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Days after two shooters killed 14 people and injured 22 others in San Bernardino, Calif., Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, stood in front of 10,000 students, faculty and staff and urged them to bring guns onto campus. In his back pocket, the president said onstage, he carried a small pistol.

“Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here,” Falwell said of recent acts of terrorism, before turning his attention to campus shootings. “What if just one of those students or one of those faculty members had a concealed permit and was carrying a weapon when the shooter walked into Virginia Tech? Countless lives could have been saved.”

The comments were met with a round of applause, and the university said hundreds of Liberty students have now signed up for a training course to get a concealed-carry permit. Nearly 1,000 students, faculty and staff members already had the permits, according to the university.

Liberty has allowed students, faculty and staff to carry guns on campus since 2007 -- following the massacre at Virginia Tech, when 32 people were killed -- but not in residence halls. That caveat will be dropped, Falwell said. In a statement later that week  clarifying and defending the president's remarks, the university said the comments were “a call to arms for self-defense.”

It’s a common refrain for guns rights activists: so-called gun-free zones prevent victims from fighting back during mass shootings, potentially costing more lives. But proving that theory has proven difficult, with activists being able to point to few -- if any -- clear examples of mass shootings thwarted by armed students or faculty members. Campus police chiefs interviewed for this article could not recall any such incidents. 

When a gunman killed nine people and injured seven more at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College in October, some activists and conservative critics said the college’s rule banning firearms from campus was partly to blame. Oregon is one of eight states with provisions in place to allow the carrying of concealed weapons at public college campuses, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, but the state’s Board of Higher Education in 2012 largely banned guns from the campuses in the Oregon University System.

The ban does not apply to community colleges like Umpqua, though, and while the college does not officially allow the possession of firearms on campus, the wording of its policy seems to imply that the state law authorizing concealed carry would trump campus rules. Indeed, a student at the college told several news outlets that he and other students were carrying guns at the time of the shooting.

For a moment, the student, a veteran named John Parker Jr., thought about intervening and using his weapon and military training to stop the gunman. The student, however, was not in the building where the shooting took place.

“Luckily we made the choice not to get involved,” Parker said at the time. “We were quite a distance away from the actual building where it was happening, which could have opened us up to being potential targets ourselves. Not knowing where SWAT was on their response time, they wouldn’t know who we were, and if we had our guns ready to shoot, they could think we were the bad guys.”

Had Parker chosen to intervene and been able to stop the gunman, he would have been in rare company. According to a study by the Federal Bureau of Investigation that examined 104 active-shooter events from 2000 to 2012, less than 3 percent of mass shootings were stopped by armed civilians.

An oft-cited but controversial 1997 study by former Yale University professor John R. Lott Jr. argues, however, that guns prevented about two million crimes per year between 1977 and 1992. The study has since been challenged by several other researchers. In a 2001 paper published in the Journal of Political Economy, Mark Duggan, a public policy professor at Stanford University, wrote that the “direction of the relationship” between gun ownership and crime rates is “theoretically ambiguous.”

One incident activists frequently cite as an example of armed students stopping a gunman on campus occurred in 2002 at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Va. In that shooting, a former student, Peter Odighizuwa, killed another student, a professor and a dean before being confronted by three students, two of them armed. Differing eyewitness accounts make it difficult to know what role the armed students actually played in stopping the gunman.

While two of the students were armed, the student who first tackled the gunman was not. That student, a former Marine and police officer named Ted Besen, maintains that Odighizuwa was already on the ground and unarmed before the two armed students arrived.

“Their guns had no effect on Peter,” Besen said in an interview with the Associated Press in 2007.

Michael Newbern, an engineering instructor at Ohio State University and the assistant director of public relations for Students for Concealed Carry, said that it’s difficult to pinpoint examples of armed civilians stopping mass shootings because “we never know if the shooter only wanted to target one or two people until they’ve been able to do so.” He pointed to a number of examples, however, of civilians stopping shooters in smaller-scale attacks -- such as during home invasions -- as well as to the Appalachian School of Law incident.

Trained and licensed gun owners should be allowed to protect themselves on campus, regardless, he said, and perhaps then more incidents of civilians stopping mass killers would emerge.

“It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that when you ban guns, lawful people won’t be able to stop mass shootings," Newbern said. "What we do know is that when a licensee's rights to carry are not restricted, they can choose the means by which they defend themselves. The state must present a compelling reason to restrict that right. Rights don't require justification. We challenge you to find an incident where an innocent person was injured or a crime occurred as a result of campus concealed carry. We haven't been able to find any. In the face of no evidence that concealed carry causes an increase in crime or gun incidents on campus, how can one justify restricting the right?”

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