Just one day after state officials assembled to roll out a raft of proposed school safety legislation, a lockdown at the University of Rhode Island triggered by reports of a gunman on the South Kingstown campus brought new immediacy to what has become a national conversation about guns.
No guns were found at URI, nobody was injured and the lockdown, which started in the late morning, was lifted by mid-afternoon.Gov. Lincoln Chafee said the activity at URI – “fortunately it was a non-incident at the end,” he noted – “is a great opportunity to assess our response. “Thank goodness it was not a real violent event,” he added. “It was not a drill, you try to simulate the urgency of the moment in a drill, but this was beyond that.”
Asked of the response, which brought the State Police, Campus Police and police officers from South Kingstown and several surrounding communities to the campus was a overreaction in light of the fact that no gun or gunman has been found, Chafee said, “we’ll assess that, this is the opportunity, but I don’t think you can ever overreact these days, though.“We’ll assess, if it had been a real shooting, the effectiveness of our response,” he said.
The incident started at the John H. Chafee Social Science Center, a building named for Chafee’s late father who, like his son, was a U.S. Senator and governor of Rhode Island.Chafee said that, as he sat at the Wednesday press conference, his mind went to the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech University that killed 32 people and he started thinking, “we’re talking about K-12 schools here, but we still have the possibility of a higher education incident.” Col. Stephen O’Donnell, head of the Rhode Island State Police agreed with Chafee that, “you can never react inappropriately” in sending officers to respond to such a situation “because if it is the real deal, you might need that assistance.”
“We’ll figure that stuff out with an after-action report,” O’Donnell said. “But when someone rings a bell, we respond.”O’Donnell said he is confident that “the person, really in their heart believed there was a gun, even though they didn’t see it, but someone said ‘I have a gun,’ and next thing you know it becomes viral because of social media and people talk and call 911.”But, O’Donnell emphasized, “We found no evidence of a firearm or an active shooter or any shooting at URI (Thursday). He said he doesn’t believe it was a hoax.
“The person who called police, without question, was concerned for her safety and other people’s safety, based on the national conversation we have with guns. She did the right thing by calling us, all of us would rather respond and have nothing happen than have a late response or inappropriate response if something did happen.”Whether or not the man whose statement touched off the incident – there are several variations, but it is believed he said something along the lines of “I’m a good guy and I have a gun – was trying to foment an incident, O’Donnell couldn’t say.
“Whatever that person’s motive was, we don’t know yet,” he said, “we’ll question that when we locate the person.”Asked whether the statement “I am a good guy and I have a gun,” could be a political statement in light of National Rifle Association spokesman Wayne LaPierre saying after the Newton, Connecticut school shootings in December that, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," O’Donnell said, “there’s no way of knowing that without talking to the person who said it. When someone makes a comment like that, we have to respond, there’s no way of turning back, we have to pay attention to it.”As for whether the incident might have sprung from a “Humans vs. Zombies” game among college students, O’Donnell noted that “It is Zombie Week at URI, so it is a possibility, everything is on the table, for me to say it is one thing or another, we don’t know.”“The whole area was tense,” reported state Sen. Susan Sosnowski, whose district includes the URI campus.“I think it clearly opens up the discussion once again about not just arming campus police, but creating some kind of special team be activated in case of something like this,” Sosnowski said.