Gun Violence on College Campuses

| Bobby Rich

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Gun violence is a specter that haunts American life and culture. While the statistical likelihood is that many of us will never encounter gun violence, the rising prevalence of mass shootings in the country and the resulting debates make gun violence a constant fixture in the collective American mindset. It is an unfortunate part of our reality that even in schools and colleges, where students go to learn and grow, where so many discover who they are and find new communities to be part of, the threat of guns and gun violence in the form of mass shooting, homicide, and suicide is real. What can be done about this? We shed some light on this issue below.

Guns on college campuses are a contentious subject. Do guns belong at colleges? Do they make students safer and in what capacity? Who gets to have guns, and who gets the final say on it? For the better part of American history, guns have not been permitted on college campuses. However, high-profile mass shootings — including the Columbine shooting of 1999, the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, the Las Vegas concert shooting of 2017, and the Parkland high school shooting of 2018 — have sparked concern, debate, and often vicious disagreement about the role guns might play in either promoting campus safety or elevating the threat of danger.

As horrible as these extreme examples of gun violence are, they are not isolated. Mass shootings are an unfortunately frequent occurrence. Just recently (April 2019) a shooting occurred in a classroom at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte; by the time this article is published, it is statistically probable that this will not have been the most recent mass shooting to have occurred.

Moreover, mass shootings are certainly not the only form of gun violence to worry about. The presence of guns on college campuses is actually on the increase, largely due to advocacy groups and legislation pushing for deregualation of guns at colleges. As a consequence, current and future college students are left to ask: how safe am I at college?

Our goal is to help you better understand the relevant legislation, debates, and dangers, and provide you with pathways to helping confront the problem of gun violence, especially as it impacts schools and college campuses.

If you’re interested in a career where you can actively work to prevent, or help those impacted by, gun violence, you have a number of degree and career options:

To become a first responder, or help manage emergency situations, check out:

For a career in law enforcement, check out:

To make more structural changes in society by advancing gun control legislation, check out:

To advance the discussion over gun violence as it relates to public health, check out:

To learn more about the impact and prevalence of gun violence in the U.S., and its impact on schools and students, read on…

 Gun Violence in the U.S

Before we proceed, it’s important to reocgnize that suicide is, by far, the most prevalent and deadly form of gun violence. According to statistics from Everytown for Gun Safety, suicides make up two-thirds of all gun deaths in the U.S. every year. Moroever, half of all suicides are gun deaths. While those statistics are staggering, it’s important to remember that suicide may be preventable with intervention. If someone you know is exhibiting signs of being suicidal — including depression, self-harm, and mental crisis — reach out. Offering help may be the difference between life and death. If you are struggling with thoughts or feelings of suicide or self-harm, call 1 (800) 273-8255 (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) or text “HOME” to 741741 (Crisis Text Line). If you are experiencing an emergency, call 911 or your local emergency number. If you want more actionable tips and resources, consult our article on Preventing Student Suicide

When discussing gun violence, whether in political debates, in the news, or just in casual conversation, we tend to compartmentalize different types of gun incidents as though they are fundamentally different from each other. Mass shootings are discussed separately from suicides by firearm, which are discussed differently from murders, which are seen as different from accidental shootings. Ultimately, though, they all share the same common threat: people being harmed or killed by guns. Because of this, if we are going talk about gun violence in general, or more specifically about the presence of guns on college campuses, we need to look at gun violence in a holistic way.

In an interview with The Trace, professor of psychology and noted gun violence expert Liza Gold argued “Firearm violence is firearm violence.” We share this view. Deaths from suicides, murders, mass shootings, and accidental shootings all contribute to the single most consequential statistic, that an average of 32,000 Americans are killed by guns every year.

Gun violence is a major public health issue. Gary Slutkin, epidemiologist and director of Cure Violence, identifies gun violence as an epidemic disease that harms all exposed to it, not just the immediate victims. According to CBS News, the American College of Physicians has argued that “firearm violence is not only a criminal justice issue but also a public health threat,”

So, let’s just look at the numbers here. In an average year, 32,000 Americans will die from guns. 2017 had the highest number of gun deaths on record, at 39,773, and about 60% of those were self-inflicted. In an average year, about two-thirds of gun deaths in America will come from suicide, or about 22,000 Americans.

As noted above, this also makes up half of the total number of suicides annually in the U.S., (with the average total being 44,000). Americans are 10 times more likely to be killed by guns than are people in the rest of the developed world, as well as 25 times more likely to be murdered with a gun, and eight times more likely to die of suicide by gun. In a study published in the American Journal of Medicine, author Erin Grinshteyn said that, when considering that America has the most guns per capita in the world, “These results are consistent with the hypothesis that our firearms are killing us rather than protecting us.”

What is especially chilling here, given the findings above, is that suicide by gun is indubitably the most prevalent and dangerous form of gun violence to the American public, as well as the most prevalent and dangerous form of suicide. This is the case, in large part, because of the effectiveness of guns. 85% of people who attempt suicide with a gun will succeed, which vastly overshadows the 5% fatality rate of other methods, according to Everytown Research.

From the same article, while suicide attempts may come with some warning signs, “almost half of all survivors report less than 10 minutes of deliberation between the thought of suicide and the actual attempt,” meaning that most suicide attempts come down to an impulsive decision. Access to a gun increases the likelihood that this impulsive decision will result in death. In other words, the presence and availability of guns is a major suicide risk factor.

This also means that intervention is critical whether you or somebody you know is in crisis. If you are struggling with thoughts or feelings of suicide or self-harm, or somebody you know is in crisis, call 1 (800) 273-8255 (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) or text “HOME” to 741741 (Crisis Text Line). If you are experiencing an emergency, call 911 or your local emergency number.

This is not to say that murders and mass shootings with guns aren’t a problem. They certainly are. In the above study, the U.S. made up for 82% of all mass shootings among the countries included. At the time of writing, in summer of 2019, there have been 222 mass shootings in the U.S., and if you want to keep track, the Gun Violence Archive is a handy tool. Note, however, that this archive does not track suicides, so the numbers displayed there only represent gun violence between people. This may undercut the statistically significant number of individuals who are shot, and who die, by their own hand.

 Guns on Campus

Often citing the rising rate of annual mass shootings, as well as the second amendment of the U.S. constitution, gun rights lobby groups, such as the National Rifle Association (NRA), as well as politicians empathetic to gun ownership rights, have been pushing to eliminate gun-free zones for the last few decades. This would include college campuses. For most of their history, college campuses have been “gun-free zones” in which only licensed law enforcement personnel can carry guns. Even if you have a concealed carry license, possession of a gun in these areas carries a hefty fine and possible jail time.

In fact, James Madison, one of the authors of the Constitution and the second amendment itself, was part of a board that barred University of Virginia students from carrying guns or ammunition on campus 200 years ago. Through the years, the majority of colleges in the U.S. have maintained similar policies.

In the last fifteen years, however, there has been a shift. Laws governing the presence of guns on college campuses are, for the most part, made at the state level. While some states allow colleges and universities to make their own rules, most forbid guns altogether, and just a few declare that colleges must allow guns. In 2004 the state legislature of Utah passed a law declaring that public colleges and universities could not make their own rules concerning guns on campus. After the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, more states followed suit, largely because of a model bill known as the “Campus Personal Protection Act” backed by the NRA and the gun lobby. While most states (and colleges) have rejected the bill, the resulting lawsuits between states and the gun lobby have forced public colleges to allow concealed weapons on campuses in some circumstances.

At the time of writing this, two states (Colorado and Utah) have laws that force colleges to allow guns on campus with concealed carry permit holders. 10 other states require colleges and universities to allow students to carry guns on campuses in some cases. The remaining U.S. states either prohibit guns on campus entirely, or allow colleges to determine their own rules. To learn more about gun laws in your area (whether relating to college campuses or in general), visit the Gun Law Navigator.

For the most part, states have rejected and resisted these bills for a variety of reasons, including vocal opposition from college stakeholders (professors, students, and campus police chiefs) who do not want guns on campus, and concerns over guns compounding other campus issues (such as student mental health and substance use), as well as faculty attrition, lawsuits, and accidental firearm discharges in classrooms.

One of the biggest reasons for opposition, however, is not safety, but cost. Forcing colleges to allow guns on campus is an extremely expensive endeavor. Colleges that suddenly are made to allow guns on campus experience a massive jump in insurance costs. Schools must also spend millions of dollars to implement necessary security measures in their infrastructure, personnel, and policies in order to mitigate the dangers posed by the presence of guns. In many cases, there is also a cost in replacing faculty lost to attrition. In 2012, Arizona vetoed a bill that would force colleges to allow guns on campus after it was estimated it would cost $13.3 million up front, and $3.1 million annually. Such expenses place unnecessary strain on colleges and, by proxy, on students who are already suffering from ever-rising tuition costs.

 Campus Carry

So, if states, colleges, students, professors, and police oppose having guns on campus, and if the laws pushing colleges to allow guns are causing so much trouble, where is the vocal demand for guns on campus coming from? Campus carry groups, such as Students for Campus Carry (SFCC), argue that students have a right to protect themselves with firearms. Such arguments often fall along two lines. Either A) they build on the “good guy with a gun” myth, the idea that a well-trained and knowledgeable citizen or group of citizens with guns can stop a mass shooting before it escalates; or B) they point to places that allow campus carry (Utah, for example) and argue that no harm has come from it.

Regarding argument A, the “good guy with a gun” myth is just that: a myth. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that “most fatal mass shootings occur in places where guns are allowed, and people with guns are rarely able to stop them.” This myth is built on the idea that citizens with concealed carry permits are more law-abiding and prepared for extreme situations than citizens without permits. The reality is that this is merely an assumption, that incidents stopped by armed citizens are rare and difficult to corroborate, and that armed citizens are significantly less prepared for extreme situations than licensed law enforcement personnel, who themselves often see a decrease in their precision and abilities in such situations. Researcher Stephen Boss, who examined every campus homicide in the U.S. from 2001 to 2016, found “no direct intervention by campus carriers, and no deterrent effect” on homicide and mass shootings.

Regarding argument B, Boss also found that “murders are rare on campuses that allow concealed carry, but no rarer than on college campuses where guns are banned,” although the University of Utah in Salt Lake City has had a murder with a gun on campus for the last three years straight. Proponents of campus carry argue that because we haven’t seen a spike in mass shootings and murders on campuses that allow guns, campus carry must be safe, right? This overlooks other issues stemming from campus carry, however, including issues such as loaded guns left in bathrooms, and accidental discharges.

This also overlooks more systemic harms, including faculty and students leaving schools because they feel unsafe. It overlooks the effects on pedagogy as professors change their curricula to avoid sensitive topics that could lead to heated debates in classes, or as they shift to teaching entirely online, or hold office hours in locations off campus where guns are banned. And of course, as above, it overlooks the massive costs associated with allowing campus carry.

Can students and faculty with guns prevent a mass shooting? From statistics as well as real-life examples, people with guns on campus are more likely to shoot themselves or their peers (whether on purpose or accidentally) than they are to shoot an assailant in an act of self-defense. Arguments for campus carry ignore the issue of campus suicide, which is made significantly more likely when guns are allowed.

In a study comparing suicide rates between students and nonstudents Allan Schwartz found that although the rates of suicide attempts between the two groups are not drastically different (1.4% vs. 1.8%, respectively) the success rates showed quite a difference. Students enrolled in college displayed a suicide rate of about half the rate of nonstudents. Considering a variety of factors, including campus rules on guns, whether students lived on or off campus, and how much time they spent on campus compared to off campus, Schwartz found that the more time students spent in places where guns were not allowed, the less likely they were to kill themselves, and vice versa. From this, we can argue that increasing the presence of guns on campus can only increase the danger of campus suicide by gun.

 Do Guns Make College Campuses Safer?

Guns on campus do not make students safer, or anyone anywhere else for that matter. There is no evidence to demonstrate that guns make campus safer. To the contrary, there is a wealth of evidence that the presence of guns, whether on campus, in the office, or in the home, only serves to increase the risk of gun violence in the surrounding environment. In fact, campuses are already generally safe without guns. The incidents of gun violence on college campuses, while horrible, are statistical outliers. Between 1995 and 2002, 93% of violent crime incidents among college students took place off campus. Considering complicating factors, such as mental health, substance abuse, and contentious social climates on campus, introducing the presence of guns to colleges could only serve to increase and intensify the risk of campus violence as well as the likelihood of death by suicide.

So what can actually be done to make campuses safer? There are a few options in addition to maintaining (and vocally advocating for) protecting campuses as gun-free zones.

In recent years, fifteen states, as well as Washington D.C., have enacted red flag laws, also known as extreme risk laws. At the federal level, people can be prevented from possessing guns for a handful of reasons, but rarely can guns be removed from someone’s possession, even if they show signs of intent to harm themselves or others. Red flag laws allow law enforcement and family members to petition for an ERPO (extreme risk protection order) or gun violence restraining order (GVRO), removing guns from the person in question if they are found to pose a threat of violence.

In other words, if someone is deemed to be displaying “red flags” for gun violence (whether toward themselves or others), such laws allow concerned parties to have guns removed from the person’s possession until they are no longer considered a threat. What is significant to remember here is that, in most cases of suicide as well as mass shootings, people display warning signs before acting, and these laws can be used to act on such warning signs. Such laws have proven to be successful and associated with direct reductions in suicide rates. Colleges should disseminate educational materials to make sure that students and faculty are aware of such red flag laws, if they apply in the area, and how to use them to prevent potential gun violence.

Even if students are not immediate family of someone who they believe poses a threat, they can alert local law enforcement, who can in turn investigate the person and enforce the relevant laws. Studies show that in 81% of cases of mass shootings, other people had prior knowledge that might have led to its prevention. To learn more about gun laws in your area, visit the Gun Law Navigator.

Beyond spreading the word about red flag laws, there are a few major steps colleges can take to improve campus safety. Ensuring that effective mental health services are readily available to students, and promoting such services, can go a long way toward improving public health and campus safety. Having clear emergency response protocols in place is also a necessity. It is of the utmost importance that students, faculty, and campus security understand these protocols and know how to act accordingly. Measures controlling access to campus properties, including single-access points and interior locking doors, can help secure students and faculty in the event of a live shooter event.

Finally, ensuring a safe and equitable campus culture is always a good idea, allowing for open dialogue among students and faculty, and listening to and appropriately addressing concerns of bias, discrimination, and unrest. Threat assessment programs can be effective, but schools must make sure that such assessments do not build on implicit bias or further marginalize minority communities among students. It should go without saying that arming teachers is not a way to make schools safer.

For students, the number one thing you can do to prevent gun violence is to not own or possess a gun. Remember: you are more likely to shoot yourself than to be shot by someone else. Eliminate that risk by removing guns from your environment. Beyond that, connection and communication are key. Know who is around you, and even if you’re not great friends with everyone, be conscious of how your peers are doing emotionally. If it seems like someone is having a hard time, reaching out and offering comfort or guiding them to find professional help can be the literal difference between life and death. Know where and how to access your campus mental health services, for your safety as well as the safety of others. Violence, whether toward the self or toward others, often stems from feelings of isolation and hopelessness. Fostering a stronger sense of community can help mitigate those feelings. Moreover, if you have a sense that someone might seriously be a threat to themselves or others, say something. Alert your professors, your advisor, your dorm RA, or a campus authority.

Finally, something everyone in society can do to encourage gun safety is stay informed on legislation and issues surrounding gun control at the state and federal levels, and vote for things like reform in favor of stricter gun control, raising the purchase age, closing the gun show loophole, prohibiting sales of assault and semi-automatic weapons to the public, prohibiting sales of dangerous accessories such as bump stocks (a major factor in the Las Vegas shooting), and imposing mandatory, extensive background checks for gun and ammunition purchases. While opponents of gun control will decry such measures as useless because they are unable to entirely stop gun violence incidents, it doesn’t mean such measures are ineffective or should be ignored in favor of increased gun availability.

It is difficult to say what will happen next regarding guns on college campuses. Will campus carry policies continue to expand? There certainly are vocal proponents in favor of such an outcome. There are, however, also many vocal opponents to campus carry as well, and it’s just as likely that campus carry legislation will ultimately stall, or be repealed. The status of campus carry, however, is a secondary issue.

More pressing is the reality that whether or not guns are allowed on campus, their presence is always a safety issue. If this issue concerns you, we encourage you to read up on the current and proposed laws in your area, as well as any states where you may consider attending college. This is an ongoing issue, and requires ongoing adaptation. Whatever your stance on the subject, it is important to know what kinds of measures you can take, what steps you can urge your college to take, and how we can all work together to prevent gun violence in the first place.

If you’re interested in a career where you can actively work to prevent gun violence, you have a number of degree and career options:

To become a first responder, or help manage emergency situations, check out:

For a career in law enforcement, check out:

To push for structural changes in society by advancing gun control legislation, check out:

To advance the discussion over gun violence as it relates to public health, check out:

Interested in learning about other critical issues impacting college students and campus life? Stay ahead of the curve with The Quad.

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