Bringing the Gun Debate Back to Campus

Since Virginia Tech, a grassroots wave of "lie-ins" has sought to highlight the ease with which criminals can buy guns. But where are the students?
November 1, 2007

Almost instantly, the Virginia Tech massacre last April set off a chain reaction of public responses, from investigations into privacy statutes to wide-ranging evaluations of colleges' emergency notification plans. But one issue that has not been dominant -- to the surprise of some activists -- is gun control.

The absence so far of any sustained public outrage over the availability of guns stands in stark contrast to the aftermath of the Columbine shootings in 1999. The nature of the response this year can be chalked up to a number of factors, not least of which was the consensus by several task forces convened after the killings -- such as the one ordered by Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine -- that faulted university policies and pointed to the effects of confusing mental health laws and a state loophole (since closed by an executive order) that essentially left unenforced a federal law that would have prevented a shooter with a mental health history like Seung Hui Cho's from legally obtaining a gun in the first place.

Immediately after the shootings, advocates for a strengthened instant background check system, a renewed assault weapons ban and other measures embarked on an unusual strategy to bring more awareness of gun laws in the United States, one that is becoming visible on more campuses. On Monday afternoon at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for example, 32 people -- donning Virginia Tech colors atop black clothing -- stood in silent protest of state and federal laws that make it too easy, they believe, for people with criminal backgrounds or mental health issues to obtain guns.

It was the 32nd such demonstration since the Protest Easy Guns campaign began in earnest almost as soon as the news of Cho's killing spree reached Abigail Spangler, a cellist with a Ph.D. from Columbia University whose father was the former chancellor of the UNC system. Her campaign is simple. At each protest, 32 people (also the number Cho killed at Virginia Tech) spend three minutes (the length of time it apparently took Cho to purchase his weapons) at a "lie-in," offering themselves as the visual equivalent of the 32 or so daily victims of gun crimes in the United States.

"It’s a matter of getting the message out there that our protest movement is happening," Spangler said.

She's already created what she calls a "protest in a box," which makes it easy for local activists to set up their own demonstrations around the country. Lie-ins have been staged at campuses including Carleton College and the University of Virginia -- with the University of South Carolina and other institutions on the horizon -- as well as in New York, Chicago, Washington and other cities.

"After the Virginia Tech shootings ... I think it would be impossible to overstate the feeling in the pit of everyone’s stomach about how easily this could have happened on any campus," said Kate Torrey, the director of the University of North Carolina Press, who participated in the protest on Monday. Torrey was at UNC in 1995 when a former law student who had stopped his medication for schizophrenia shot and killed two people in downtown Chapel Hill and wounded a police officer.

Still, more of the highly symbolic demonstrations have taken place in towns or cities than on college campuses, and that's partially an indication of who's doing the organizing. The protest at UNC, for example, was co-sponsored by the local Million Mom March chapter and North Carolinians Against Gun Violence (NCGV) but no student groups.

At the University of Virginia, though, students organized a lie-in on Oct. 16 that coincided with the six-month anniversary of the Virginia Tech shootings. Spangler has also tapped Facebook to try to recruit more organizers in college; her group currently has 218 members, not an insignificant number but far less than that of many advocacy organizations on the site -- including Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, which has 7,542 members.

At UNC, said Lisa Price, the executive director of NCGV, "some people from campus" joined the demonstration, bringing the total number of protesters to about 34. "Students just don’t seem to be caught up in this issue the way they were in the civil rights movement. I don’t know whether things will change because of these demonstrations and other things....”

Spangler thinks it's natural for students to participate in the movement, and she's made sure her protests are self-contained enough to allow even a busy physics major to set up an event. "Students understand this issue better than most because it was students at Virginia Tech," she said.

In truth, Protest Easy Guns isn't the only post-Virginia-Tech movement that's spread across college campuses. The concealed-carry organization, which has student chapters at about 125 campuses nationwide, organized an "empty holster" protest last week to demonstrate that those with a license to carry concealed weapons are "left defenseless ... when they walk on college campuses” that do not allow guns on their premises, said W. Scott Lewis, a spokesman.

"Our opinion is that concealed handgun licenses are the perfect compromise between what the gun control advocates and the gun rights advocates support," said Lewis, 27, who has a concealed weapon license for the State of Texas.

Protest Easy Guns takes pains to point out that it isn't against guns per se, only the ability of criminals to obtain them. Students for Concealed Carry on Campus argues that those with the licenses have already gone through background checks and training, making campus bans unnecessary.

Spangler's group, which does not "raise a penny or spend a penny," according to its Web site, hopes that the individual lie-ins will lead groups to lobby their state and local governments. Price, the NCGV executive director, said her husband, Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), voted for a bill that would strengthen the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. And Spangler said she is readying questions to submit to YouTube for the upcoming Republican debate sponsored by the video-sharing site.

"[W]e hope that college students will be inspired by our social movement ... because we need their help!" she said.


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