A little more than three years ago, Seung-Hui Cho entered a building at Virginia Tech, chained the doors shut and began shooting. He killed 32 people--the deadliest school shooting in United States history. The tragedy sparked a nationwide review of campus safety measures. Colleges began coordinating with local police to update old and outdated emergency policies. But the shooting also caused many students, dismayed by the poor emergency response by Virginia Tech administrators and police, to start looking toward ensuring their own safety. A movement was born to roll back long-standing handgun bans at colleges, led by the group Students for Concealed Carry on Campus.
The campaign argues that gun-free zones, far from ensuring the safety of students, leaves them defenseless. As David Burnett, the director of public relations for SCCC, said in a phone interview, "We find these pieces of paper tacked to the door that say 'no guns allowed' aren't doing much to deter shooters or even average criminals."
However, despite heavy media coverage and continued debate, advocates of concealed carry have little to show for their efforts. States have considered legislation to allow concealed carry on public campuses 34 times in the years since the Virginia Tech shooting, and more bills are expected this year. Yet so far, none of the legislation has passed in the face of heavy opposition from college administrators and faculty.
An opposing group, the Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus, was started in 2008. In a phone interview, director Andy Pelosi (no relation to the House speaker) said the campaign has collected the signatures of 133 colleges in 31 states which support handgun bans.
Currently, 26 states ban handguns on campus, even by those with concealed carry permits. Twenty three other states leave the decision to individual colleges. Only Utah explicitly prohibits public colleges from banning licensed handguns on campus.
But concealed carry advocates have fared better in the courts. A Colorado appellate court recently struck down Colorado University's ban on handguns, ruling it conflicted with the state constitution.
A handgun ban on Oregon public campuses is also currently under review by the state supreme court. Filed by the Oregon Firearms Federation, the lawsuit seeks clarification, similar to the Colorado case, on whether the Oregon University System has the power to regulate handguns.
Oregon law allows licensed citizens to carry a concealed handgun in almost any public building in the state. It also grants the legislative assembly sole power to regulate firearms. However, the Oregon University System maintains an absolute ban on weapons.
The case was spurred by the ordeal of Jeffrey Maxwell, a Western Oregon University student and Marine veteran. Maxwell was arrested in January 2009 for possessing a concealed handgun on campus, even though he was licensed to carry.
The county D.A. released Maxwell after determining he had not broken any laws. Nevertheless, he was still suspended from WOU and ordered by a tribunal of fellow students to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. After a long legal battle, WOU eventually dropped all disciplinary actions against Maxwell.
Cases like these probably offer the best chance for proponents of concealed carry to defeat campus bans, but even in states where there is no such legal conflict, is there a justification for banning guns from campuses? If a student is licensed by the state to carry, what is the fundamental difference between a classroom and any other public space?
"It makes no sense," Oregon Firearms Federation Executive Director Kevin Starrett said in a phone intervew. "If we can't trust them on campus, why do we trust them anywhere else?"
Indeed, if students' First Amendment right to free expression does not end at the school gates, as the Supreme Court ruled in Tinker v. Des Moines, why should they be denied their Second Amendment right to self-defense?
Opponents of guns on campus argue that colleges are already safe and introducing guns would only make them more dangerous.
"The studies that we refer to show that campuses are very safe environments for the most part," Pelosi said. "At this point, we don't see the need for introducing guns on campus. If you introduce guns, you are asking for bad outcomes."
Pelosi said college campuses, with their volatile mix of alcohol, crowded dorms and flaring emotions, are no place for guns. Plus, he said, school shootings were exceedingly uncommon: "These types of instances are so rare, the positives just don't outweigh the negatives."
However, Burnett called that argument "cold comfort" for the victims of college shootings. "Just because the crime rate might be a little lower on campuses doesn't erase the need for self-defense," Burnett said. "If there is one shooting on college campuses a year--just one--the students should have that right to self-defense."
And even if shootings are relatively rare, students have other things to worry about, especially female students. A 2009 study by the Center for Public Integrity reported that up to 20 percent of college women will be sexually assaulted before they graduate. College neighborhoods are also hot spots for burglaries and muggings.
In light of this, a compelling argument can also be made that guns makes campuses more safe. According to campus police statistics culled by SCCC, the number of crimes per year at Colorado State University, where licensed concealed carry has been allowed since 2003, has dropped from a high of more than 800 in 2002 to less than 300 in 2008.
At Colorado University, where handguns are still banned for the moment, Burnett said, crime has only risen.
Law-abiding students with concealed carry licenses are not asking for Wild West shootouts. They're asking for a right they've already been found responsible enough to exercise in public. They're asking--because nowhere is perfectly safe--for at least a fighting chance.