In legislative chambers across the United States, policy makers are debating the merits of open- and concealed-carry laws as a policy response to the threat of campus violence. In the past two years, elected leaders in more than 30 states have pushed to enact legislation that would allow guns on college campuses.
This summer, for example, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas signed into law a bill that enables citizens to carry concealed handguns on campuses, making it the eighth state to do so. And in July, Florida’s First District Court of Appeals heard a challenge by a special-interest group seeking to extend concealed-carry laws to campus residence halls. These developments have gone forward without evidence to answer a lingering question: Do more guns mean safer campuses?
A look at rates of violence in states with less restrictive gun laws reveals that looser regulation does not lead to safer communities. Data show that in six of the 10 states with the highest rates of violent crime, individuals are permitted to openly carry handguns in public without a permit or license. Further, a 2014 study found that, upon enactment of loosened firearm restrictions, "right to carry" states have seen an increase in aggravated assaults.
The outcomes are similar on college campuses. Lawmakers in Colorado and Utah have enacted right-to-carry legislation that extends to the institutions in their states. Looking closely at campus-crime statistics since the enactment of these laws, the Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus, an advocacy group, has found that incidents of violent crime are on the rise at colleges in both states.
But what about the argument that trained, well-intentioned carriers will be able to protect themselves and others from imminent violence? On the television show 20/20, the Bethlehem (Pa.) Police Department conducted an experiment at Muhlenberg College to test the ability of people who are trained in the use of firearms, but lack crisis training, to protect themselves and others with a concealed handgun in moments of unexpected violence.
Six participants, who ranged from having no experience with firearms to hundreds of hours, took part in the experiment. Firearms instructors provided training on how to draw, aim, and shoot a handgun, telling the participants that their training would later be used to determine their skill. They weren’t told, however, when the test would take place. Each was provided with a handgun loaded with blanks, placed separately in a classroom, and told that further firearms instruction was forthcoming.
Instead, the participants were confronted by what they believed was an armed intruder. When the "perpetrator" entered the room, none of the participants drew their weapons quickly enough to stop the "shooter" (whose weapon also held blanks).
The experiment offered compelling evidence that trained and well-intentioned carriers are unable to respond to imminent violence.
Right-to-carry laws are being pushed forward without the broad support of the campus communities that will be affected by their enactment. Last year NASPA — Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education published a joint statement with five other student-focused groups expressing the sentiments of more than 50,000 higher-education professionals: Guns in the hands of those who are not trained in crisis situations have no place on campus.
College law-enforcement professionals have also shared deep concern that the increased presence of firearms hinders the capability of law-enforcement officials to readily identify perpetrators in the event of violence.
We cannot compromise on campus safety. Instead of enacting policy solutions that fail to deliver the desired results, elected officials and the higher-education community must work together to achieve responsible approaches to address campus violence. Without the wide presence of right-to-carry laws, colleges have thus far seen fewer incidents of violent crime per capita than has the population at large. This signals that we can respond to the threat of violence without inserting more guns in the spaces where students live and learn.
Andrew Morse is director of policy research and advocacy at Naspa — Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. Lindsey Hammond is assistant director of educational programs at Naspa.