Guns on America's campuses: Let the colleges decide

Guns on America's campuses: Let the colleges decide
© iStock

In 1789, Benjamin Franklin said that “in this world, nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.” For America, 230 years later, we can surely add guns to that list. Lots of ‘em.

The United States, home to less than 5 percent of the world’s population, houses nearly 40 percent of the world’s civilian-owned guns, and more than 35,000 people die from guns annually, many of them in multi-victim shootings. 

For many college leaders, guns pose a unique challenge and generate fear around how easily they can be brought onto campuses. It’s time for policymakers in Washington, and across the country, to pay attention when these leaders speak out about not wanting guns on their campuses.

ADVERTISEMENT

The combination of young people and guns is a scary one. Add alcohol and mental health issues, including increased rates of suicidal ideation, among this age group and you have a truly combustible mix.

The University of Texas at Austin was the site of the first massacre on a college campus in 1966. Fourteen people died and more than two dozen were wounded when a gunman fired from the campus clock tower. Fifty years later, in 2016, state lawmakers approved legislation permitting concealed weapons to be carried on Texas’ public campuses.

The sobering reality of mass shootings on college campuses has stretched across the country, from Oregon’s Umpqua Community College and Northern Arizona University to Delaware State University and, of course, Virginia Tech. On the final day of classes at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte last April, a 22-year-old former student opened fire with a legally purchased handgun, killing two people and leaving four others wounded.

Since 2014, Missouri law has allowed weapons to be carried into virtually any building in the state, but not on college campuses unless the schools say so. Last April, the Missouri House of Representatives voted 98-52 for a “guns everywhere” bill that would prohibit public college presidents and boards from having gun-free policies. The bill stalled in the state Senate, but could re-surface upon the legislature’s return.

Missouri State University President Clif Smart has said that permitting campus carry in his state would make his campus “less safe, not more safe.” Successive chancellors of the University of Texas System told their state’s political leaders, in vain, the same thing.

ADVERTISEMENT

What these leaders want — and need — is the authority and the ability to decide for themselves, and for their campus communities, which firearms policies align with and advance their educational missions. They, ultimately, are responsible for the safety and well-being of their students, faculty, staff and visitors.  

Five days after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut in 2012, hundreds of campus presidents signed an open letter declaring that while “our nation’s leaders have engaged in fevered debates on higher education” their refusal to act on gun safety “prevents thousands of young people from living lives of promise, let alone realizing their college dreams.” In a 2014 survey of over 400 college presidents, 95 percent said they opposed allowing concealed handguns on campus. 

Last year Leo Lambert, president emeritus of Elon University in North Carolina, spoke of being “haunted” by how close his campus came to tragedy when a heavily armed 18-year-old from another school was intercepted by Elon’s campus police.

Yet, the call from these campus leaders for our elected representatives to act on behalf of our children by enacting rational gun safety measures largely remains an echo in the wind. 

Parents are rightly worried about the safety of their children as they head to campuses across the country. Getting shot at college ought not to be on the list of concerns, any more than children being targeted at an elementary or secondary school — but it is.

America’s campuses invite everyone to enter. That’s their essence and their promise. Unlike the typical K-12 school building, colleges and universities don’t have one or two entrances. The driveways, walkways, sidewalks and pathways leading onto campus may number in the hundreds. Metal detectors are not an option.

Campuses have developed and enhanced lockdown protocols, active shooter training and a host of other response mechanisms. But no college president in America goes to sleep at night confident that these things will prevent a shooting in the morning.

Despite the Supreme Court’s explicit approval of laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in “sensitive places such as schools,” the inaction and actions of elected policymakers in Washington and across the country are increasing the odds that a gun will sit next to a student in a classroom, or dance nearby at a campus party. Congress continues to prevent federal research funding on gun deaths, and at least 10 states now have blessed the carrying of concealed weapons on public college campuses. 

Doctors speak of treating the cause, rather than the condition. It is time to treat the cause. Way past time, actually. The harsh reality is that until we do, college leaders — like the rest of society — are fighting an uphill battle. 

Peter McDonough is vice president and general counsel of the American Council on Education and former general counsel at Princeton.