BLACKSBURG, Va. – The online weapons dealer who sold one of the guns used in the Virginia Tech shootings visited the campus Thursday, a decision the school's spokesman called "terribly offensive."
Dealer Eric Thompson spoke at the school Thursday night as part of a weeklong demonstration in favor of allowing people to carry concealed weapons at colleges.
"For people who want to arm themselves, there shouldn't be policies in place to stop them," Thompson told about 60 students who attended his talk. There were only a few anti-gun questions posed to Thompson, and none of the protests school officials prepared for.
Virginia Tech Police Chief Wendell Flinchum said about 20 officers were in and around Whittemore Hall, where the meeting was held, "to make sure everyone's rights are protected." Six officers stood in the lecture hall.
Thompson visited to support a chapter of Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, which advocates weapons on campuses, but said he paid his own way.
A school spokesman denounced the visit in a statement Wednesday, saying it was "terribly offensive" that Thompson would set foot on campus.
"The organizers appear to be incredibly insensitive to the families of the victims who lost loved ones and to the injured students still recovering from this horrendous tragedy," said the statement issued by spokesman Larry Hincker.
Andrew Goddard, whose son Colin was injured in the shootings, said earlier Thursday that it was Thompson's First Amendment right to speak at the school but added: "I think it's rather insensitive of him, though."
Ken Stanton, president of the university's chapter of Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, said that he lost a friend in the April 2007 shootings and that it taught him "firsthand the importance of self-protection."
Virginia Tech last week marked the first anniversary of the shootings in a dormitory and classroom building in which 33 died, including shooter Seung-Hui Cho.
Cho bought a Walther .22-caliber handgun through Thompson's Web site, based in Green Bay, Wis. Through another company Web site, Thompson also sold handgun accessories to the man who killed five Northern Illinois University students and himself in February.
Thompson pointed to a student's T-shirt that said "Guns Kill." "They certainly do," he said, but added "focusing on guns and focusing on who sold the guns is not going to solve the problem."
Thompson said he doesn't relish the attention he has drawn since the shootings but said he would not turn away from it because he believes politicians need to allow people to protect themselves.
"I just have a feeling there's a special responsibility I've been given," he said, "to try to help change people's opinions."
Goddard said in a telephone interview that he thought the idea of people carrying concealed weapons on a sprawling campus like Virginia Tech's was "absolutely ludicrous."
"It's straight out of the movies," he said. "Bruce Willis can do it because he doesn't have to worry about people shooting back with live ammunition."
Stanton, a Virginia Tech graduate student, said he began receiving complaints about the planned appearance only after Hincker's statement was issued. He said he had never considered carrying a gun until the shootings, in which his friend Jeremy Herbstritt died.
Members of the student group, which claims a membership of 25,000 nationwide and 200 at Virginia Tech, are wearing empty holsters to classes this week to protest laws and policies that restrict concealed weapons on campuses. Thompson said donations from his customers helped him provide hundreds of holsters on nearly 30 college campuses.
Goddard questioned whether Thompson's motivation was to make money by selling more guns. Thompson said he was selling guns at cost for two weeks to help students afford weapons.