective nor safe to utilize airport-style screening for anything other than special events, and when performed, only armed law enforcement officers should conduct searches for weapons.

Gun detection animals — Another deterrent is the use of gun detection dogs to check public areas and vehicles for firearms and ammunition. A canine can often detect a firearm or ammunition inside a car from the exterior, and in some cases can detect a gun in a residence hall room from the hallway. We have found the use of detection animals to be a powerful daily deterrent in addition to their presence at special events.

Plain-view vehicle checks — In this technique, officers walk around parking areas looking for visible weapons or contraband. It is amazing how many firearms, knives, and other weapons this technique has recovered. More importantly, the awareness that the technique is in use dramatically reduces the number of weapons in cars on campus. This is an especially effective technique for special events.

Armed officers — On some campuses, it is necessary to re-evaluate views on the arming of campus security personnel. In fact, an increasing number of campus safety agencies are equipping their patrol cars with rifles and carbines because they know this dramatically reduces the chance that there will be a shooting on campus. There is less danger to officers and innocent bystanders when an officer discharges this type of weapon in contrast to a relatively inaccurate handgun. Of course, hiring and training standards must reflect this new responsibility.

When correctly implemented across the entire campus, a comprehensive and realistic interlocking strategy focused on the prevention of weapons assaults and tailored to your institution can dramatically reduce the chances of a weapons assault at your school.

Internationally recognized experts on weapons reduction strategies for campuses, Michael Dorn and Chris Dorn have published 20+ books on school safety and have trained thousands of educators and law enforcement officials across the globe. For additional information and free resources visit their Website