On Thursday, a gunman opened fire on the campus of Umpqua Community College in southern Oregon, killing at least 10 people and injuring at least seven more. Just minutes after the incident was first reported, pro-gun activists and conservative commentators had already determined that guns were absolutely not the problem — rather, they said, it was a lack of guns that allowed this incident to happen.
As Media Matters documented, even in the early moments as facts concerning the shooting remained scarce, conservative commentators immediately began referring to the campus as a “gun-free zone” on CNN, Fox News, Fox Business Network, the Drudge Report, and other right-wing websites, suggesting that the campus was targeted because it was gun-free. According to this go-to pro-gun talking point, shooters intentionally target gun-free zones such as college campuses for their attacks because they are unlikely to receive initial resistance.
“The gun free zones are the areas that tell licensed gun owners that you are not allowed to carry your weapon in this facility…If you’re going to perpetrate some act, you know that most people are not going to be armed,” CNN “military analyst” Rick Francona said just minutes after the shooting.
Minutes later, retired Navy Seal Jonathan Gilliam, also appearing on CNN, took things one step further, blaming the “gun free zone” for the scope of the tragedy and adding “the only thing that’s going to stop a gun is another gun.”
But in their haste to blame anything but guns, conservative media seems to have overlooked one minor detail: Umpqua Community College was not, in fact, a gun free zone.
In 2011, as part of the gun lobby’s push to force guns onto college campuses, an Oregon court handed down a ruling that explicitly prohibited public colleges from banning guns on campus. In response to the court decision, which stemmed from a lawsuit filed by a pro-gun group called the Oregon Firearm Education Foundation, Democratic state lawmakers, college and university leaders, and gun-safety groups rallied to try to pass a new law that would reinstate the ability of public colleges to decide for themselves whether or not to allow guns on campus. That measure was defeated by the gun lobby.
As Oregon Live reports, students who present the proper paperwork are permitted to carry guns on campus at Umpqua Community College as per state law. However, some conservative media figures are still claiming otherwise, pointing to the school’s code of conduct as “proof” that guns are not allowed on campus. Here’s a screenshot of the current code of conduct:
“Possession, use, or threatened use of firearms (including but not limited to BB guns, air guns, water pistols, and paint guns) ammunition, explosives, dangerous chemicals, or any other objects as weapons on college property, except as expressly authorized by law or college regulations, is prohibited,” the code of conduct states.
But despite what the conservative blogosphere says, this doesn’t mean that Umpqua Community College is a gun-free zone. What they seem to be missing is that Oregon state law expressly authorizes concealed weapons on campus. So according to the code of conduct, concealed carry is permitted on campus, as it is “expressly authorized by law.”
Another section of the code of conduct, pictured in the screenshot below, states that the school does not permit guns “without written authorization,” which some conservative pundits have misinterpreted as more “proof” that the campus prohibited guns. But under Oregon law, “written authorization” refers to having a concealed carry permit and filing a request with campus security to obtain authorization to carry a weapon — and again, under state law, students with concealed carry permits must be given that authorization.
While colleges and universities in Oregon do have the right to prohibit weapons from specific places on campus — like dormitories and classrooms — they cannot ban people with valid concealed carry permits from bringing their guns on campus.
Even the very pro-gun website Ammoland reports that Umpqua Community College “allows concealed carry under Oregon law.”
Debunking the “gun-free zone” talking point
It’s also worth pointing out that the “gun-free zone” talking point is irrelevant in the first place, as extensive evidence on mass shootings undermines the 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.”
There’s also no evidence that people with concealed weapons can reliably and safely intervene in active shooter situations. In fact, research strongly suggests just the opposite: that untrained, armed bystanders are highly likely to make the situation even worse. 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.”
Furthermore, there have also been numerous incidents in recent years where shooters have targeted what might be deemed “gun-full zones” for their attacks, including numerous attacks on police departments and military grounds:
- 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.
- January 23, 2011— A gunman walked through the door of a Detroit police precinct and opened fire, wounding four officers before he was shot and killed by police. “Utter chaos and pandemonium took place,” Police Chief Ralph Godbee said at a news conference.
- April 7, 2014— A man armed with a semi-automatic pistol entered a Los Angeles Police Department, shooting an officer seven times before being shot by another officer. This took place just a year after a gunman shot two police officers at the same LA Police Department.
Perhaps most importantly, the “gun-free zones” talking point also ignores the very basic fact that many “gun-free zones” are actually among the safest places in the country. If it were the case that “gun-free zones” attract killers because of their susceptibility to armed violence, we would expect places like schools to carry a high burden of youth homicides. A 2011 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, however, found that “the percentage of youth homicides occurring at school remained at less than 2 percent of the total number of youth homicides.” Furthermore, less than 1% of all nonfatal firearm violence occurs at schools.
To put the improbability of mass deaths occurring at school in context, consider that the total number of handgun deaths in the United States (1980-2006) was about 32,000 per year. By comparison, since 1980, 297 people have been killed in school shootings. This amounts to roughly 9 deaths per year at school. The same goes for college campuses, almost all of which still do not allow guns (though the number of states where they do is on the rise). 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.
But this shouldn’t be surprising: Research from around the world and within the United States clearly shows that stronger guns laws result in lower rates of gun-related injuries and fatalities. Most of us already know this; we’ve seen the facts. And the vast majority of us, including gun owners, support stronger gun laws. But as we’ve learned with the current Republican Congress, it’s hard to get much done towards preventing gun violence (or anything else) when one political party disregards facts and evidence to the point of actively suppressing research that would save lives from gun violence.