Campus Carry Is Not About Preventing Mass Shootings

Concealed carriers aren’t likely to make effective interventions, and such a focus distracts us from the best arguments for campus carry, which should be primarily about the individual right to self-defense and self-determination, argues Erik Gilbert.

June 12, 2017
 
On left, a Glock 22, a police service pistol; on right, a Ruger LCP, popular with concealed carriers.
 

Campus carry is in the news again. Here in Arkansas, the governor just signed a bill (HB 1249) that will allow permit holders who obtain additional training to carry guns on campuses. Georgia’s governor recently signed a campus carry bill even though he vetoed one last year. In Kansas, a professor has resigned in part because of his concern about a campus carry bill.

The debate on this subject, which has always been highly emotional, seems to have drifted away from a focus on whether guns in the classroom stifle debate. It now hinges on the role concealed carriers might play in stopping a mass shooting or in hindering the police response to such an event.

Jacob Dorman, the history professor leaving Kansas, wrote in his letter of resignation, "Campus shootings have become all too frequent, and arming students has done nothing to quell active-shooter situations, because students do not have the training to effectively combat shooters and rightly fear becoming identified as a suspect themselves."

During the legislative tug-of-war over HB 1249 in Arkansas, one of the issues in play was the content of the additional training that would be imposed on people who wished to carry on campuses. One amendment would have required that that training should include active-shooter training, active-shooter simulation scenarios, trauma care and defensive tactics, among other things. The premise here seems to be that only people who are trained to the point where they are virtually junior members of the local SWAT team should be allowed to carry on campuses, because it is only they who would have the skills to deal with the complexities of an active-shooter situation.

Proponents of campus carry also view the potential for intervention in active-shooter situations as a central argument for campus carry. The author of the Arkansas campus carry bill wrote it with the specific intent of reducing the risk of mass shootings. So it’s not just the anti-gunners who see mass shootings as central to the argument.

But I don’t think concealed carriers are likely to make effective interventions in mass shootings. Nor do I think the presence of concealed weapons is likely to hinder the response to a mass shootings. Further, I think the focus on mass shootings distracts us from the best arguments for campus carry, which should be primarily about the individual right to self-defense and self-determination -- not about the ability or inability of concealed carriers to protect others from events like mass shootings.

It’s instructive to look at a real-life example. During the 2015 shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon -- where campus carry is legal -- several people who were present legally carried guns. None of them used their guns, and all seem to have done what everyone else did at the time: they cleared out in a hurry.

Why didn’t those armed students intervene? First, it’s terrifying to get shot at, and, as John Keegan’s The Face of Battle tells us, most people, when faced with a deadly threat and an avenue of escape, choose to flee rather than to fight. It’s people who are trapped and cannot flee who stand their ground and fight. Had the gunman trapped any of the concealed carriers in a room or corner, things might have turned out differently.

We should also keep in mind the types of weapons that concealed carriers bring with them. People who are less familiar with guns may assume that concealed carriers are armed in much the same way that the police are armed. They are not.

To be sure, some concealed carriers do lug around full-size pistols and extra ammunition. But those guns are heavy, bulky and uncomfortable to conceal. In practice, most concealed carriers favor easily concealed five-shot revolvers and pocket-sized autoloaders. While those types of guns are well suited to close-range self-defense, they are hard to shoot accurately beyond about 10 yards.

If you found yourself facing an active shooter armed with a rifle or even a full-size pistol in a large space like a library or student union, that little revolver with its two-inch barrel is going to feel pretty inadequate. It’s totally unreasonable to expect someone to take on a heavily armed shooter in such a scenario.

By contrast, cops usually have full-size pistols with four- to five-inch barrels that usually hold 15 or more rounds, and they carry lots of extra ammunition. They also routinely wear body armor and have rifles in their cars. Not only are they better trained to deal with these types of issues, but they are also much better equipped to do so.

As for the likelihood of concealed carriers complicating the response to a mass shooting, it’s significant that we have to talk about this as a hypothetical. Could it happen? Sure. There are thought to be over 14 million concealed-carry permits in the United States, a growing number of states allow permitless carry (legal since 1791 in Vermont) and campus carry has been legal in Utah for over a decade. Can anyone point to an example of a mass shooting on a campus or off one that was made worse because of the presence of a legally carried concealed weapon? I can’t.

A Question of Individual Choice

If concealed carry can’t be expected to prevent mass shootings or to increase the general level of safety on campuses, why support it?

The question itself is fundamentally illiberal. The only valid objection to legally carried guns on campus would be if the presence of those guns posed a significant danger to people other than those who carry them.

Given that the expansion of concealed-carry rights over the last 20 years has coincided with (which is not the same as caused) a declining murder rate and a reduced incidence of gun accidents, it’s hard to make the case that concealed carry poses a significant threat to others. So if legally permitted faculty members or students want to carry a gun to school because they think, rightly or wrongly, that it makes them safer, it’s hard to see why anyone else has a legitimate interest in preventing them from doing so.

Opponents of gun rights often point to studies that purport to show that owning a gun is more likely to make one the victim of gun violence (a misleading term that conflates homicides and suicides) than it is to protect one from violence. Even if those studies were correct on a broad level, that would not justify preventing an individual from making their own choices about whether to own or carry a gun, provided that those choices don’t put others at risk.

Finally, it’s easy to imagine scenarios where having a gun on a campus might actually be quite useful to the individual with the gun. When an irate student or colleague shows up at your office door armed and bent on mayhem -- as happened at Delta State and the University of California, Los Angeles -- having a gun handy offers better odds than not having one.

Walking through the dark parking lot when you leave the library or the lab late at night? If you think you are safer with a gun than without, why should anyone second-guess your decision?

If you happen to be locked down in a classroom during a mass shooting, wouldn’t you rather be able to shoot back if the shooter comes through the door? If you would rather resort to throwing coffee cups or iPads, as some campus police might advise, that’s valid choice and I would not try to dissuade you. But is there a compelling reason to impose that preference on others?

Campus carry is not going to end mass shootings, but it’s disingenuous to use that as an argument against guns on campus. Do we really want concealed carriers to act as auxiliary cops or vigilantes? The fact that thus far none have done so during a mass shooting is a testament to their good judgment and thus constitutes an argument for, not against, the individual right to armed self-defense.

Bio

Erik Gilbert is a professor of history at Arkansas State University.

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