Homeland Security and Public Safety

Would College Campuses be Safer if Students Could Carry Guns?

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

[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?”

Hilton Collins  | 

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