On Monday night, Hildy Saizow, President of Arizonans for Gun Safety, received very surprising news: Gov. Jan Brewer (R) had vetoed SB 1467, a bill that would have allowed guns outside on college campuses.
“I was totally shocked,” said Saizow. “Particularly here in Arizona, this is a very rare victory.”
The abrupt end of Arizona’s bill caught even the most hopeful gun-control advocates off guard. Brewer has been a strong gun-rights figure, a National Rifle Association-rated “A+” candidate who has happily signed bills that eliminated concealed carry permits and allowed guns inside bars, restaurants and privately owned parking lots. But even in Arizona, the state with the most lenient gun laws in the country, according to the Legal Community Against Violence’s rankings, the gun rights lobby can’t seem to break past the university’s hallowed walls.
The eleventh hour veto gives the Arizona scuffle a dramatic element, but the plot and the characters are hardly new. It’s a narrative that’s repeated itself more than 50 times in the past four years since the Virginia Tech shooting, in blue states and red states, and in all regions of the country. And the denouement is always the same: The gun rights coalition, accustomed to sweeping successes in other areas of gun legislation, always loses.
“Since the 2007 [Virginia Tech] shooting, guns-on-campus legislation has failed 52 times in 28 states,” said Colin Goddard, who survived being shot four times at Virginia Tech, and now works as the assistant director for federal legislation for the Brady Campaign, the largest gun-control organization in the country.
Arizona marks failure 53. But at a time when guns-on-campus activists could be putting their tails -- or perhaps their rifles -- between their legs, they have a different, somewhat optimistic message.
“In four years, we’ve done a lot,” said Reid Smith, the Midwest Regional Director for Students for Concealed Carry, the leading guns-on-campus lobbying group, which boasts more than 40,000 members. “We need to move that political window a little bit, and we’re getting there. The lobbying stuff, we can only do that if the public accepts the idea.”
There’s little data, however, to suggest that the American public is growing close to embracing guns on college campuses. Up-to-date national data is unavailable, but a February 2011 survey by American Viewpoint, a right-leaning public opinion polling organization, found that 69 percent of Arizonans and 62 percent of Coloradans opposed guns-on-campus proposals.
The closer one gets to campus, the stronger the opposition. Hundreds of university administrators have come out against guns-on-campus legislation, including Francisco Cigarroa, chancellor of the University of Texas, one of the largest public university systems in the state.
“It’s notable that not a single university administrator [in Texas] has said, ‘Yes, do allow guns on campus,’” said John Woods, a gun control advocate whose girlfriend was killed in the Virginia Tech shooting.
But if one counts by state capitals instead of per capita, the guns-on-campus movement is certainly spreading.
Legislation that involves some form of gun carrying on campus is currently pending in at least ten states -- three of which, Illinois, Nebraska and North Carolina, are seeing this legislation introduced for the first time this year. Early 2011 saw nearly 20 states considering such legislation, but bills have already failed in Colorado, Florida, Idaho, New Mexico, West Virginia, Virginia and now Arizona. New Hampshire, too, voted down a two-year bill for this year, but it will reappear in 2012. Currently Utah is the only state that requires public universities to allow guns on college campuses.
In some states, the two sides are already suited up for imminent showdowns.
In Tennessee, a bill to allow faculty and staff members with permits to carry guns on campus will be heard in the House Judiciary Committee on May 3. University administrators are wasting no time in opposing the bill.
“The University of Tennessee has repeatedly stated its opposition to allowing anyone other than law enforcement officers to carry guns while on campus,” the school's president Joe DiPietro told NWTN Today.
In Texas, a bill that would allow permit holders, who have at least 21 years old in Texas, to carry guns on campus is just one vote away from sailing through the state Senate. The bill seemed a slam-dunk earlier in the year, but two senators changed their minds, and the bill is now stalled, waiting for the two-thirds majority necessary to move it to a vote.
The bill's author, state Sen. Jeff Wentworth (R), was not pleased about the reversal -- “It’s not good form around here; the only thing a senator has in politics is his word,” he told The Huffington Post. But Wentworth says he’s still confident the bill will go through, noting that if a senator is ever absent from session, the already secured 20 votes will be enough to move the bill to a vote.
The list keeps coming.
A Nevada bill for concealed carry on campus passed out of Senate committee last week and is headed to the floor, thanks in part to testimony from Amanda Collins, a University of Nevada student and concealed carry license-holder who was raped in the parking lot of University of Nevada, Reno while her gun sat at home, per campus rules.
In Illinois, one of the two states in the country that does not allow gun owners to carry concealed weapons, a sweeping bill introduced this year would allow concealed carry for permit-holders for the first time -- including on college campuses. Wednesday, the Chicago police department noted that the state has gaps in its mental health screening for potential gun owners that make the concealed carry legislation worrisome.
Michigan, too, has sweeping legislation in committee that would eliminate all pistol-free zones, which include college classrooms and dorms, as well as bars, churches, large stadiums and other locations. The bill is expected to be heard this summer. Other states with legislation pending include Mississippi, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Kansas.
In the states that the legislation has been defeated, gun control advocates have little time to celebrate.
“They’ve wasted no time in saying that they’ll be back with another bill next year,” said Hildy Saizow of Arizonans for Gun Safety, only two days after Brewer’s veto.
The gun-rights versus gun-control debate is as old as the Constitution, but the guns-on-campus issue has exploded in the past four years, with more and more states considering the issue. The catalyst was Virginia Tech, with both sides employing the tragedy to prove their own case. For gun-rights advocates, the argument is fairly straightforward: In the event of another large-scale school shooting, someone -- be it a professor, student or staff member -- is going to want to have a gun in his or her hands to end the nightmare.
“If some deranged, suicidal person like the man in Viriginia Tech, enters the classroom, I want someone to be able to protect themselves in that room,” explains state Sen. Wentworth of Texas. “And currently that’s against the law. It’s a gun-free room, so it’s a victim-rich room.”
Gun-control advocates, on the other hand, refute this thinking with a host of arguments: Untrained gun carriers will escalate a situation rather than resolve it; suicidal maniacs won’t be deterred from coming on to campus with the knowledge that others will be armed; massive school shootings are rare incidents; and the negative implications of arming students and professors far outweigh any positives.
“It sounds like it might be a good idea, until you start to think about it,” said Andy Goddard, president of the Richmond, Virginia, chapter of Million Mom March, a gun control advocacy group.
Some in favor of gun control argue that a gun-filled campus could have violent consequences for gun holders themselves, pointing to the high suicide rates of teenagers, their raging hormones and their undeveloped pre-frontal cortex (which impacts judgment).
Research indicates that having a gun in one’s home -- which would be the equivalent of a dorm for a college student -- does increase the incidence of suicide, according to Jon Vernick, co-director of John’s Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.
“There are a lot of studies and they all point in the same direction: Guns increase rates of suicide,” said Vernick. “The evidence is consistent and, I would argue, compelling.”
But that’s about all that’s definitive about gun safety research.
With so few schools already allowing guns on campus, it’s hard to study the issue directly. But there is a large body of research that examines the relationship between crime rates and a 30-year shift toward looser state rules about concealed-carry permits. Study findings run the gamut, from saying that more guns decrease crime rates to saying they cause murders to skyrocket.
In 2005, the National Research Council summed up the body of research and assigned it a frustrating grade: inconclusive.
“The committee concludes that with the current evidence it is not possible to determine that there is a causal link between passage of right-to-carry laws [laws which make it easier to get a conceal carry permit] and crime rates,” wrote the National Research Council in “Firearms and Violence: A Critical Review.”
Money and lobbying efforts, however, are far easier to track.
Since 2007, the NRA has funneled more than a million dollars to the campaigns of state senators and representatives. Last year, the NRA hit a seven-year peak, with nearly $700,000 in lobbying money going to candidates or state ballot measures. Texan lawmakers, for example, received just over $50,000 in 2010.
Not all this money goes directly to sending guns to campus. But Reid Smith of Students for Concealed Carry says that guns on campus usually ranks at least in the top five of the NRA’s issues for any given state. The NRA declined to comment.
In contrast, gun control groups rarely have spare change to sway candidates.
“We haven’t got two cents to rub together!” said Goddard. “We don’t have any donations at the state level here.”
Goddard and other gun control advocates believe that money is behind the steady expansion of states considering guns on campus, meaning that the issue is far from over.
“Someone in the NRA has a list of the states that don’t have it yet, and he just keeps plugging away,” he said.