Universities and guns don’t mix

Paul Greatrix remains bewildered about the very notion of students carrying guns on campus

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

I continue to be totally astounded that at many US university campuses, students are allowed to carry guns.

Not only that, but in some of the cases where it is not permitted, lobby groups have been pushing hard to allow it. You could argue that this is none of my business, that those of us in the UK – where gun laws are, thankfully, a lot more restrictive – simply don’t understand the culture. You could say that but you would be wrong. There are no reasons (with the  possible exception of sporting club activity) to have any guns on campus. They are completely and utterly wrong, unnecessary, and inappropriate in a higher education setting.

Several things recently caught my eye in relation to guns on campus in the US. First this handy article from a couple of years ago provides a really handy explainer of gun controls (or lack of them) on US campuses. It notes that Americans are 10 times more likely to be killed by guns than are people in the rest of the developed world, 25 times more likely to be murdered with a gun, and eight times more likely to die of suicide by gun.

So many gun-related deaths

Over 30,000 Americans die every year as a result of guns. About two thirds of these are suicides. Every year there are also several hundred mass shootings too and many of these happen in schools and universities. Some of them are globally reported events because of their scale, such as the appalling attack at Virginia Tech in 2007 where 32 people were murdered, but the even more shocking thing is that these occurrences are fairly commonplace in the US.

Often citing the rising rate of annual mass shootings, as well as the second amendment of the U.S. constitution, gun rights lobby groups, such as the National Rifle Association (NRA), as well as politicians empathetic to gun ownership rights, have been pushing to eliminate gun-free zones for the last few decades. This would include college campuses. For most of their history, college campuses have been “gun-free zones” in which only licensed law enforcement personnel can carry guns. Even if you have a concealed carry license, possession of a gun in these areas carries a hefty fine and possible jail time.

In fact, James Madison, one of the authors of the Constitution and the second amendment itself, was part of a board that barred University of Virginia students from carrying guns or ammunition on campus 200 years ago. Through the years, the majority of colleges in the U.S. have maintained similar policies.

The piece also notes that lobby groups, such as Students for Campus Carry (SFCC), argue that students have a right to protect themselves with firearms:

Such arguments often fall along two lines. Either A) they build on the “good guy with a gun” myth, the idea that a well-trained and knowledgeable citizen or group of citizens with guns can stop a mass shooting before it escalates; or B) they point to places that allow campus carry (Utah, for example) and argue that no harm has come from it.

As the article and research notes, the “good guy with a gun” notion really is a myth – there is no evidence that any intervention by campus carriers has any effect in preventing mass shootings. Also, while there have not been more mass shootings at universities that allow campus carry than those that don’t, this doesn’t mean they are inherently safer places.

Having guns on campus changes behaviour of both staff and students and contributes to an atmosphere where everyone feels less safe and academics may decide to avoid more controversial topics for fear of sparking a heated discussion and students may decide that this is not a place they feel happy studying. Moreover, it is all very expensive indeed. The level of intervention to ensure the rules are followed, whatever they may be, can cost millions of dollars a year.

Forcing campus carry

An article in the Chronicle earlier in 2021 noted that the Montana State House of Representatives had introduced a law which allowed guns to be carried on university campuses, despite the opposition of the institutions concerned.

Brock Tessman, deputy commissioner for academic, research, and student affairs at the university was having to plan for the implementation:

“We’re starting to identify the particularly challenging aspects,” Tessman said, which include how the law works in residence halls, the requirements for those who want to carry a firearm around campus and not just store it in their dorm, and how the university will enforce policy violations.

Last week, the state’s House of Representatives passed a budget that includes $1 million to help the university system implement the law. The money is meant to help fund firearms training, metal detectors, gun safes in dorms, and awareness campaigns. But the university system won’t get the funding if they challenge the law in court.

It’s a massive change and a real challenge. But a more recent report notes that this has turned into an ongoing battle and the Board of Regents of Montana University is pushing back against the implementation of the law to allow campus carry. There is some fine legal argument about this and the autonomy of the Board of Regents but it does seem extraordinary to seek to coerce a university to have guns on its campus. And the crude attempt to bribe the university by offering funding only if it did not challenge the ruling in court really is cynical.

Campus cops have guns too

In an environment where guns are commonplace and police are all armed it is perhaps unsurprising that most university security forces also carry guns. Well, I do continue to be surprised to be honest. I don’t think that the True Crime on Campus series would have had quite the same flavour if weapons were regularly being discharged. Tooled up campus security genuinely feels completely alien from a UK HE perspective. Anyway, things might be changing in a small way in some parts of the US. This recent report about Portland State University noted that, following a seven year campaign by students, campus police were no longer going to be armed.

PSU President Stephen Percy announced June 11 that campus patrols will be unarmed by Sept. 1.

“I’m pleased to announce that Chief [Willie] Halliburton has committed to beginning fully unarmed campus patrols no later than Sept. 1, prior to the start of the fall term,” Percy wrote Friday. “New policies to reflect the change to unarmed patrol have been created, reviewed by the University Public Safety Oversight Committee and are now in place. I appreciate the leadership of Chief Halliburton and members of the CPSO team for their commitment to innovation in campus safety.”

As the report comments in relation to the student campaign, Disarm PSU has been arguing for this for years:

That demand intensified following the 2018 shooting of a Black man named Jason Washington by campus police called to break up a fight outside a sports bar called the Cheerful Tortoise.

Washington reached to the ground to pick up a handgun that had dropped out of his holster. Police shot him nine times. A grand jury declined to indict campus officers, but PSU paid Washington’s family $1 million to avert a lawsuit.

The idea of campus police shooting someone nine times is just shocking.

However, another report suggests that Disarm PSU remain sceptical about the announcement:

But what might seem like a victory for police-reform advocates has instead been called a “media stunt” by DisarmPSU, a coalition of students, faculty, and staff members that is calling for the complete disarmament of the campus safety office. The office, with about 15 police and public-safety officers, will still have guns on hand under the new policy. And that’s putting Black and brown lives at stake, activists say.

A DisarmPSU organizer, Katie Cagle, a staff member in the university’s School of Social Work and a Portland State alumna herself, said she did not trust that the disarmament would occur by September 1. Though she thinks the announcement was made with good intentions, she’s dismayed by bureaucratic delays. “It’s a multistep process,” she said, “and these announcements were made with no plan in place for that to happen.”

It remains to be seen then how serious this disarmament of campus police at PSU is. It has to be a move in the right direction.

No guns on campus

Guns are inimical to successful education. All of the values espoused by universities, all the good work they do to educate global citizens of tomorrow and all the talk of protecting free speech and academic freedom and the need for civilised and rational debate is more than undone when someone is pointing a gun at someone else. Guns have no place on university campuses.

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