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Guns on Campus: Five years after Virginia Tech tragedy

In the five years since the Virginia Tech tragedy, the debate over allowing concealed weapons on campus rages on.
University Business, April 2012

First things first. This story is not about the Second Amendment of The United States Constitution, which grants citizens the right to keep and bear arms. Every state recognizes that right and, at the state level, 49 of them include a provision for licensed owners to carry concealed handguns in public. Instead, this story is about the debate over whether that right should extend to carrying firearms onto the country’s colleges and universities.

This month marks the fifth anniversary of the tragedy at Virginia Tech in which student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people and wounded 25 others before turning the gun on himself. The event remains the deadliest shooting incident by a single gunman in U.S. history.

Currently, 22 states have bans on concealed weapons on college campuses. But in a number of states, legislators are proposing concealed carry laws, often tied to threats of withheld funding if a college or university tries to resist.

As this article was being prepared, the Colorado state Supreme Court ruled that the University of Colorado system cannot ban concealed-weapon permit holders from bringing their guns to campus. In the Colorado case, the court sided with Students for Concealed Carry, a gun rights group that argued that the university policy violates state gun laws.

Similar bills are being considered in Georgia and Kansas, and elsewhere. In Arizona, the House of Representatives voted to repeal gun-free zones in all schools. The bill still awaits action by the State Senate and the governor.

And, legislators in 12 states are considering bills that would eliminate the current requirement that licensed gun owners need an additional permit to carry concealed weapons.

The guns-on-campus debate is a particularly hot-button issue in an election year and, like paper or plastic, Kirk or Picard, and Coke or Pepsi, each side has its supporters.

The Argument For

John Reece is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Colorado Mesa University. He is the former director of the Western Colorado Peace Officers Academy, and was with the Grand Junction Police Department for nearly 20 years.

Although Reece believes that concealed firearms should be banned in banks, schools, government buildings, or establishments that sell intoxicating beverages, he does support the idea of allowing them on college campuses.

“For many years, we assumed that just driving around in a marked police car would deter crime. Does gun control deter further incidents of gun related offenses? If you look at the numbers, you’ll see that those assumptions are the opposite and wrong.”

Gun control is literally taking weapons that can be used in defense of self and others out of law-abiding citizens’ hands, Reece says. “Bad guys—people who have bad intentions with weapons—are going to get hold of them anyway. If we have gun control and limits on concealed handgun permits, then law-abiding citizens will be defenseless.”

Reece notes that the media rarely report on the defensive uses of guns. “Since in many defensive cases a handgun is simply brandished, and no one is harmed, many defensive uses are never even reported to the police,” he wrote in a recent paper. 'Bad guys—people who have bad intentions with weapons—are going to get hold of them anyway. If we have gun control and limits on concealed handgun permits, then law-abiding citizens will be defenseless.' —John Reece, assistant professor of criminal justice at Colorado Mesa University He points to an incident from 2002, when a former student at the Appalachian School of Law (Va.) was placed under academic suspension. Angry at the decision, the student later returned to campus, shot and killed the dean, a professor, and a female student, and wounded three others. Several students ultimately tackled the shooter as he was leaving.

“Somehow 204 of 208 news stories on the incident failed to mention a telling fact about the offender’s apprehension,” Reece wrote. “During the chaos, two male students ran to their cars to get their guns, and by merely brandishing them it forced the killer to drop his weapon. Then the tackling commenced. The troubling explanation is that too few people in the media are willing to recognize the positive aspects of guns and the fact that they often save innocent lives.”


Reece believes that the vetting process of securing a concealed carry license is a good one. Applicants in his state go through an extensive eight-hour training block that includes a personal history questionnaire and criminal history checks through both the National Crime Information Center and the Colorado Crime Information Center. In addition, every law enforcement officer in the jurisdiction has access to the pool of applicants, which are regularly reviewed for any red flag issues that perhaps aren’t on the radar screen or are not in the CCIC or NCIC database.

“Now, just like anywhere, there is the potential for some to fall through the cracks, but I think our percentages are a lot higher of eliminating the bad apples from those who have the responsibility to have that permit,” he says.

It is that legally granted permit that proponents like Students for Concealed Carry believe makes the difference.

“College campuses are one of the few exceptions where firearms are not allowed to be carried for self-defense and, to us as students and existing permit holders who carry everywhere else in the state where we live, this in an unjust double standard,” says David Burnett, spokesman for the group. “Public colleges are taxpayer- funded institutions, so we don’t feel they should be exempt from the taxpayer-funded public laws.”

Burnett says he understands there are legitimate reasons for gun free zones at airports, courthouses, banks, and prisons.

“But these are enforced with secure parameters, armed guards, metal detectors, and so on,” he says. “A college’s idea of creating a gun-free zone is to put signs and stickers on the doors. Signs are not going to stop an armed psychopath. The only people who are going to obey those signs are the law-abiding citizens, people like our members who could be capable of responding to a threat.”

Burnett disagrees with the notion that concealed carry would open the door to a “wild west” scenario of gun-toting students taking the law into their own hands.

“It’s highly unlikely that there would be more than one armed citizen in any given classroom, if not building,” he says. “The college student population is approximately 18 to 22 years old, and in most states, you cannot even receive a permit unless you are over 21. So you remove three-fourths of that population from the equation. Of the remaining 21- and 22-year-olds, you have the ones who will go to the trouble of getting a permit, and of that group, the ones who will actually carry a firearm on a consistent basis. You’re probably talking on a national average about one student for every 100.”

SCC is very much a child of the social media age, Burnett says, relying on such outlets as Facebook, Twitter, and its own website to conduct business and coordinate members. He estimates there are at least 40,000 supporters nationwide. “We encourage them to try to hold meetings and to lobby their legislators for change to allow concealed carry on campus.”

Burnett says it’s hard to know exactly how many active SCC groups are on college campuses because of ever-changing student enrollment. “Most people who joined our group as freshmen will be gone in four years and out looking for a job,” he explains. “What I can say is that, last year, when we had an ‘empty holster protest’—where our members wore empty holsters to symbolize being left defenseless—more than 130 colleges participated.”

The Argument Against

One point on which both sides seem to agree is that, for the most part, handgun violence on campus is a rare occurrence. “I worked for the police department here for 20 years and I’m still in close contact with our campus police officers who are from our local PD, and there have been no incidents at all,” notes Colorado Mesa’s Reece.

That sentiment is echoed by Andrew Pelosi, spokesman for the Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus. The group was launched in 2008 over concern that the Virginia Tech tragedy would result in a legislative push to change current laws and force concealed weapons on campus. Presidents, chancellors, and police chiefs from 320 four- and two-year schools in 37 states have signed onto the campaign’s resolution opposing concealed carry legislation.

‘Campuses are very safe environments. Introducing guns has the potential to make them unsafe environments.’ —Andrew Pelosi, Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus

“From a safety standpoint, campus homicide is almost nonexistent and crime is very low,” Pelosi says. “Yes, there are instances where off-campus crime is very high, there’s no doubt about that, but generally, campuses are very safe environments, and we think introducing guns has the potential to make them unsafe environments.”

James Kenny, an associate professor of criminal justice at Fairleigh Dickinson University (N.J.), agrees. A former U.S. Treasury Dept. officer, Kenny specializes in threat assessment and conflict management, and was a violence prevention consultant at Virginia Tech following the shootings.

Kenny says that, as a gun owner himself, he appreciates what firearms can and cannot do. Yet he does not think arming students or faculty would have prevented the tragedy at Virginia Tech.

“If you put a gun in the right person’s hands, in the right situation with the right training and the right mindset, then yes, it’s possible that it would have lessened the tragedy. But it’s also very possible that it might have made it worse,” he says.

“First of all, criminals use stealth, and because of that, people don’t have the time to respond and are not prepared to use their guns when they need them. Also when there is a shooting, there is so much confusion that people often don’t even know where the shots are coming from. If people start pulling out their guns, they may be mistaken as the shooter and be shot themselves.”
And, says Kenny, training—no matter how thorough—only goes so far.

“We found that, even with law enforcement officers, although we train them, it doesn’t mean they are mentally ready to use a gun when they need to. These are professionals. Should we expect that the public would be prepared physically as well as mentally to use a gun?”

The problem is compounded by studies that show that, even with superior marksmanship training, law enforcement officers in a live fire scenario hit their intended targets only around 25 percent of the time.

Pelosi believes that concealed gun carriers might make situations like Virginia Tech worse. Moreover, the argument that knowing someone might be carrying a firearm could be a deterrent doesn’t hold water.

“I can’t get into Seung-Hui Cho’s head, but I don’t think he was worried about any kind of resistance,” he says. “He was on a mission and he was going to do what he was going to do.”

Alternative Approaches

While conducting seminars at Virginia Tech, Kenny says there was one question on everyone’s mind. “They asked me what to do if someone comes up to you with a gun. I said you duck and you run, because there is very little you can do at that point.”

Violence, he says, is a process, and administrators must understand this to help make their schools safer. A campus should have a threat assessment team consisting of representatives from all areas, including the dean of students, legal counsel, mental health, the provost’s office, criminal justice, psychology, student affairs and more. In nearly all such shooting incidents, there are prior events that might have alerted such a team, had they known of them.

“We need to get below the surface and start recognizing and intervening,” he says. “When you see something suspicious, don’t try to analyze it, just report it and let the pros do it. It’s like a puzzle. Sometimes it’s not clear what all the pieces mean on their own, but if you have a mechanism for getting all the pieces together, it becomes pretty obvious what’s at play.”

Pelosi notes that concealed carry groups like SCC are well funded and well organized. “They do a good job of getting their folks to take action, whether it be making phone calls, sending emails, or contributing money. But I think, with this issue, we have support from people who know that a change in the law will directly impact thousands of people, whether they are students, faculty, or staff.”

As concealed carry laws make their way through legislative systems, Pelosi says presidents and students are rallying for a big push back.

“We feel if we can get our message out there, we can show people that this has gone too far. There’s no reason to be carrying guns on campus. There has to be other ways to reduce crime besides arming people.”