Gun Rights on College Campuses
It’s been nearly five years since a heavily armed student killed 32 people and wounded 25 others at Virginia Tech University, the deadliest massacre by a gunman in U.S. history.
Since that tragedy, there has been a debate across the country over whether the death toll might have been lower had a student or faculty member in the gunman’s path also been carrying a gun, and had been able to use it to stop him.
With that in mind, legislatures across the country have been dueling over whether firearms should be allowed on college campuses. Last year legislation to allow concealed carry on campus was debated in more than half the 50 states, but many of the bills were deferred. Now, though, with state legislatures in session for the 2012 term, the bills are being debated again and could be passed into law.
In 2011, legislation was passed in Mississippi and Wisconsin that allows anyone with a concealed carrier permit to carry a firearm on public campuses. Similar legislation already existed in Utah and Oregon for several years, and so far this year, two states have been moving toward allowing concealed carry on campus.
In Kentucky, a bill is being introduced that will grant faculty the right to carry concealed weapons. And in Arizona, a bill was passed by the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month. The bill will allow anyone 21 and older with a concealed carrier permit to carry a gun. It will now be voted on by the full Senate and then make its way through the House.
Recently, Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., passed regulations that allow students and faculty to carry firearms on its campuses. More than 25 campuses across the nation allow firearms now, and these schools are “not battlegrounds for killings,” said David Burnett, spokesman for Students for Concealed Carry on Campus (SCCC) .
But the success of pro-gun legislation has not been met without opposition. Supporters of concealed carry say the laws make campuses safer, but those against it say violence will only increase if students and faculty are permitted to carry guns.
At Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., a resolution was recently passed that banned all guns on campus.
"College campuses are safe environments," said Andy Pelosi, executive director for Gun Free Kids, an organization that lobbies for gun bans on campuses. "But we have the potential to make them unsafe."
It’s clear, though, that gun-free policies do not stop people from bringing firearms on campus, as demonstrated by another incident at Virginia Tech last year, and the deadly shooting of five people at Northern Illinois University in 2008.
"The only thing campuses are doing is putting stickers on doors saying 'no murder weapons here,'" Burnett said. "I think we need to be more serious about gun bans. It's a 100 percent failed policy. No shooter walked up, saw a sign on the door and said, 'darn.'"
But Pelosi argues that legislatures that pass concealed-carry laws are ignoring the pleas of university students, faculty and board members to ban weapons on campus. To date, more than 280 colleges and universities across the country have signed a petition to keep guns off campuses. Since the petition began in 2008, universities such as the University of Alabama, University of Wisconsin and University of Virginia have all signed the resolution, called the ”Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus,” as a way to show the "educational community's opposition to such (pro-gun) legislation."
After the Virginia Tech shootings, a council review panel came up with 70 recommendations to prevent a similar incident, and none of them, Pelosi said, had to do with arming faculty and students.
"People who are intent on mass murder don't really care [about gun bans]," he said. "He (gunman Cho Seung-Hui) wasn't worried about what the rules were. Are people going to be able to respond to these incidents and be able to injure and kill a perpetrator? There are many unknowns and these are some of the things that concern us."
But Burnett and pro-gun organizations say the right to bear arms on campus is a matter of self-defense. They say citizens have the right to defend themselves.
"We center less around the national right to bear arms and more about the state right," Burnett said. "The right already exists in one form or another, and colleges are one of the few places where there is a double standard. If you create a specific area where self-defense is more restricted, you create an environment where violence is more attractive to the criminal."
According to the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, shooters -- including trained police officers -- hit their intended target only 20 percent of the time. Thus there is no guarantee that an armed student body could stop a perpetrator with a gun.
But the prevalence of firearms may itself be a deterrent. Colorado State University has seen a significant decline in crime since it began allowing students and faculty to carry concealed weapons in 2003, Burnett said. In 2010, Colorado State proposed a policy to ban campus carry, but stopped efforts several months later, But at the University of Colorado, which bans guns, crime has increased. There also has not been an incident of gun violence on any campus where concealed carry is permitted.
Pelosi nonetheless says more guns on campus will only mean more violence.
“There is no data saying there is a deterrent effect,” he said. “It creates a potential for a more unsafe environment. In dorms? Are people going to carry them in classrooms? What about when there’s alcohol or drugs present?”
According to the Brady Center, almost 20,000 Americans under 20are shot and killed each year, an age range that encompasses part of the college population. In the United States, the campaign reported, almost 100,000 Americans are killed in gun-related incidents every year.
Pelosi also notes that parents may think twice before sending their children to schools that allow concealed carry on campus, and he says faculty have complained that they do not feel comfortable teaching on campuses that allow guns.
With state legislators back in session, the issue of allowing for concealed carry on campus will continue to make its way through states, and SCCC is anticipating more victories. Whether concealed-carry laws will reduce or increase gun incidents at colleges and universities remains unknown.