Public Safety & Homeland Security

Would College Campuses be Safer if Students Could Carry Guns?

When criminals attack on campus, would armed students make the situation better or worse?

by / July 6, 2010
Stephen Johnson

[Photo courtesy of Stephen Johnson.]

When Seung-Hui Cho committed the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) massacre in 2007, his actions caused many to wonder — if potential victims in these situations bear firearms, could tragic events end differently?

That’s an argument being heard at several college campuses across the country: Would students and faculty be safer if everyone was allowed to carry a gun, or would minor altercations turn into disasters? Many feel that the issue is about upholding the right to bear arms anywhere and everywhere, and legislators in many locales are pushing to make this apply to college campuses as well.

Although violence similar to the Virginia Tech incident is uncommon on college and university grounds, American higher education institutions were home to large numbers of dangerous crimes recently. According to an April 2010 FBI report, from 2005 to 2008, there were 174 murders on college campuses, 13,842 sex offenses and 21,675 aggravated assaults.

“If one of those students [at Virginia Tech] had been allowed to carry [a firearm] — just one of them — and they’d been able to take a successful shot, things might have turned out differently,” said David Burnett, director of public relations for Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, an organization comprising members who believe that students and faculty with handgun licenses should be able to carry concealed firearms at school.

Andy Pelosi, director of the Gun Free Kids organization and the Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus, feels differently.

“We’re looking at a situation where we have, for the most part, safe environments. To start introducing guns into these safe environments is really opening up a can of worms and going to change these safe environments to potentially unsafe environments,” he said.

The Case for Carry

Concealed carry laws vary by state, but most states either forbid concealed carry on campuses or let colleges decide whether to allow it. Only Utah specifically restricts public universities from denying a licensed student or faculty member the right to carry a firearm on campus. A few institutions, like Blue Ridge Community College in Virginia and Colorado State University, allow concealed carry. Most prohibit it.

In May 2010, though, Colorado’s state community colleges lifted a ban on concealed weapons, a decision that, according to one Colorado newspaper, was in response to an April 15 court ruling against a similar ban that the University of Colorado had in place.

“Why should colleges have an arbitrary double standard that sets them apart from anywhere else in the state that gives them a right to prohibit the right to self-defense on campus?” Burnett asked. “I could carry a concealed firearm for my own protection into a church, into the mall, into restaurants, into banks, numerous other locations throughout the state, and that’s a state-recognized right to self-defense.”

In another example, under current Texas law, only those 21 and older can get concealed handgun permits, and the state lets them carry firearms on college campuses but not inside buildings, which means no guns in classrooms or dorms. In 2009, the state Senate passed SB 1164, which would have given people the right to carry anywhere at public universities, in structures or outside. Private universities, however, would have still been able to prohibit firearms. The bill never became law after it failed in the House of Representatives, but Jeff Wentworth, one of the state senators behind the proposal, plans to try again as early as 2011.

The goal, as he sees it, is to give students and teachers the power to defend themselves when criminals attack.

“The deranged wacko is not law-abiding. He couldn’t care less what the law is. He’s going to go and kill a bunch of people,” Wentworth said. “We would like to say, ‘Well, Wacko, you’re going to go into a classroom where there is a faculty member, graduate student or senior. Maybe there’s just one in the whole classroom who is armed and can shoot you instead of you massacring seven or eight students.’”

In August 2007, the Virginia Tech Review Panel, whose members were appointed by the state to review the shooting and its aftermath, delivered a report to then-Gov. Tim Kaine. One of the panel’s conclusions was that if numerous people had firearms and were rushing around one of the buildings Cho went shooting in, that would have increased the chance of an accidental or mistaken shooting.

No Guns, No Foul

The majority of U.S. universities have some form of firearms restriction in place. Many supporters of this position feel that colleges are unique environments housing a vulnerable population. Guns wouldn’t make things better.

“There’s alcohol, there’s drugs — these are high-pressure environments,” Pelosi said. And if guns are allowed, what happens when the owner puts them away? “What about the storage of these guns? Any type of incident [can] happen. There are professors who are concerned — what if they give a grade to a student that the student doesn’t like? Are they going to have to be worried about the chilling effect on academic freedom?”

He has an ally in Chief Sam Lucido of the Oakland University Police Department in Michigan. Lucido’s job is to protect the campus, and he doesn’t want his job any more difficult than it already is. He believes some students may lack the maturity to handle a firearm.

“Our population generally is younger than any other general population, and there are concerns about youth, maturity and judgment,” he said. “All of us mature at different levels and different ages.”  

Lucido also worries about how guns could impact alcohol-related incidents. “I’ve been in law enforcement about 38 years now and one thing I’ve learned among several — alcohol and firearms never mix,” he said. 

The International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, consisting of more than 1,200 higher education institutions in multiple countries, released a statement in August 2008 of its official view on concealed carry on campus. The association’s board of directors took the position that concealed carry initiatives don’t improve campus safety. And their statement cited numerous studies and raised the point that since several states don’t allow anyone younger than 21 to obtain firearm permits, most college students wouldn’t be old enough to get one, much less legally carry a gun on campus.

Debating at 20 Paces

Gun permit requirements vary by state but most require that applicants are the legal minimum age, complete a safety course and have sound criminal and mental histories. Those who meet these criteria are deemed fit to carry a firearm and could legally use it during campus crises. But that’s not much comfort to some.

“I just can’t believe that those folks are going to be able to take out the target that they’re supposed to without any kind of collateral damage,” Pelosi said. “And what about campus police? If people are carrying on campus, how are they going to be able to tell who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy?”

As a police officer, Lucido sees problems with the logistics of multiple gun carriers on campus.

“Someone’s at a vending machine in one of the cafeterias and opens her purse and has a firearm in there — someone will see that. If that were to happen today and we got a 911 call — suspicious person with a gun near an academic hall — more than likely we would lock down that building until we had a chance to do a search,” Lucido said. “But when you have a number of people, perhaps legitimately carrying with an appropriate carry-and-conceal weapon permit, this is going to become an operational nightmare.”

Burnett raised the point that police response time to incidents can sometimes be too slow to prevent school shootings, so potential victims would be safer if they were armed. What if it’s possible for a student with a firearm to use the weapon, or simply flash it, to ward off an aggressor?

“In most shooting scenarios, if there’s an armed citizen there who can respond to the killer, the shooting is over long before the police are able to get there,” Burnett said.

Not everyone is convinced of that. Garrett Evans, who was shot in both legs during the Virginia Tech tragedy, told USA Today in February 2008 that Cho walked into his German class and started shooting so quickly that no one could have responded fast enough to prevent deaths.

Others counter that rational, law-abiding people aren’t immune to the throes of emotion.

“The example I like to use is road rage, [which] is becoming a common occurrence. People don’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘You know what? Today’s a nice day. I think I’ll get involved in road rage.’ It just doesn’t happen that way,” Lucido said. “It happens because one person cuts off another person and that person returns the favor, and anger and passion cross the edge. Then we add firearms into that, and I get really concerned.”

Hilton Collins

Hilton Collins is a former staff writer for Emergency Management magazine.