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Guns on campus: worth a shot?

The loosening of gun laws across North America has brought students to the streets. Picture: The Plant.

What is your immediate reaction when you hear the words ‘gun’ and ‘US College’ used in the same sentence?

For many of us, I’m sure, it draws up awful stories of the Virginia Tech shooting of April 2007; not the most recent but certainly the most fatal of a series of high-profile shootings that have taken place across North America in recent years. Now Texas, the Lone Star state famous for its adherence to the Second Amendment (often referred to as ‘the right to bear arms’), is considering not just giving public colleges the option to allow concealed carry on campus, but passing legislation forcing them to accept it as a right.

Is this madness? Well, I’m inclined to think so. I’ve seen fights break out between our university students, seen tensions run high during first-year flat parties, seen drunk men and women brawl and fight it out on our campus grounds. When studies show that, at this age, our brains haven’t fully matured, is it really sensible to put guns into our hands? Maybe it’s just the thought of a gunshot going off on our campus that horrifies me so much, but despite growing up in a place that was, the media claimed, saturated with illegal firearms toted by drug-running gangs (with the awful nickname of ‘Gunchester’), it is still a lot scarier for me to imagine Sussex students being legally able to carry guns around with us – to class, in campus accommodation, around town.

Take the situation of a particularly vicious drunken argument between two students in which one or both of them are also carrying a firearm. Can you guarantee that in the heat of the moment and with significant mental impairment and intoxication, one of them won’t pull out their firearm and wound or kill the other? The considerable damage we could inflict with our bare hands is nothing compared to the damage that could result from the pulling of a trigger in the heat of anger. The fact needs to be faced that these things do happen – but American views on guns will always be extremely different to British ones.

Of course, there are two sides to this story. The opinion of the senators who have already signed the legislature (more than half), the Governor of Texas Rick Perry and a number of students is that having licensed, trained people (staff and students) carrying guns will actually increase safety on campus. The Bill’s sponsor, Senator Jeff Wentworth (Republican – San Antonio) described the current situation in words made famous by one student from the University of Texas, who described students as “sitting ducks to crime”.

Others have repeatedly affirmed their belief that, in a situation like that in Virginia in 2007, having people on-scene who had guns could have prevented the situation from escalating, giving people an option other than “huddling under desks and playing dead” – the technique famously used by Virginia shooting survivor Colin Goddard, who was shot 4 times in the hips, shoulder and knee and only survived by doing just that. Derek Titus (Texas A&M University), leader of the Concealed Carry on Campus group at his institution, stated that gun-free zones were “shooting galleries for the mass-murderers” whilst a professor from the University of Texas said that he would take his gun to work with him so that he could help in the event of an incident.

A non-fatal shooting last year at a campus in Texas is thought have acted as a catalyst for the pro-gun lobby. Photo: WSJ.

But the statistics belie the claims that guns would greater help than hinder life on campus. To get a license for concealed carry (CHL), there are 4 prerequisites. Firstly, that you are 21; secondly, that you have no criminal record. The third factor is that you attend 10 hours of training and pay $140; the fourth is that you pass a written exam on gun safety and pass a firing test on a shooting range. As of 2010, the state had just over 460,000 CHL holders.

However, statistics put the shooting accuracy of police teams in America at only 20% when responding to a crisis such as a mass shooting. Can we really expect civilians who have had 10 hours of training and a practical test to do better than those who train regularly as part of their job? More, when responding to a shooting, if there are multiple persons firing, how are the police expected to know who is the shooter and who is the student trying to stop the shooter?

In terms of the number of shootings that have occurred on campuses since 2007, it’s true that there have been 24  incidents in three years, the most recent being in October 2010. However, out of these, 11 were non-fatal (excluding the shooters in two of the incidences, who committed suicide); the perpetrators of three more were not former or current members of staff or students and five occurred in a public place where a CHL holder wouldn’t have been able to intervene. Of those five remaining, then, only two would class as being an act of mass murder rather than being one or two killings relating to a personal dispute – Blacksburg, Virginia in 2007 and DeKalb, Illinois in 2008.

The various presidents of colleges in the state are united in their view, including University of Texas President William Powers, the heads of University of Texas of the Permian Basin (UTPB), University of Texas at El Paso, Texas A&M, and the Alamo Colleges board – many with the backings of their local police chiefs. They have stated, quite simply, that incidences of college shootings, particularly those involving multiple fatalities, are the rarest of rare situations. Friday and Saturday night come every week on campus. If they are given the choice to refuse the right to CHL on their campuses, they will almost certainly do so. But they may not be given the choice, meaning they would have to allow those who wish to carry firearms to classes to do so.

The view that really matters here, however, is the view of those students, like us, who will be potentially affected by this. Multiple protests have been staged in Austin, Texas, about the measure and the debate on-campus is heating up around the topic. Flashes of vicious argument continue between students from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and Students for Concealed Carry on Campus – with each side accusing the other of trying to make college campuses less safe.

Comments from graduates and students of Texan universities seem overwhelmingly in the negative concerning this issue. Journalists covering opinions at UTPB, University of Texas, University of Texas-Austin and Texas A&M have reported a majority of students, staff and law enforcement officials coming out against the idea of allowing guns into classrooms. One self-effacing student admitted simply that “we’re not mature enough”, whilst another self-proclaimed “pretty Conservative guy”, who was in favour of gun rights, said that he would not feel comfortable knowing that “the person next to me could have one”.

These are just two of hundreds of quotes from Texan students declaring that they would not feel safer with those who have concealed carry licenses being allowed to have their guns with them in the classroom – be that a professor, a fellow student or a maintenance worker.

Plenty of students in other states, including Virginia, feel similarly and the debate has extended to many campuses in states not currently considering a similar bill, as well as becoming an issue discussed between US nationals from differing states, and between US students and the international student community online.

The legislation is expected to pass, one of many similar bills being proposed across the country. Nine states are currently officially considering legislation, five others have had Senators announce that a Bill will be introduced during their term in office and two, Utah and Colorado, have already passed legislation. In Utah, state colleges have no choice over whether to allow concealed carry on campus; Colorado allows them to choose.

Overall 70 American campuses currently allow their students to carry concealed, all in areas which require a CHL. Students for Concealed Carry on Campus tout the lack of incidents on these campuses since this introduction as proof that the fears of the Brady Campaign and other students are unfounded. But the USA has a total of 4,861 colleges and universities, just under 100 per state. If bills in all 9 states go through, that’s almost 900 additional campuses. It will only take one incident, in one college, involving a CHL holder to completely invalidate Student for Concealed Carry on Campus’ claims – and the more colleges that are forced to allow guns on-site, the more likely it is that a tragedy will occur.

When one does, Senators will hopefully begin the process of dismantling this legislation which has the potential for far more harm than good.

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