Is Campus Carry Just a Tempest in a Teapot?

Eight states currently allow concealed carry permit holders to carry guns on all public college campuses. In Utah, campus carry has been on the books for a decade. The first seven states to extend concealed carry rights to their campuses did so with little fanfare or public consternation.

But not so in Texas, the most recent addition to list, where the response has been histrionic.

Two faculty members at UT-Austin have resigned, students are protesting against the law, a candidate for a deanship has withdrawn his application and a sitting dean has left (though it appears that the guns question was not entirely responsible for his decision). The University of Houston’s senate has urged faculty to self-censor lest they provoke armed students to violence.

The increasing tribalism of American politics explains why this debate is so vitriolic. 

Advocates of campus carry see guns as symbolic of individual liberty and self-reliance, physical tokens of a free society. They desire to insert their vision of what American society ought to be like into an enclave (higher education) where most people don’t share it.

The rejection of campus carry by university faculty and administrators is also tribal. To them, the guns represent violence as opposed to reason and a hopelessly atavistic understanding of the nature of individual liberty and self-reliance.

Ultimately the debate is as much about turf and who gets to decide what worldview prevails in public universities as it is about any rational assessment of the safety students and faculty.

Some opponents of campus carry assume that guns themselves cause violence, so more guns, whether legal or illegal, will necessarily mean more violence on campus.

For example, after my recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education arguing that legal campus carry would not increase the risk faculty face from guns, a common response from critics was to note that I had said nothing about the murder of an Arkansas State student in 2010. The victim was shot in the head in his dorm room, probably while he was sleeping. 

Guns were prohibited then and now on the Arkansas State campus. Despite that prohibition, someone (the crime remains unsolved) illegally brought a gun on campus and committed what appears to have been a premeditated, execution-style murder.

What’s the connection between that horrific event and the campus carry question? Only one thing: a gun.

On one side, we have someone willing to risk not just weapons charges for illegally bringing a firearm on campus, but capital murder charges too. On the other, we have people who have gone to the trouble of getting legal approval to carry a firearm, a process that in Arkansas involves sending fingerprints to the State Police, who then investigate the applicant’s background. 

It’s very hard to see any intersection between premeditated murderers and law-abiding people who obtain carry permits. The rules regarding guns on campus mean little to people who come to campus bent on committing crimes.

The more reasonable arguments against campus carry fall into two broad categories. 

One is that the presence of guns on campus will inhibit the free exchange of ideas.  Faculty, it is claimed, will hesitate to bring up controversial topics and students will be afraid to engage in vigorous debate, for fear that one of their classmates might shoot them.

Curiously, that concern is never framed the other way around. No one seems to worry that faculty with carry permits will shoot their students for challenging them or making them appear foolish in class. In other words, we assume the worst of students, a byproduct of the increasing tendency to infantilize them, while making unwarranted assumptions about the emotional stability of our colleagues.

It seems highly improbable that campus carry will lead to outbreaks of deadly violence in the classroom.

I have been teaching university students since the late 1990s and I have not heard of a single instance when a classroom discussion caused physical violence. I have had students in my classes, especially student athletes, who probably had the physical capacity to kill or injure me or other students without the need for any weapon. But although I teach a course on the slave trade and discussions can get tense, the possibility of violence has never inhibited my presentation of controversial material or students’ willingness to voice their opinions.

Furthermore, some students and faculty members already bring guns on campus—just not legally. I know of no cases, however, where a heated classroom debate led to someone losing his cool and reaching for a gun.

If students do not now resort to fisticuffs over course content, it’s unlikely that legal permit holders will punctuate their debating points with gunfire in the future.

The second reasonable argument against campus carry is that it could complicate law enforcement’s response to active shooter situations.

My campus recently went through an active shooter situation of sorts. No shots were fired and the whole thing was resolved without anyone getting hurt. In conversations after the event, a number of my colleagues expressed their relief that armed students had not tried to intervene, because bystanders might have been hurt and the police might have shot the students who had produced guns.

Two interesting points here. First, my colleagues seem to share my belief that some students already illegally bring guns to campus for their own protection. Second, it’s always the students, rather than faculty or staff, who we’re told we should be concerned about. 

There are now over 10 million concealed carry permit holders in the US. If there has been an active shooter incident where a permit holder shot a bystander or confused responders, it has not been well publicized.

At the Umpqua Community College shooting in Oregon (where campus carry is legal), two armed permit holders were present. They did what people do when someone is shooting; they cleared off in hurry. I suspect that the reason no permit holder has shot a bystander or been shot by the police in any of these events is that they’re too busy doing what everyone else is doing—trying to get out of harm’s way. 

The one instance where legally carried guns might make a difference in a campus context is when people are trapped and cannot flee. 

My office is at the end of a hallway that has only one entrance. During our recent lockdown, I sat in my office and considered my options. The most useful weapon I had at hand was a ceramic coffee cup. I did not think to myself, “Well, this coffee cup may not do much against a gun, but at least I don’t have to worry about being accidentally shot by an armed colleague.”

Ultimately, the more extreme claims of both sides in the debate do not hold water.  Allowing permit holders to bring guns on campus is unlikely to result in a rash of violence or to stifle debate. Nor, unfortunately, will it prevent the types of gun violence that already occur on university campuses.

Happily, college campuses are typically pretty safe places compared with the rest of the society. The strident debate on the issue is a tempest in a teapot, more about the political symbolism of guns than it is about safety.