Students Press For Guns on Campus
By Pauline Vu, Staff Writer
The Virginia Tech rampage - the nation's deadliest school shooting - prompted colleges across the country to beef up security systems and increase mental health services, and Congress to close a loophole that allowed some mentally ill people to buy guns. But some individuals argue that the way to counter random shootings is to fight firepower with firepower.
In 48 states, law-abiding citizens who get concealed weapons permits can carry guns in public areas, including movie theatres and shopping malls. Yet, 16 states explicitly ban firearms on college campuses, and the rest allow colleges to make the decision; colleges overwhelmingly choose to ban guns. Only Utah allows guns on public university grounds.
SCCC contends that colleges should not be exempt, because the shootings prove that criminals don't obey gun-free zones.
"Gun-free zones on college campuses are not working, and they're not creating a safer environment for students," said Andrew Dysart, SCCC's legal contact and the campus leader at George Mason University in Virginia.
SCCC remains the student-run group it was the day Chris Brown of the University of North Texas founded it (though Brown no longer holds any leadership position with the group). SCCC is unaffiliated with larger gun lobbies, such as the powerful National Rifle Association , although the NRA supports the concealed-guns-on-campus movement. SCCC does use some NRA resources, such as its list of gun-friendly lawmakers.
Dysert said SCCC has two goals: to bring attention to the issue of allowing guns on campus and to get legislation passed that will do so. The group has raised awareness by drawing coverage of its efforts by major media and sparking debates over gun bills in 15 statehouses; this time a year ago, only two states considered similar bills.
Members also have contacted legislators, sent out e-mails and made appearances on behalf of the bills, and gotten student government leaders to take up the issue.
But SCCC's legislative record is weak. Of the 15 bills introduced, nine have died, another four are languishing in committee and most didn't advance out of committee, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures . No bills passed, and only Arizona and Louisiana have legislation that is still in play.
Oklahoma's bill passed the House but was shelved by the Senate in the face of massive opposition by university administrators, faculty and students. Every president of the state's 25 public colleges signed onto a resolution opposing the bill. The proposed law originally would have allowed anyone with a permit to carry a gun on campus, but it was narrowed so that only current and former military, law enforcement and security officials could do so.
At least three states had bills that opposed guns on campus. Arizona, South Dakota and Washington debated legislation to restrict guns on campus, but those states also had competing bills introduced to allow guns on campus. Only Arizona's bill to restrict weapons is still being considered.
Opponents of allowing guns on campus argue that legal firearms would be dangerous at colleges, where there is often underage drinking and drug use. Also, they say that having multiple shooters at an incident, both illegal and legal, would add to the confusion for victims and law enforcement.
"It's a fantasy to think we're going to have a series of student John Waynes riding to the rescue here in a campus shooting," said Brian Siebel, a senior attorney with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence . "It makes no sense to give everyone a gun and start the crossfire. That is not a recipe for college safety. That's a recipe for disaster."
SCCC's student opponents are likewise using Facebook to spread their message and rally supporters. There are about a dozen anti-guns-on-campus groups, the largest being Students Against Concealed Carry on Campus with more than 1,200 members. Other groups were set up specifically to protest their states' bills permitting guns on campus. Such groups urge students to contact elected officials and newpapers to voice their opposition.
Sarah Nelson, a junior at the University of Arizona, set up the 900-member Arizona Students Against Guns on Campus in late February in response to the state's bill.
"We just thought it was a really irrational response to deal with crimes that are occurring on university campuses, especially since it was a response to the university shootings that we've all read about," she said. "I know they're in the forefront of everyone's mind, but in reality, the frequency with which those events are happening is far less than the impact introducing guns on campus might have."
Still, thousands of students have flocked to SCCC's cause. In the week after the Feb. 14 shooting at Northern Illinois University, in which five students died in class at the hands of a lone shooter, 5,000 students joined the group. In the past two months, membership more than doubled.
It's hard to tell how committed the 25,000 members are. On Facebook, it just takes a click on the button to join a group. Siebel claims that Facebook has more people in groups that believe in aliens than are in SCCC. And 25,000 is only a fraction of the nation's approximately 18 million college students.
But some of SCCC's members are very dedicated. At the request of legislators, Dysert and another Virginia member came to a press conference in Richmond last month to speak out against the fact the gun bills had not received hearings
In Oklahoma, state Rep. Jason W. Murphey (R) didn't know SCCC existed when he proposed his bill in the wake of the Northern Illinois shooting, but he found their help invaluable in publicizing his legislation.
"Once they started making calls and sending e-mails, it really helped legislators to know that the people really cared about it," Murphey said.
SCCC is planning to draw more attention to the issue soon. In October, the group held the Empty Holster Protest, during which about 530 students at 125 campuses nationwide wore empty holsters to class to protest their states' gun laws.
A similar protest is planned for April 21-25, with some of the holsters to be supplied by the owner of TGSCOM, Inc. , the Internet company that sold gun supplies to both the Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois shooters. So far, more than 3,300 students have signed up - on Facebook.