Why Campus Carry Still Matters

While guns continue to proliferate on college campuses, writes Matt Valentine, so should interest among scholars in researching gun violence -- an area long neglected by academics.

November 10, 2020
Istock/Alex belomlinsky

As this most unusual academic year gets underway, with classes meeting mostly in virtual spaces, it might be tempting to assume that campus carry is, if not irrelevant this fall, at least a less urgent concern than in years past. While we educators scramble to adapt our campuses and our pedagogical practices to meet the challenges of a pandemic, must we be thinking about guns, too?

For their part, proponents of campus carry haven’t let COVID-19 stall efforts to expand the policy to more colleges and more states. Gun rights advocates in Tennessee introduced legislation this year that would allow students to carry concealed handguns on campus with a license, while lawmakers in Kansas (one of 10 states in which campus carry is already generally allowed) fought over a proposal to lower the age for legal concealed carry from 21 to just 18.

Gun sales, meanwhile, have been booming. In June, the FBI reported a record 3.9 million background checks (an approximate indicator of gun sales), and figures remained nearly as high in July and August. How many of those newly acquired firearms were back-to-school purchases?

We don’t really know, and that’s part of the problem -- information about who owns guns is legally shielded, even from law enforcement. Consequently, where campus carry is allowed, college police and other staff have to operate on the assumption that any student they interact with might be armed. As Atlantic staff writer Derek Thompson articulated in a recent article, the proliferation of guns in American communities is an intrinsic obstacle to police reform.

Similarly, the proliferation of guns on college campuses complicates many of the other interventions intended to protect student wellness. Over the past several years, higher education institutions have been taking increasingly proactive stances toward suicide prevention and drug abuse. Rather than wait for students to seek help from counseling centers on campus, many colleges now deploy behavioral intervention teams to contact at-risk students directly.

"When we move forward with a violence risk assessment, or VRA, the real threat here is to the evaluator, not knowing exactly who's carrying [a gun],” explained Brian Van Brunt, president of the National Association for Behavioral Intervention and Threat Assessment, who spoke with me via videocall for this article. “There are many VRA’s where the question arises of ‘Does the person have a weapon?’ Or ‘Might they use it during the assessment if they become agitated?’” For these reasons, Van Brunt is wary of recent calls to separate law enforcement from other types of interventions (or to “defund the police”) which he says might put “some of the first responders who work in social work and psychology in a potentially dangerous situation in a college setting."

Van Brunt co-authored a chapter on suicide prevention for the new book Campus Carry: Confronting a Loaded Issue in Higher Education (Harvard Education Press), co-edited by Patricia Somers and myself. That chapter addresses the well-established link between firearms access and the risk of completed suicide, one of the most troubling implications of campus carry policies. It’s difficult to measure rates of suicide among college populations specifically. Unlike homicides and other crimes, which higher education institutions must report to the U.S. Department of Education in compliance with the Clery Act, the federal government doesn’t require colleges to report student suicides. Likewise, suicides often go unnoted in the news, since many media outlets have editorial policies not to report on them. Emerging evidence, though, from surveys of college counseling directors indicates rising rates of completed suicide in places where campus carry policies have been implemented. Like many of campus carry’s impacts -- on pedagogy, on campus climate, on faculty recruiting and retention -- the effect is sufficiently opaque that it can be obscured or ignored if politically inconvenient.

On the one-year anniversary of the implementation of campus carry in Texas, Governor Greg Abbott hailed its success in a tweet: “Campus carry poses no danger on Texas college campuses. The dire consequences never happened.”

Educators and students in campus carry states know that the outcome is not so simple. In Campus Carry, we’ve collected generalizable research as well as personal anecdotes from stakeholders whose lives have been affected by guns in their classrooms, or the threat thereof. But we’ve also documented the growing interest among scholars in researching gun violence, an area long neglected by academics. New gun violence research initiatives have popped up throughout the country, concurrent with the spread of campus carry, and now supported by an unprecedented swell of funding -- such as the $10 million in research awards recently funded by the National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research, and the $25 million Congress authorized last year for gun violence research (following a decades-long freeze). Among the many consequences of the imposition of guns on academe, a boom of new academic research might be the most unintended.

Campus carry legislation will emerge again in statehouses throughout the country. When it does, faculty members should respond not only by protesting the specific policies we may find objectionable but also by engaging issues of gun violence through our scholarship and pedagogical practices. In the classroom, we can adapt our course materials and lesson formats to avoid retraumatizing students who have been affected by gun violence. In the library and laboratory, we can collaborate across disciplines to understand gun violence and craft new interventions.

In addition to original research in the fields of medicine, social psychology and public health, there’s room as well for contributions from ethicists, engineers, historians, architects, computer scientists and artists -- the problem of gun violence has dimensions that intersect nearly every academic discipline. After decades of gun policy informed primarily by dubious, industry-affiliated research, it’s time for academic scholars to lead the way.


Matt Valentine teaches writing at the University of Texas at Austin and is co-editor of Campus Carry: Confronting a Loaded Issue in Higher Education (Harvard Education Press, 2020).


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