In the wake of tragic shootings at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University, a group called Students for Concealed Carry on Campus formed to advocate for the “right” of students and faculty to carry concealed handguns at colleges and universities in the United States. More specifically, the groups were actually the product of the gun lobby, who organized and funded their activities. The National Rifle Association (NRA) and other pro-gun organizations had been lobbying for years to liberalize America’s concealed carry laws, and more recently they set their targets squarely on America’s universities.
Now, increasing numbers of conservative lawmakers are pushing for new laws that would allow students to carry and possess firearms on college campuses.
It’s a flatout terrible idea — young kids under stress and away from home, hormones, alcohol, drugs and oh yeah, let’s throw firearms into the mix.
Most Americans don’t support the idea of allowing guns on college campuses. In a 2001 nationwide study, researchers interviewed thousands of people to examine public attitudes about gun carrying. An overwhelming 94% of respondents said they oppose laws that would let people carry guns on campuses, and over two-thirds of respondents felt less safe as more people in their community began to carry guns. According to the authors of the study, “by margins of at least nine to one, Americans do not believe that “regular” citizens should be allowed to bring their guns into restaurants, college campuses, sports stadiums, bars, hospitals, or government buildings…The public believes that increased gun carrying by others reduces rather than increases their safety. Overwhelmingly, the public believes that in many venues gun carrying should be prohibited.”
That opposition reaches every part of the country, every demographic group and even every part of the Republican coalition. Men oppose it by a 7-to-1 ratio. Republican voters oppose it by 6 to 1. Residents of the South oppose it by more than 5 to 1.
Colleges don’t want these laws either. In Idaho, lawmakers dismissed opposition from all eight public university presidents, the state Board of Education, faculty senates, and student associations. Beyond the safety concerns, school administrators also cite significant financial burdens. Last weekend, Idaho State University said it would cost $600,000 to beef up campus security in the first year alone if legislation that overrides no-carry gun policies at Idaho’s colleges and universities becomes law.
And yet, many Republican lawmakers – fueled by the deep pockets of the gun lobby – continue to exploit an erroneous interpretation of the Second Amendment to push for the “right” to carry guns on college campuses. On April 16, 2007, the day of the “Massacre at Virginia Tech,” in which 32 innocent college students and faculty lost their lives to a crazed gunman armed with two semi-automatic pistols and a couple hundred rounds of ammunition, the first reaction of the gun lobby was that we need more guns on the college campuses of our nation. That’s correct. Before a single funeral was held for any of the victims of the Virginia Tech tragedy, and before anyone even knew who the victims were or the perpetrator was, the gun lobby called for college campuses to be turned into armed camps. The gun lobby also wants to repeal the Federal Gun-Free School Zones Act and arm public school teachers.
Was this is a reasonable response to the unspeakable tragedy at Virginia Tech – to think society should eliminate gun-free campuses? Do the students of the nation want classrooms to be filled with guns? Would the parents of those students want to select schools for their children where the teachers, staff members, and even the students, were armed? Would putting guns into classrooms contribute to robust academic debate and foster a climate of learning? Does it make sense to give guns to binge-drinking college kids, or let college sports fans bring guns to to stadiums? What about suicidal students or those in need of psychological counseling? How will more guns help them? Is “more guns on campus” the only answer our society can come up with in response to horrific gun violence on a college campus?
The gun lobby doesn’t want you to consider these questions. Actually, they don’t really care about your opinion on these issues at all. For them, profit is the bottom line, and the best way to increase profit is to sell more guns. And how do you sell more guns? By letting more people carry more guns in more places – and using scare tactics to delude people into believing that owning a gun confers protective benefits (it doesn’t).
The ‘research’ behind the NRA’s “more guns, less crime” claim (first proposed by pro-gun activist John Lott) has been repeatedly debunked by leading scholars, and this past fall (2013) the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research released a report detailing the evidence that thoroughly discredits the “more guns, less crime” hypothesis. In the report, the investigators conclude that, “[t]he research showing crime-reducing effects of RTC (right-to-carry) laws, including Lott’s, has been carefully reviewed by a National Council of Research panel of experts, and others, and has been found to have serious flaws. The most consistent finding across studies which correct for these flaws is that RTC laws are associated with an increase in aggravated assaults.”
And still, the NRA and their cronies in office use this claim to push for dangerous laws that the vast majority of Americans oppose.
On issues related to gun policy, the already blurred line between lawmaker and lobbyist is obfuscated further by the seemingly inexorable demands of the gun lobby. In fact, many of the recent bills that would allow guns on campuses were actually drafted by the NRA — and in Idaho, where just last week Republican lawmakers passed legislation that would require public universities to allow guns on campus, it was NRA lobbyist Dakota Moore who presented the bill in its first Senate committee hearing instead of its sponsor, Republican Sen. Curt McKenzie.
The power of the gun lobby is rooted in multiple factors, among them the aberrant vehemence and absolutism of many gun owners and the NRA’s demonstrated ability to motivate its most fervent members to swarm their elected representatives and silence the opposition of the popular vote. But there’s little doubt that money, the political power it represents, and the fear of that power and money, which the NRA deftly exploits, have a lot to do with the group’s ability to repeatedly control the national debate about guns. Whether that fear is justified is an intriguing question —but it clearly exists.
And that’s what leads to comments like these, from Republican lawmakers in Georgia, who recently passed a bill through the state House that would allow guns in churches, elementary schools, restaurants, libraries, airports, bars, college campuses, and pretty much anywhere else you can think of:
“This is about making sure we do everything possible to protect and expand rights of Georgians under the Second Amendment,” according to House Speaker David Ralston. “We are not going to back down on that. If a college student is otherwise by law entitled to carry a firearm, the best question is should they yield that constitutional right when they go on a college campus?”
And this, from Georgia’s Republican Governor Nathan Deal, in an interview with the Associated Press:
“When you get to the real philosophy behind all of it, the question is whether government in any form or fashion has the right to make those judgment calls, or does the Constitution speak for itself. That is where the debate is.”
Actually, no. The alleged “right” to carry guns on a college campus is not a Second Amendment issue, nor is it a constitutional issue. It simply is not. If the prohibition of guns on campus violated the Second Amendment, the NRA and its supporters would have challenged it in court and won a long time ago. They’re not exactly shy about doing that kind of thing. And if barring guns from certain places violated the Second Amendment, the state would have to dismantle the metal detectors at the state Capitol and at every courthouse in the state.
More directly, the U.S. Supreme Court, in its landmark Heller decision establishing a personal right to bear arms, took the time to make it quite clear and explicit:
“The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings …”
So this is not a legal issue or a constitutional issue. It is, or ought to be, a common-sense issue and a public safety issue. But when a measure opposed by voters by more than a nine-to-one ratio nonetheless becomes a priority for passage, it tells you a lot about how distorted and even perverted the gun-safety discussion has become.
Frequently lost in the national debate is the fact that our nation’s colleges and universities are some of the safest places in our country in large part because their campuses, in almost all cases, have remained gun-free.
The overwhelming majority of the 4,314 colleges and universities in the United States prohibit students and faculty from carrying concealed handguns on campus (the exceptions include public colleges and universities in Utah; Blue Ridge Community College in Weyers Cave, Virginia; and Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado). Despite high-profile shootings like the ones mentioned above, homicides at American colleges and universities remain rare events.
A 2001 study by the U.S. Department of Education found that the overall homicide rate at postsecondary education institutions was 0.07 per 100,000 of enrollment in 1999. By comparison, the criminal homicide rate in the United States was 5.7 per 100,000 persons overall in 1999, and 14.1 per 100,000 for persons ages 17 to 29. Another study, conducted by the Department of Justice, found that 93% of violent crimes that victimize college students occur off campus. This research demonstrates conclusively that students on the campuses of postsecondary institutions are significantly safer than both their off-campus counterparts and the nation as a whole.
The discrepancy in violent crime rates was largely attributed to the fact that nearly every academic institution has adopted strict policies to keep firearms away from the classroom and other campus environments. Our colleges and universities are safe sanctuaries for learning, and they would be endangered by the presence of concealed handguns for the following reasons:
1) Concealed handguns would detract from a healthy learning environment;
2) More guns on campus would create additional risk for students;
3) Shooters would not be deterred by concealed carry permit holders;
4) Concealed carry permit holders are not always “law-abiding” citizens;
5) Concealed carry permit holders are not required to have law enforcement training; and
6) Firearms are immensely more likely to be used to intimidate, threaten, or harm another person than to be used in self-defense.
1. CONCEALED HANDGUNS WOULD DETRACT FROM A HEALTHY LEARNING ENVIRONMENT
In order to foster a healthy learning environment at America’s colleges and universities, it is critical that students and faculty feel safe on campus. If concealed carry were allowed on America’s campuses, there is no doubt that many students would feel uncomfortable about not knowing whether their professors and/or fellow students were carrying handguns.
There is even a name for the negative effects of increasing the number of guns in public places: the “weapons effect.” The weapons effect is a phenomenon described and evidenced for in the scientific field of social psychology. Originally described by Leonard Berkowitz and Anthony LePage in 1967, the weapons effect refers to the mere presence of a weapon or a picture of a weapon leading to more aggressive behavior in humans. In other words, knowing that people around you are carrying guns makes you more likely to act aggressively and impulsively. Describing his findings, Dr. Berkowitz stated, “Guns not only permit violence, they can stimulate it as well. The finger pulls the trigger, but the trigger may also be pulling the finger.”
Since the first study by Drs. Berkowitz and LePage, other researchers have validated the findings by replicating the original experiment — and in a review of 56 published studies on the weapons effect, researchers confirmed that the mere sight of weapons increases aggression in both angry and non angry individuals.
Students and teachers must be able to express themselves freely in classroom environments, where discussions frequently touch on controversial topics that arouse passion. The introduction of handguns on our campuses would inhibit this dialogue by creating fear of possible retaliation. Whether it’s a classroom debate, a student-teacher conversation about a grade, or an informal interaction in a dormitory; the presence of hidden handguns would restrain the open exchange of ideas that is so critical to the college experience.
Americans, in overwhelming numbers, believe that guns have no place at our colleges and universities. In one national survey, 94% of Americans answered “No” when asked, “Do you think regular citizens should be allowed to bring their guns [onto] college campuses?”
2. MORE GUNS ON CAMPUS WOULD CREATE ADDITIONAL RISK FOR STUDENTS
Allowing concealed carry permit holders to bring handguns onto college campuses would raise a host of public safety concerns for institutions that have a legal duty to provide secure environments for their students, faculty and visitors. As noted in a 2007 report by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, there are four reasons why gun violence would be likely to increase if more guns were present on college campuses: (1) The prevalence of drugs and alcohol; (2) The risk of suicide and mental health issues; (3) The likelihood of gun thefts, and; (4) An increased risk of accidental shootings.
A 2007 study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found that “nearly half of America’s 5.4 million full-time college students abuse drugs or drink alcohol on binges at least once a month.” Another study found that alcohol is involved in 95% of the violent crime on campus. The combination of alcohol, drugs and guns is a dangerous mix that could lead to additional, and more lethal, violence on campus. A 2002 study by the Harvard School of Public Health compared students who have a firearm at college with those who do not have a firearm. They found that students who have a firearm at college are more likely to binge drink, drive a motor vehicle after binge drinking, use illegal drugs, vandalize property, and get into trouble with the police.
Suicide and mental health are also substantial issues on college campuses. One study found that 24% of college students had thought about attempting suicide and 5% had actually attempted to kill themselves. Firearms, of course, make many types of violence more lethal. Suicide attempts are successful more than 90% of the time when a firearm is used. By comparison, such attempts are fatal only 3% of the time when a drug overdose is the method used. One study that examined college student suicide from 1920-2004 found that, “It is the reduced use of firearms as a method of suicide that is responsible for virtually all of the benefit associated with being a student … and that the relationship between student status and firearms may be the key to understanding why students commit suicide at a lower rate than does the general U.S. population.”
Allowing concealed handguns on campus would also increase the risk of gun theft and accidental shootings. College dorm rooms are typically small, with few places available to lock up or secure a handgun. They also experience considerable numbers of visitors who could gain unauthorized access to these firearms.
3. SHOOTERS WOULD NOT BE DETERRED BY CONCEALED CARRY PERMIT HOLDERS
This ignores the fact that homicides and shootings at American colleges and universities are rare events in large part because of these institutions’ current policies regarding firearms on campus. In 2003, for example, there were 11,920 total gun homicides in the United States, but only 10 total murders on the nation’s college campuses.
The gun lobby also conveniently overlooks the evidence that completely undermines their claim that shooters target certain locations because they are known to be gun-free zones. In an analysis of 62 mass shootings over the last 30 years, investigators found that “not a single case includes evidence that the killer chose to target a place because it banned guns. To the contrary, in many of the cases there was clearly another motive for the choice of location.”
Campus shooters are also frequently suicidal. Most of the campus shootings in America in recent years (i.e., Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois University, Louisiana Technical College, etc.) were murder-suicides. These shooters left home on the morning of their attacks knowing they were going to die by gunfire before the day was over—their goal was simply to take as many people with them as they could. It is extremely unlikely that these shooters would have been deterred by the knowledge that their fellow students (or campus faculty) might be armed. In fact, it is possible that a college campus that allows students and employees to carry concealed handguns might provide a more attractive target to such shooters. Lacking any fear of death, they might welcome the opportunity to provoke shootouts and crossfire among relatively untrained concealed carry permit holders in order to increase casualties.
In the same study mentioned above, investigators found that armed bystanders did not provide help in any of the 62 mass shootings – rather, they increased the numbers of innocent people killed: “In cases in Washington and Texas in 2005, would-be heroes who tried to take action with licensed firearms were gravely wounded and killed. In the Tucson mass shooting in 2011, an armed citizen admitted to coming within a split second of gunning down the wrong person—one of the bystanders who’d helped tackle and subdue the actual killer.”
There have also been numerous incidents in recent years where shooters have targeted what might be deemed “gun-full zones” for their attacks, including:
May 8, 2006—Michael Kennedy, 18, attacks Fairfax County Police Sully District Station in Virginia, firing more than 70 rounds and killing two officers before police are able to take him down. Kennedy is armed with five handguns and two rifles, including a semiautomatic AK-47 assault rifle, and carries more than 300 rounds of ammunition.
May 19, 2007—Jason Hamilton shoots and kills his wife at home and then attacks a sheriff’s department at Latah County Courthouse and a church in Moscow, Idaho. Hamilton kills a total of three people, including a police officer, before taking his own life. He is armed with an AK-47 assault rifle and an M1 carbine despite a long history of domestic violence, mental illness, and run-ins with the police. Local resident and University of Idaho student Pete Hussmann, 20, races to the courthouse on his bike armed with a .45 caliber handgun and is shot four times by Hamilton. “It was like a war zone,” says Hussmann. Two other law enforcement officers are wounded.
There is no evidence that shooters, particularly those who are suicidal, would be deterred from attacks on college campuses by concealed carry permit holders. To the extent that they could provoke firefights with such individuals in crowded college classrooms and create additional mayhem, they might even seek out such confrontations.
4. CONCEALED CARRY PERMIT HOLDERS ARE NOT ALWAYS “LAW-ABIDING” CITIZENS
The gun lobby frequently claims that those with permits to carry concealed handguns are “law-abiding citizens,” or even the most law-abiding citizens in their communities. In reality, this is far from the truth.
Two states, Alaska and Vermont, do not even require residents to obtain a permit to carry a concealed weapon. Individuals in these states can buy a handgun through an unregulated private sale (no background check required) and then carry it in public.
Thirty-eight states have a “shall-issue” (i.e. “right-to-carry) policy for concealed carry permits, meaning that officials may not arbitrarily deny an application to those who meet a basic set of requirements. The primary requirement for obtaining a permit in these states is to pass a background check through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). The purpose of the background check is to ascertain whether the applicant is prohibited under federal law from owning and purchasing firearms. While those with felony convictions are banned from purchasing firearms, misdemeanor charges do not prohibit firearm purchases or ownership. Someone who obtains a concealed carry permit in a shall-issue state could have a rap sheet with other types of misdemeanor convictions, including violent offenses.
The National Instant Criminal Background Check System is also not foolproof. A recent study found that the NICS database is “deeply flawed” and missing millions of disqualifying records. Most troubling, nine out of ten mental health records that would disqualify individuals from purchasing firearms are not currently in the database. One-fourth of felony conviction records have also not been submitted to NICS by the states.
The bottom line is that even if someone passes a background check and qualifies for a concealed carry permit (if their state requires one), that person is not necessarily a law-abiding citizen. They could have a substantial criminal record involving misdemeanor offenses, or a history of mental illness. It is notable that campus shooters including Gang Lu, Wayne Lo, Robert Flores, Biswanath Halder, Seung-Hui Cho, Latina Williams and Steven Kazmierczak passed background checks in acquiring the firearms used in their attacks. Some possessed a concealed carry permit in their home states; others would have qualified had they applied. Finally, individuals who are prohibited under federal law from owning or purchasing firearms can still pass a background check (and potentially qualify for a concealed carry permit) if their disqualifying records have not been transferred to NICS.
Research has demonstrated that those who obtain concealed carry permits can pose a threat to public safety:
A Violence Policy Center study found that Texas concealed handgun license holders were arrested for weapon-related offenses at a rate 81% higher than the general population of Texas aged 21 and older (offenses included 279 assaults, 671 unlawfully carrying a weapon, and 172 deadly conduct/discharge of a firearm). Between January 1, 1996 and August 31, 2001, Texas concealed handgun license holders were arrested for 5,314 crimes—including murder, rape, kidnapping and theft.
A 2007 investigation by the Florida Sun-Sentinel found that the state’s permit system had granted concealed carry permits to more than 1,400 individuals who pled guilty or no contest to a felony, 216 individuals with outstanding warrants, 128 individuals with active domestic violence restraining orders, and six registered sex offenders.
Among the perpetrators involved in 62 mass shootings over the past 30 years, eighty-percent obtained their weapons and permits legally.
5. CONCEALED CARRY PERMIT HOLDERS ARE NOT REQUIRED TO HAVE LAW ENFORCEMENT TRAINING
The 48 states in the U.S. that allow residents to carry concealed handguns do not require them to have any formal law enforcement training. The training requirement to obtain a concealed carry permit in a “shall-issue” state is typically a day class. Many shall-issue states do not even require the applicant to fire his/her handgun at a range to demonstrate proficiency or even basic competency with the weapon. An example would be Virginia, where a four-hour sit-down session in a classroom is sufficient to meet the state’s training requirement.
This is in direct contrast to the intensive training required of law enforcement officers who are currently called on to safeguard our nation’s colleges and universities. These officers start receiving training in how to safely handle a firearm—and in demonstrating discretion in using lethal force—long before they ever see actual duty in their communities. This training then continues throughout their career in law enforcement. Police departments typically require their officers to qualify 1-4 times a year with their duty weapon.
Nonetheless, even trained law enforcement officers rarely hit their targets when firing at other human beings. One 2006 study examined three decades of bullet hit rates among larger U.S. police departments and found that officers hit their targets approximately 20% of the time. The New York City Police Department’s Firearms Discharge report for 2006 showed similar results. That year, their officers intentionally fired a gun at a person 364 times, hitting their target only 103 times— a success rate of 28.3%. Commenting on that success rate, New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said, “When you factor in all of the other elements that are involved in shooting at an adversary, that’s a high hit rate. The adrenaline flow, the movement of the target, the movement of the shooter, the officer, the lighting conditions, the weather … I think it is a high rate when you consider all of the variables.”
Given the record of trained law enforcement officers, how often would relatively untrained concealed carry permit holders hit their targets when opening fire on college campuses? Recent shootings on America’s campuses have occurred in crowded classrooms and involved a great deal of chaos, with students panicked and running for their lives. Concealed carry permits holders discharging their weapons in such situations would be unlikely to have clear lines of fire. If multiple students drew handguns, just identifying the actual “shooter” or target would be challenging. The potential for collateral damage is enormous, even assuming that concealed carry permit holders would make sound decisions about when to discharge their handguns.
Law enforcement officers responding to such emergencies would also face enormous difficulties. If police arrived on the scene of a campus shooting and found multiple students with handguns drawn, how would they know who their target is? This scenario was contemplated by the Virginia Tech Review Panel, which commented: “If numerous people had been rushing around with handguns outside Norris Hall on the morning of April 16, [2007,] the possibility of accidental or mistaken shootings would have increased significantly. The campus police said that the probability would have been high that anyone emerging from a classroom at Norris Hall holding a gun would have been shot.”
The notion that individuals with concealed carry permits are going to make prudent decisions about when to discharge their firearms on school campuses is dubious at best; as is the notion that these individuals would successfully take down active shooters while avoiding collateral damage in chaotic situations. The safest policy to limit potential violence is to prohibit students and faculty from keeping handguns on campus and allow trained law enforcement officers to provide for campus security.
6) Firearms are immensely more likely to be used to intimidate, threaten, or harm another person than to be used in self-defense.
After all, while gun advocates make grandiose claims about the Second Amendment being designed to enable armed citizens to resist government tyranny, no sane person believes individuals armed with handguns and rifles would stand a chance against a trillion-dollar 21st century military backed by vast surveillance systems.
But protecting one’s family, home or person? That seems sensible enough. If guns make us safer, as they say, then having a gun for self-defense isn’t an irrational choice… until you look at the evidence.
Despite the fact that there are more than 200 million firearms in private hands in the United States and 48 states now allow some form of concealed carry, instances in which law-abiding citizens successfully shoot and kill criminals are exceedingly rare. In 2005, there were a total of 12,352 gun-related homicides and an overall total of over 30,000 gun deaths in the United States. Yet, during the same year, the FBI reported only 143 justifiable homicides involving a firearm. A 2000 study by David Hemenway of the Harvard School of Public Health concluded that, “Guns are used to threaten and intimidate far more often than they are used in self defense. Most self reported self defense gun uses may well be illegal and against the interests of society.”
In fact, guns are used 5-6 times more often to intimidate and threaten than they are used to thwart crime, and victims of crime who are in possession of a gun are 4.5 – 5.5 times more likely to be shot during the crime than unarmed people. According to the FBI’s Crime in the United States report for 1998, for every instance that a civilian used a gun to kill in self-defense, 50 people were murdered with firearms – and another 75 were killed in firearm accidents and suicides.
We live in a country where people are shot – and often killed – during arguments over the most trivial things — like barking dogs, loud music, Xbox’s, and allowing a puppy to urinate on the wrong lawn. With a gun murder rate about 20 times the average of other industrialized countries, it’s hard to argue with Dr. Hemenway’s conclusion: “Where there are more guns, there is more homicide.”
The laws set to pass in states like Idaho and Georgia would require public universities to allow guns on campus. This legislation would prevent colleges from setting their own gun policies—and will make students, staff and faculty less safe.
When the gun lobby uses the Second Amendment to justify their militant pro-gun ideology, they are displaying one of two things: a fundamentally flawed interpretation of the Constitution, or a blatant misrepresentation of the truth. Either way, the Second Amendment does not guarantee the right to carry a gun on college campuses. The fallacious proposition that the Second Amendment prohibits any and all restrictions on gun ownership and carrying is manifested in the legality of semi-automatic assault weapons in the United States and the ability of people like Jared Loughner to legally purchase guns from a store. Soon that list will include the legality of concealed weapons on some states’ college campuses, to the detriment of the students, universities and ultimately, the nation.
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