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Disaster 101: Guns on College Campuses

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Several states are currently dealing with well-organized efforts to loosen regulations prohibiting or limiting the ability to carry firearms on college campuses. The University of Colorado is now being sued by the group Students for Concealed Carry on Campus over the institution's right to enact a campus-wide ban on concealed weapons. In Texas, the passage of pending legislation that would allow guns at colleges and universities is disconcerting. Noting that there are already far too many illegal weapons on campus, Gov. Rick Perry has said "I want there to be legal guns on campus. I think it makes sense - and all the data supports - that if law-abiding, well-trained, 'backgrounded' individuals have a weapon, there will be less crime."

As longtime college health professionals, physicians and researchers, we politely but vehemently disagree. More students carrying guns at colleges and universities will lead to significantly more deaths than would be prevented by attempts to stop what are very rare mass attacks or even homicides.

In fact, the rate of homicide on college campuses over the past 15 years is one per million students. Yet, consider that the rate of suicide among college students is already 100 times the rate of homicides. Each year, some 10% to 15% of young men and women on campus seriously think about suicide and approximately 1 % to 3% of them will make a suicide attempt.

Consider as well that binge drinking on campus is on the rise. Despite improved science and education about how to prevent alcohol abuse, about half of all U.S. college students binge drink and/or abuse drugs, according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. Binge drinking is defined for men as having five or more drinks and for women four or more drinks on a single occasion within a two-week period.

And consider that recent studies have demonstrated that the brain continues to mature throughout an individual's 20s, with maturation of the area most responsible for decision making occurring last. Some young people, therefore, may act impulsively without fully appreciating the consequences of their actions.

Now, insert guns into the equation and the consequences are potentially deadly.

Those advocating for firearms on campus would be better served by taking a lesson from the Israel Defense Forces. Struggling with tragically high and increasing rates of suicide among service members over the past several years, the IDF enacted a simple but highly effective prevention program.

Israel has a mandatory draft, with those on active duty nearly identical in age to those in higher education in the U.S. -- 18 to 21 years old. These soldiers are regularly released from service for weekend leave to return home. From 2003 to 2005, there was an average of 28 suicides per year among IDF members, with 90% of the deaths caused by firearms. In 2006, the IDF's mental health division instituted its suicide prevention program, which included the provision that soldiers on weekend leave would not be permitted to take their firearms with them.

The results of this program - which have been reported in the journal Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior - were nothing short of dramatic. From 2007 to 2008, the suicide rate dropped among Israel's soldiers by a whopping 40% (from 28 to 16.5 suicides a year). What is even more dramatic, however, is that most of this decrease was directly attributable to the reduction of suicides committed with guns over weekends. That's right: simply preventing off-duty soldiers from carrying their guns saved numerous lives. These soldiers neither pursued other means to kill themselves while on leave nor did they take action to harm themselves after returning to base.

Many people assume wrongly that if someone is truly suicidal, he or she will find a way to end life. This study helps shed some light on this claim. Mental health researchers who have examined suicide in adolescents and young adults are aware that while most suicides are associated with depression--often combined with substance abuse--or other severe psychiatric illness, some number of suicides among this age group are impulsive, often catalyzed by intoxication in conjunction with family or relationship conflict. These suicides are the hardest to predict and prevent since the classic warning signs, such as sadness, hopelessness, and comments about life no longer being worth living, are absent. Nevertheless, if these impulsive suicides can be averted by taking the tools for action out of the hands of the young person, it is very likely that this individual will not kill himself or herself.

The IDF mental health service study demonstrated a significant suicide prevention strategy: take guns out of the hands of young people when they are off their military base and might be drinking or experiencing family or relationship conflict.

There are two further implications to consider here. One of the claims of the groups encouraging loosened gun limits on campus is that more people carrying guns will protect everyone in the event of an attack. The other commonly heard assertion is that state procedures for vetting and licensing people to carry weapons will assure that the licensees have proper training and discipline regarding gun use.

We suspect that Israeli soldiers would have a more acute need to be carrying firearms while off duty, since, given the region's volatility, they might be likely to encounter a situation that would require them to intervene. And yet, the Israeli military leadership realized that more lives could be saved if soldiers left their guns at the base while they are on leave. They also acknowledged that even rigorously screened and trained young people are still susceptible to the kinds of problems that make carrying guns dangerous.

So, before the gates of campuses in Texas, Colorado, and other states are opened to students packing heat, here is a textbook lesson for advocates and legislators considering such proposals: more guns on campus is a recipe for "Disaster 101."

Dr. Victor Schwartz is University Dean of Students at Yeshiva University and associate professor of clinical psychiatry at YU's Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Dr. Jerald Kay is professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Wright State University's Boonshoft School of Medicine. Dr. Paul Appelbaum is the Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Psychiatry, Medicine, and Law and director of the Division of Law, Ethics, and Psychiatry at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. Schwartz and Kay are editors of Mental Health Care in the College Community (Wiley, 2010)