U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Jackson State University alumnus, said on Monday the proliferation of gun ownership and its resulting violence in America contributed to the fatal shooting of a student over the weekend at an on-campus apartment complex. 

“I’m not certain that in the greatest democracy, in America, that we just ought to walk around with guns on our hip just because some folks said we can do it,” Thompson told reporters in Jackson on Monday. “In a civilized society, I’m convinced we can do better.” 

The shooting that killed Jaylen Burns, a senior industrial technology major from Chicago, prompted the university to cancel classes Monday and is still under investigation. It came on the tailend of a homecoming weekend where the university had increased security in an effort to address repeated concerns from students and faculty about safety at the historically Black university in Mississippi’s capital city. 

“This loss is devastating and unfathomable to the JSU community, it does not represent who we are,” Elayne Hayes-Anthony, the temporary acting president, said in a statement Tuesday. “It further undercuts our mission to cultivate an environment where students come to love and to evolve as individual and free thinkers.” 

Burns’ killing is the most recent incident that has led to calls for improving campus security at Jackson State. Last year, on Feb. 1, the first day of Black History Month, the university was one of several HBCUs across the country and in Mississippi to receive bomb threats. In December, a deceased student who had been shot was found on campus, according to multiple reports.  

Since Hayes-Anthony became temporary acting president, the university has been working on fencing the campus off from its surrounding community just west of downtown Jackson, a request that several students and faculty made during a listening session earlier this year

“It’s not necessarily Jackson State that’s unsafe,” said Elijah Karriem, a senior journalism and media studies major who is the president of the Jackson State NAACP chapter. “It’s the city that we’re living in. Jackson State is collateral damage.” 

Jackson Police Department spokesman Sam Brown said the office wouldn’t comment.

At the same time, there is more the university could be doing, Karriem said, adding “we have to have security in our security.” 

“This wasn’t during homecoming, this was after homecoming,” he said. “When all your alumni, family and friends went away and went back home, where were the security measures then?”

Karriem lives at University Pointe Apartment Complex where Burns was shot. Last year, he said his roommate was held at gunpoint and his car was stolen. Even though University Pointe has a security box, Karriem said he doesn’t see guards staffing it.

The on-campus police can take longer than they should to respond, Karriem said, despite new golf-cart-type vehicles. 

But it’s not just about the university, Karriem said. Individual students, faculty and the Jackson State community also have to grapple with what they could do in their daily lives to address gun violence. Tonight, the NAACP chapter is holding a town hall to give students the space to do that. 

“We all have to take accountability for what has transpired,” Karriem said. “We cannot solely blame the university for the lack of security. When it comes down to it, you can get mad, you can do all you want to do, but we have to stop this.” 

He knew Burns — they had taken a journalism class together a few years ago. Whenever they saw each other on campus, Karriem said they would stop and say hello. 

Valencia Green, a sophomore political science major who volunteers with Jackson State University Students Demand Action, which advocates for policies to end gun violence in the U.S., said the violence that led to Burns’ death was preventable.

“Despite my generation literally dying in our classrooms, homes, and communities, our politicians have chosen a path of inaction,” she said.

Thompson said that on the federal level, the Biden administration has made several grants available to help HBCUs improve security, which he said Jackson State has applied for. 

“I’m not certain there’ll ever be enough money to guarantee anybody that something won’t happen,” he said.

Political reporter Taylor Vance contributed to this report.

UPDATE 10/17/23: This story has been updated to reflect that U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson made his comments to reporters. It has also been updated to include additional comments.

Higher education reporter at Mississippi Today in partnership with Open Campus.