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To Carry or Not to Carry

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.