The case for expanding campus gun carry
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The recent car and knife attack at Ohio State University once again raises the question of whether faculty and adult students should be allowed to defend themselves and others on college campuses like they can in most public places by carrying firearms.

The heroic campus police officer at Ohio State was in the right place at just the right time to shoot the attacker and save lives. But violent assaults usually are over before police arrive. Most mass shootings last less than five minutes and two-thirds end before police get there. 

As someone once said, “When seconds count, the police are only minutes away.”

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The most common objection to campus carry is the increased danger of allowing firearms on campus. Opponents of campus carry present a gruesome parade of horribles if individuals can carry guns on campus—heated classroom discussions will break out into gunfights, students will shoot professors who give them bad grades, partying will turn dangerous with the mix of alcohol and guns, and unintentional shootings will multiply.

It is extremely unlikely that this parade will ever materialize.

To begin with, in most states only persons 21 and older can legally obtain a concealed carry permit, so if campus carry is permitted, 18-to-20-year-old college students still will likely not be permitted to carry guns on campus.

Adults with concealed carry permits tend to be highly law-abiding. Studies have shown that concealed carry permit holders are far less likely to commit crimes than the general population or even law enforcement officers. 

One study of permit holders in Texas concluded that they “rarely break bad” and are “almost universally a law-abiding population.”

Another study showed that permit holders are convicted of crimes at one-sixth the rate that police officers are convicted. There is no reason to believe that permit holders will behave differently on campus. As Texas state Attorney General Ken Paxton recently observed, “Adults who are licensed by the State to carry a handgun anywhere in [the state] do not suddenly become a menace to society when they set foot on campus.”

Colleges that have permitted campus carry have confirmed this. Campus carry has been allowed since 2003 at Colorado State’s two campuses, since 2006 on 30 campuses in Utah, since 2010 at 14 community colleges with 38 different campuses in Colorado, since 2011 on 42 public college campuses in Mississippi, since 2012 on the remaining 21 public college campuses in Colorado, and since 2014 on 30 public college campuses in Idaho. None of these campuses have returned to the days of the Wild West, much less seen any significant increase in gun violence.

Many of the arguments against campus carry simply restate failed arguments against concealed carry in public. Since 2007 the number of concealed handgun permits in the US has soared to over 14.5 million—a 215 percent increase. Concealed firearms regularly are carried in restaurants, grocery stores, office buildings, shopping malls, movie theaters, and churches. 

If there has been no increase in gun violence caused by permit holders in public, the burden is on opponents of campus carry to show why permitting adults to carry concealed firearms on campus will be different.

To be sure, given the unique living arrangements on college campuses, special safety considerations might be appropriate, such as keeping firearms in secure lockers while students are in their living facilities. Consuming alcohol or drugs while carrying on campus would be prohibited, just as it is in public. But these factors alone do not justify a complete ban on faculty and adult students possessing guns on campus.

Opponents of campus carry argue that there is no need for firearms because college campuses are much safer than other places. While most crimes against college students occur off campus, a ban on firearms on campus can have the effect of disarming students off campus. If you can’t carry at your destination, you can’t carry on your way to that destination.

For example, the law school where I teach is located in a downtown area and many students are required to park as many as ten blocks away. Because state law prohibits bringing firearms into our building, these adult students are deprived of their constitutional right to be armed for protection during the walk between their cars and the school.

Campus carry can increase campus safety. Data shows that ordinary violent criminals are significantly deterred by the risk of confronting an armed victim. Even if an attack occurs, resisting with a gun can reduce the possibility being injured or the crime being completed.

Evidence also suggests that mass shooters avoid places where somebody might have a gun.

Banning firearms does not guarantee that college campuses will be free from gun violence. Terrorists, criminals, and the mentally-deranged are not deterred by such policies. Real gun-free zones like airplanes and courthouses have metal detectors and armed security—without such protections, you only have pretend gun-free zones. The only guns that pretend gun-free zones prevent are those in the hands of law-abiding citizens.

Mass attacks occur so rapidly that waiting for the police to arrive is sure to lead to more injuries or deaths. The best way to increase the survival rate is to have all defensive options available. Prohibiting adults from having guns on campuses eliminates the possibility that an armed law-abiding citizen might stop or slow down a mass attacker.

Opponents of campus carry say that students or faculty returning fire will harm innocent persons or confuse arriving police. But those objections apply anytime an armed victim is resisting, and such scenarios rarely occur.

In multiple cases where concealed carry permit holders have stopped attacks in businesses, malls, college campuses, churches, and other places, no permit holder has ever shot a bystander, nor have the police ever accidentally shot the permit holder. 

The risk of bystander harm or police mistake is far outweighed by the danger of allowing the attacker to continue to injure or kill.

Armed students can make a difference. The first modern mass shooting on a college campus occurred in 1966 when Charles Whitman began shooting from the 30-floor clock tower at the University of Texas. He killed 14 and wounded more than 30.

Several armed students shot back at him and, while they didn’t hit him, they slowed down his deadly sniping. The police officer who killed Whitman, Ramiro Martinez, wrote in his autobiography, “The sniper did a lot of damage when he could fire freely, but when the armed citizens began to return fire the sniper had to take cover.” There is no doubt that these students saved lives.

Campus carry can be implemented in stages to reduce risks. Schools first can permit faculty and staff with concealed carry permits to be armed, then students with permits who have military training, then all other students who qualify for permits.

But complete bans that disarm faculty and adult students qualified to carry elsewhere unnecessarily sweep too broadly.

E. Gregory Wallace is a constitutional law professor at Campbell University School of Law in Raleigh, N.C. The views expressed are his own. You can follow Campbell Law on Twitter @CampbellLawSBA


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