After a campus shooting—especially a mass shooting as occurred at Virginia Tech in 2007—there are suggestions that if students or faculty had been armed, they could have defended themselves. Others see the mixture of concealed carry of firearms and campus life as a recipe for disaster.
Whenever there is a shooting on a campus—especially a mass shooting as occurred at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) in 2007—there are suggestions that if only students or faculty had been armed, they could have defended themselves and others by shooting the shooter. That view has led to a call for the right to bear arms on campus. Others see the mixture of concealed carry of firearms and campus life as a recipe for disaster.
The issue has gained a lot of traction. While Utah is the only state to have passed a law requiring public campuses to permit concealed carry, at least 15 states have introduced similar legislation in their current session, according to Brenda Bautsch of the National Conference on State Legislatures. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer recently vetoed a similar law.
The details of the legislation vary from state to state. Some states allow the schools to develop their own policies regarding whether concealed carry is acceptable on campus. It appears that most of the campuses that do allow concealed carry limit it to individuals over 21; the age restriction comports with laws that restrict concealed carry to those 21 or older in those states.
Gary Margolis, managing partner at school security consulting company Margolis, Healy & Associates, is working with several schools in states where gun laws are currently under consideration. He says that none of the schools are in favor of allowing guns on campus, but they are starting to consider how they would develop policies if the laws pass. “There’re a lot of questions that would need to get answered if in fact a state made a law that you could carry on a university campus,” he says.
Guns off Campus
Most of the sources interviewed for this article expressed concern that the presence of guns on campus will make the campus less safe. Even if students don’t turn the guns on each other, they may turn them on themselves, they say. One study, Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior, found that 24 percent of college students consider suicide, according to Inside Higher Ed. There is also research that indicates that suicide attempts are more likely to be successful when a gun is available in the home.
Another recent study titled Rate, Relative Risk, and Method of Suicide by Students at 4-year Colleges and Universities in the United States 2004-2005 through 2008-2009 found that the suicide rates of students on college campuses were actually lower than that of a national sample, which the study attributed to the rarity of firearms on campus, though that type of correlation may be difficult to substantiate.
There are other aspects of college life that consultants and school security personnel cite as reasons for keeping guns off campus. One is the prevalence of drug and alcohol use among college students; another is the stage of mental development of college students.
“You have the largest population of 18-to-21-year olds experiencing unbridled freedom for the first time, making decisions that are often high-risk in terms of where they are in their life. They’re experimenting with drugs and alcohol and risky behavior. Inserting firearms into that mix is just not a wise move,” says Margolis.
Another concern is the potential distraction created by students carrying guns to class, not just for fellow students, who may be uncomfortable knowing others are carrying but also for teachers, who might feel threatened when dealing with a disgruntled student who may be carrying a weapon.
Opponents of guns on school grounds also question the potential benefit of having students or faculty who are carrying a concealed weapon when an active shooter situation arises. If anything, it could make the situation worse, opponents say. Margolis likens it to bringing gasoline to a fire. There is the potential that someone with a gun might be mistaken for a “bad guy” by law enforcement, for instance. There is also potential for someone who has a gun to use it on innocent individuals by accident.
Dan Pascale, senior director of emergency preparedness, communications, and security at the University of Chicago, says that with concealed carry in effect, law enforcement and first responders will not know who is carrying guns on campus, and that could make things tricky in an actual emergency situation. “If you were to take a case, such as any of the noted high-profile school shootings,” says Pascale, “and try to imagine a room full of students... and 10 or 12 students drawing weapons simultaneously, with no training, aiming at a potential armed suspect, the potential for collateral damage is... outrageous.”
There are also the normal risks associated with firearms that would come with any campus carry policy. These include the potential for firearm thefts and unintentional discharge.
Another concern expressed by opponents of guns on campus is the limited and potentially varied training required for a concealed carry permit in various states. Paul Timm, PSP, president of RETA Security Inc., recommends that sworn police be the only individuals on campus with guns for this reason. Some concealed carry legislation does not even require specified training and any training that is required will vary from state to state. Such training may be only once a year, notes Timm. “And furthermore,” he says, “in any number of states, they’re not required to have background screenings on things like mental health or any kind of former anger management issues they’ve had.”
Guns on Campus
The advocates of concealed carry on campus do not share the critics’ concerns. One of the most vocal advocacy groups in favor of arming students is Students for Concealed Carry on Campus (SCCC), an organization that has several regional branches. SCCC organizes periodic empty holster protests in support of concealed carry legislation.
The main point, says David Burnett, president of SCCC, is that higher education campuses should not be regarded as different from any other public area. “There’s already a process in place to allow concealed carry,” he notes. “All we as a group are saying is, why is a campus any different? Why should we sacrifice the right to self defense in order to obtain higher education?”
Moreover, advocates like Burnett disagree with the opponents about the potential pitfalls of concealed carry. They maintain that allowing students to arm themselves will help in active shooter situations as well as in preventing other crimes, like robbery and sexual assault. There is some data to back this up. The National Research Council released a report showing that guns are successfully used daily to thwart crimes off campus.
Advocates note that self-defense is imperative given the dearth of security personnel. Most colleges don’t have enough police or security officers to guarantee a rapid response time to all crimes, says Burnett, adding,“Until a law enforcement officer can personally escort me everywhere on campus, I need to be able to protect myself just as I do off campus.”
Pascale says that with regard to defense in active-shooter situations, schools have come a long way in emergency preparedness in the last few years, which could help minimize injuries and fatalities if an incident occurs. “Since the tragic events of 2007 at Virginia Tech, the campus communities have become extremely responsive and aggressive in understanding how to utilize emergency notification systems, whether they are text alerts or internal PA systems, e-mail systems, or Web sites, and integrating all of those together,” he says.
But Burnett says those systems do not keep students safe. For example, he says that text alert systems require someone who witnesses the shooting to relay the information to police or campus security, after which a vetted report will go out to those signed up for the system, by which time the active threat may have ended.
Additionally, Burnett points out that a major aspect of campus security—video surveillance—is a passive system more useful as evidence after a crime than as a deterrent beforehand.
The SCCC Web site also counters many of the other arguments against allowing students to arm. For example, in response to the suicide argument, the site points out that “most” 21-year-old students (and presumably older students) live off-campus and would be allowed to have a gun there anyway. The site also takes on other contentious issues, such as the argument that college students are emotionally volatile or experimenting with drugs and alcohol, by reiterating that these individuals have the right to carry guns when they are off campus.
Lack of Research
Getting past the “he said/she said” nature of the debate requires hard data, but evidence supporting either side is scarce. Proving correlation is even more difficult. All the same, advocates point out that the few colleges that have allowed guns have not had increases in crime and, in some cases, have seen a decrease. In terms of arguing that campuses should not be exempt from the law of the land where concealed carry is permitted, the absence of evidence of harm may be persuasive. But the National Research Council also concluded in 2005 that “despite a large body of research, the committee found no credible evidence that the passage of right-to-carry laws decreases or increases violent crime.”
For security professionals, the bottom line is simply how to develop policies that comport with the law if they are indeed required to allow concealed carry. Some say that as long as the schools obey the law, they really wouldn’t have to get involved in making any special rules to deal with the presence of guns on campus. Others do see a need for special policies.
At the University of Utah, where concealed weapons are allowed, “there are some special procedures for entering athletic events,” explains spokesperson Remi Barron. “For example, the person must declare they have the weapon and show a permit.”
Barron further notes that “students in residential housing can opt to have a roommate with no permit or weapon,” but no student has made such a request. The school has not had to arrest anyone for a weapons permit violation.
Some security professionals would like to see schools that they work with have some sort of control over carriers of concealed weapons. Timm says that if he were a security chief on a campus, he would want to know who has guns and he would want to do an outreach campaign and awareness program to make sure their licenses were up to date, that they had training, and that they were storing the weapon properly.
But Timm adds that it would be difficult to do any type of registration of individuals with guns. Compliance is always a challenge, he notes. “We already have difficulty having students sign up for our mass notification systems.”
Linda Watson, CPP, security consultant with Whirlaway Group LLC, says, “I do think that they need to register that they are persons that would be carrying on campus. I think that they would need to follow all the best practices in security industry standards and address that.”
However, Watson admits that this is a question for the campus legal team. “If you’re licensed in a state to carry concealed by the state, and then the state says you can carry on campus… can you then say to someone that’s licensed to go everywhere else, ‘if you’re going to be on my campus, you have to register?’”
Concealed carry on campus is obviously a polarizing issue. Even among security consultants interviewed for this article, there were differences of opinion among their staff members as to whether schools should allow guns. And it’s not as simple as supporting the right to bear arms. Of the security professionals interviewed, most who were against guns on campus said that they supported the Second Amendment.
One thing that Burnett and the others point out is that, no matter what the rules are, people who are up to no good will occasionally bring guns onto campus.
The two sides of this issue differ mainly in whether they view the campus as a unique environment or just another public space. But where states approve concealed carry, security departments must find ways to address the requirements.