September 8, 2023 5:00pm

UNC should have communicated more with students during shooting lockdown

While mental health resources should be prioritized, many members want to see stricter gun laws

Photo of Leigh Tauss
Research Triangle Correspondent

Terror struck North Carolina’s flagship university on the first day of classes last month, when a doctoral student shot and killed a professor in Caudill labs, sending the campus and area schools into a more than three-hour lockdown. The shooter, doctoral student Tailei Qi, has been charged with first-degree murder for killing Zijie Yan, his academic advisor.

UNC’s tragedy was not as deadly as other school shootings in recent memory, but for the students who hid in lockdown for several hours, the experience was nonetheless harrowing. Our members think UNC’s response to the shooting was mostly appropriate, however, many members think the schools could have communicated more with students during the lockdown.

This month, we asked members to weigh in on what UNC should do to prevent future incidents of gun violence on campus, and while most believe mental health care should be a priority, many feel it won’t be enough with more widespread legal changes outside of UNC’s control.

Most of our members – 67 percent – think UNC did a pretty good job handling the crisis. Of that 39 percent felt strongly that the school reacted appropriately and another 28 percent somewhat agreed. Only 2 percent strongly disagreed with the school’s management of the situation, and another 10 percent somewhat disapproved. Interestingly, 21 percent of folks had neutral feelings toward the school’s response.

It is clear law enforcement had a plan in place and the response, which saw the suspect captured in under 2 hours, may have prevented further deaths. However, there’s no indication that the shooter had any other targets on campus. In another scenario, a 90-minute window before the suspects' apprehension could have resulted in significantly more casualties.

Digging deeper into UNC’s response, most members feel the school could have done some things differently. Overall, a startling 72 percent of members think UNC should have communicated more with students during the lockdown, and about half – 27 percent overall – think the lockdown could have been lifted sooner.
Just 8 percent felt the school should not have lifted the lockdown earlier or sent more communications to students during the unfolding situation while 21 percent were unsure of how to judge the school’s response. No members were in favor of lifting the lockdown earlier without added communication, indicating our members most prioritized communication and student safety over a return to business as usual on campus.

North Carolina lawmakers weakened its gun control laws earlier this year by making it legal to buy a pistol without a permit. The majority of our members view this as a major misstep, with 70 percent of those responding saying they “strongly disagreed” with the law. The law was supported by 17 percent overall, with 12 percent saying they were in strong support of the new policy. This question left few folks in the middle – only 5 percent of members were neutral on the issue.

The topic of gun control usually draws out strong opinions, and it’s clear our members weigh heavily on the side of wanting stronger gun laws.

It is worth noting the shooter is believed to have used a pistol in the attack. It is unclear if he obtained the gun legally.

Looking forward, many of our members – 40 percent – think expanding mental health resources on campus should be UNC’s priority to prevent further tragedies on campus. But a large chunk of respondents – 26 percent – were unsure what the school should do. Seventeen percent of members think increasing school security is the answer, while just 3 percent think promoting firearm education and safety could help prevent the next shooting.

Fourteen percent had other ideas. In the last question, I asked the members who picked this option to expand on what they meant. We received a lot of thoughtful answers, many of which shared a theme of leveraging UNC's power to lobby for stricter gun laws.

Here are some of my favorite responses:

“I am a student at UNC and we had NEVER had a lockdown drill before. Nobody knew what the alarm meant, to barricade doors, or to stay away from windows. We need better student and faculty training.”

“While I imagine students could use more mental health resources, there is likely little UNC can do as long as we have a legislature determined to make it as easy as possible for as many people as possible to have guns.”

“It is impossible for UNC to have prevent this murder. While tragic, if one person wants to kill one other person, it is very hard to prevent that. UNC needs to focus on educating students.”

“It always rests in the schools to fix the problem. It’s much bigger than that, and we should think as a community what needs to change. You can’t prevent senseless gun violence when you don’t have the levers to make the change.”

“I feel most torn by this poll. I presume/hope there was reason for the long lockdown w/ minimal communication. I'm not sure I have enough information to really share.”

“In a single organization, i.e. UNC, or agency or governmental entity can address these issues effectively on its own.

“Lobby the NCGA for common sense gun laws.”

“It shouldn’t be the university having to figure this out, lawmakers need to do that ALL students are safe not just those in the UNC system”

“Vote for better legislators"

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About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of the most powerful, influential people in U.S. cities. It is not a scientific survey. But because the people responding to the surveys comprise the leadership structure of their cities, the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those in a position to make change. Power Poll is distinctly nonpartisan.

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