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Dennis A. Henigan Headshot

Keep Guns Off Campus

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In the wake of the Tucson shooting, Arizona's legislature is considering various bills addressing guns and violence. The legislation with the best chance of passage has nothing to do with strengthening the state's laws to prevent dangerous individuals from easily acquiring the firepower that enabled Jared Loughner to shoot 19 people in about 16 seconds, killing six of them. Incredibly, the bill with the most momentum would force Arizona colleges and universities to allow the concealed carry of guns on campus.

The Arizona bill is one of many similar bills being pushed in states across the nation, as the gun lobby seeks to overcome the collective judgment of college administrators, faculty and students that allowing guns on campus is a recipe for disaster. Up until now, sanity has prevailed, as such bills have failed 43 times in 23 states in recent years. But the forces of "gun everywhere" are back, and pitched battles are underway, not only in Arizona, but in Texas and elsewhere.

It all started with the Virginia Tech mass shooting of almost four years ago, which prompted "gun rights" proponents to argue that the shooting could have been stopped if one of the students in the targeted classrooms had been carrying a gun and could have returned fire. It is revealing that none of the students and teachers who actually were under fire that day have become proponents of concealed carry on campus. Indeed, Colin Goddard, who was shot four times in his French class, has become a crusader for stronger gun laws, as poignantly depicted in the documentary Living for 32, now being shown on college campuses coast-to-coast. (The movie was shown at the University of Arizona and Arizona State this week.)

The argument supporting guns on campus is based on a bizarre assessment of relative risks. Its proponents seek to create the remote possibility that a legal gun carrier will be in the right place at the right time when a killer attacks, and will act effectively to stop the attacker, when the attack itself, particularly a mass attack, is itself a remote possibility. In order to create the unlikely chance of this "good guy shoots attacker" scenario becoming reality, the proponents of campus concealed carry seek to ensure a proliferation of guns in classrooms, dorm rooms, dining halls, sports stadiums -- anywhere where a violent attack may occur.

This necessarily means introducing a broad new array of obvious risks into everyday life on college campuses. Those risks seem anything but remote: that an argument between a professor and a disgruntled student will erupt in gunfire; that an intoxicated student will accidentally discharge his gun while showing it off at a Friday afternoon keg party; that a student's momentary despair over a romantic break-up will turn lethal as he finds a gun and turns it on himself.

The pro-gun crowd assails "gun-free zones" that allegedly invite the violent to attack the unarmed, but the reality is that currently gun-free college campuses are far safer than the gun-saturated communities that surround them. Justice Department figures show that college students aged 18 to 24 experience violence at a 20% lower rate than non-students in the same age group. In addition, 93% of the violence against students occurs off campus.

Given that in most states gun owners must be 21 to carry concealed weapons, the "guns on campus" activists question why law-abiding adults licensed to carry in other locations should be barred from doing so on college campuses. Several obvious responses come to mind.

First, the experience of states in making it easier to carry concealed weapons hardly recommends extending concealed carry to college campuses. The evidence is mounting that very dangerous people are being given concealed carry licenses, that they are committing egregious violence with guns, and that liberalized concealed carry is associated with more violent crime, not less. Why should we subject our largely peaceful college campuses to a policy that has led to greater danger outside those campuses? After all, Jared Loughner was a legal concealed carrier under Arizona law until he shot 19 people.

Second, college campuses are particularly hazardous environments for widespread gun possession and carrying. They are populated largely by individuals aged 18 to 24, a highly volatile time of life and the age group with the highest incidence of such behaviors as binge drinking and drug use. Moreover, those young people live in dormitories, group houses and other high-density situations in which it is difficult to ensure that a gun always will be in the possession of the person licensed to carry it.

The pressures of college life itself add to the risk, particularly the risk of suicide. Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa of the University of Texas, in an eloquent letter to Governor Rick Perry opposing concealed carry on campus, cited the concerns of "campus health professionals, who know and deal with the reality of the emotional and psychological pressures of academic life, separation from family, relationships -- all pressures that contribute to the harsh reality that suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students."

Finally, don't believe for a minute that the "gun rights" crowd is content to limit campus concealed carry to 21-year-old seniors and grad students. At the same time the gun lobby is pressing the Texas legislature to force Texas universities to allow concealed carry, the NRA is pursuing a lawsuit to strike down, as a violation of the Second Amendment, the Texas law setting 21 as the minimum age to carry concealed. If the NRA gets its way, it will be freshmen and all other students who will be eligible to carry loaded guns on campus.

Students are standing with their professors and administrators in resisting laws forcing campuses to accept guns. The student government at the University of Texas has come out foursquare against such laws. Just this week, 57% of the Texas A&M student body voted against guns on campus. These are young people who have grown up around guns, yet understand they have no place on a college campus.

Ultimately, this is not just a campus safety issue. It also is an issue involving the core values served by institutions of higher education. It is difficult to imagine anything more destructive to an environment of academic freedom -- in which controversial issues can be passionately debated free of fear and intimidation -- than students or professors "strapped" as they participate in those debates.

Students, faculty and administrators get it. Do our lawmakers?

For more information, see Dennis Henigan's Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy (Potomac Books 2009)