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The Danger of Guns on Campus

12.22.2020
College campus with trees

Introduction

James Madison, the author of the Second Amendment, and Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, believed guns had no place on college campuses. In 1824, at a University of Virginia Board of Visitors meeting, both Madison and Jefferson supported a rule prohibiting firearm possession and use by students at the university.1Olivia Li and The Trace, “When Jefferson and Madison Banned Guns on Campus,” The Atlantic, May 6, 2016, https://bit.ly/2VvHL8E.

Over the last decade, the gun lobby and its allies have introduced legislation that would force colleges and universities to allow guns on campus.This legislation, which would create new dangers for students and staff and burden schools with significant financial costs, is widely opposed by university stakeholders from students to college presidents to police chiefs. Statehouses should not override the judgment of our colleges and universities, especially given the already unprecedented challenges they are facing during the pandemic risk factors common to campus life.

Research shows that policies that force colleges to allow guns on campuses are likely to lead to more shootings, homicides, and suicides, and that they’re unlikely to prevent mass shootings on campus.2Daniel W. Webster et al., “Firearms on College Campuses: Research Evidence and Policy Implications,” Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, October 15, 2016, https://bit.ly/2WmmWNm. Despite this, the National Rifle Association (NRA) began its push to force colleges and universities to allow guns on campus following multiple high-profile campus shootings. In 2008, after the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech that killed 32 people, and another in 2008 at Northern Illinois University that killed five people, the NRA proposed, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) adopted, a model bill that would force colleges to allow guns on campus.3National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action, “ALEC Task Force Adopts Model ‘Campus Personal Protection Act,’” May 23, 2008, https://bit.ly/33LTh4i. The push has accelerated ever since, with bills to force colleges to allow guns introduced in 37 states since 2015.4AK, AL, AR, AZ, CA, CO, FL, GA, IA, IL, IN, KS, KY, LA, ME, MI, MN, MO, MS, MT, NC, ND, NH, NM, NV, OH, OK, OR, SC, SD, TN, TX, VA, WA, WI, WV, WY.

The gun lobby claims that guns on campus is a Second Amendment issue, but the Supreme Court of the United States disagrees. Writing for the majority in District of Columbia v. Heller, Justice Scalia wrote that the Second Amendment does not cast doubt on the validity of “laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools…”

District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570, 627 (2008).

The vast majority of states either prohibit guns on campus or allow colleges to decide for themselves.5Sixteen states and DC effectively prohibit the concealed carrying of guns on campus. California: Cal. Penal Code § 626.9(h); District of Columbia: D.C. Code Ann. § 22-4502.01(b), (c); Florida: Fla. Stat. § 790.06(12); Illinois: 720 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/24-1(a)(4), (a)(9), (a)(10), (c)(1.5), (c)(4); Louisiana: La. Rev. Stat. Ann. §§ 40:1379.3(N)(11), 14:95.2, 14:95.6; Massachusetts: Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 269, § 10(j); Michigan: Mich. Comp. Laws § 28.425o(1)(h); Missouri: Mo. Rev. Stat. § 571.107.1(10); Nebraska: Neb. Rev. Stat. §§ 69-2441(1)(a), 28-1204.04(1); Nevada: Nev. Rev. Stat. Ann. §§ 202.3673(3)(a), 202.265(1)(e); New Jersey: N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:39-5e; New Mexico: N.M. Stat. Ann. § 30-7-2.4(A); New York: N.Y. Penal Law §§ 265.01(3), 265.01-a; North Carolina: N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 14-269.2(b), (i); North Dakota: North Dakota N.D.C.C.§ 62.1-02-05; South Carolina: S.C. Code Ann. § 16-23-420; Wyoming: Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 6-8- 104(t). In 22 states, colleges set their own firearm policies. Across these states, almost every school has chosen not to allow guns on campus: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky; Maine; Maryland; Montana; New Hampshire; Ohio; Oklahoma; Pennsylvania; Rhode Island; South Dakota; Vermont; Virginia; Washington; West Virginia. Only two states force colleges to allow all concealed carry permit holders to carry guns everywhere on campus: Colorado and Utah.6Colorado: Regents of University of Colorado v. Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, LLC, 2012 CO 17 (Co.); Utah: Utah Code Ann. §§ 53-5a-102(4), 53B-3-103. Ten other states force colleges to allow guns on campus in some circumstances: Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, Mississippi, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin.7In Arkansas, Idaho, and Mississippi, only people with “enhanced” carry permits may carry guns on campus. Arkansas: 2017 HB 1249; Idaho: 2014 SB 1254; Mississippi: 2011 Miss. ALS 338, codified at Miss. Code Ann. §§ 45-9-101(13), 97-37-7(2). Colleges and universities in Oregon and Wisconsin must allow guns on campus but prohibit them in university buildings. Oregon: Oregon Firearms Educational Foundation v. Board of Higher Education et al., 245 Or. App. 713 (2011), Or. Rev. Stat. § 351.060; Wisconsin: Wis. Stat. §§ 943.13(1m)(c), (bm)(2)(am), Wis. Adm. Code UWS 18.10. Texas: In Texas, university presidents may establish reasonable rules regarding the carrying of concealed handguns by permit holders, as long as the rules don’t generally prohibit permit holders from carrying concealed handguns on the campus. Texas Gov’t Code § 411.2031(d-1). Minnesota: In Minnesota, colleges and universities must allow guns on campus but may prohibit students and employees from carrying on campus. Minn. Stat. § 624.714 subd. 18. Tennessee: In Tennessee, colleges and universities must allow full-time employees to carry guns on the campus where they work. Colleges and universities are allowed to prohibit full-time employees from carrying guns in certain specified buildings and areas on campus. 2016 S.B. 2376, codified at §§ 39-17-1309 (11)–(13). Georgia: In Georgia, public colleges must generally allow concealed guns on campus if they are carried by permit holders, but guns are not allowed to be carried in student housing (including fraternity and sorority houses), at sporting events, in preschool or child care facilities, at classes of certain specialized schools, in classes in which dually enrolled high school students are present, at faculty, staff, or administrative offices, or at disciplinary hearings. 2017 GA HB 280, codified at O.C.G.A. § 16-11.127.1 Kansas: In Kansas, a 2013 law (2013 Kan. ALS 105) allows people to carry guns on public campuses but allowed schools to opt out of those provisions for a maximum of four years. All public universities did so, but effective July 1, 2017, opting out will be possible only if the schools set up rigorous security measures. Kansas is also the only state where a permit is not required to carry a concealed handgun on campus. K.S.A. § 75-7c10(a)(11).

In the small number of states that have forced guns on to college campuses, there is no evidence that it has helped prevent mass shootings. Nor is there any reason to expect this policy to stop in-progress shootings: Under extreme duress, an armed college student or university professor cannot be expected to transform into a specially trained tactical police officer. Even some of the most highly trained members of law enforcement see their shooting accuracy significantly decrease when engaged in gunfights.8Bernard D. Rostker et al., Evaluation of the New York City Police Department Firearm Training and Firearm-Discharge Review Process (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2008), https://bit.ly/2U9bk0t.

The Risk of Gun Violence on Campus Increases

Allowing guns on campus would not prevent mass shootings and would actually increase the risk of gun violence. Research indicates that this policy would likely lead to more gun homicides and suicides, more nonfatal shootings, and more threats with a firearm on college campuses.9Daniel W. Webster et al., “Firearms on College Campuses.”

In fact, colleges and universities, which have traditionally prohibited guns on campus, are already relatively safe from gun violence. Among all violent crime against college students from 1995 through 2002, 93 percent of incidents took place off campus.10Katrina Baum and Patsy Klaus, “Violent Victimization of College Students, 1995-2002,” US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, January 2005, https://bit.ly/3orQ4iA. According to Everytown for Gun Safety’s tracking of incidents of gunfire on school grounds, an average of 10 gun homicides occur on college campuses each year, while almost 20 million students attend colleges or universities.11Analysis of Everytown for Gun Safety’s Gunfire on School Grounds in the United States database, total gun homicide victims, excluding the shooter, on the grounds of colleges or universities between 2015 and 2019. For more information visit https://everytownresearch.org/gunfire-in-school/; US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, “Digest of Education Statistics, 2019, Table 105.30: Enrollment in Elementary, Secondary, and Degree-Granting Postsecondary Institutions, by Level and Control of Institution: Selected Years, 1869-70 through Fall 2029,” December 2019, https://bit.ly/2LH5GR9.

However, campus life is rife with other risk factors that make the presence of guns potentially dangerous. In a 2019 national survey, 62 percent of US college students reported drinking alcohol in the past month, 35 percent reported getting drunk, and 30 percent reported using illicit drugs.12John E. Schulenberg et al., Monitoring the Future: National Survey Results on Drug Use, 1975-2019: Volume II, College Students & Adults Ages 19-60 (Ann Arbor: Institute for Social Research, The University of Michigan, 2020), https://bit.ly/3gSnLXV. Students who carried guns on campus were also more likely to report drinking heavily and more frequently, drinking and driving, and vandalizing property.13Matthew Miller, David Hemenway, and Henry Wechsler, “Guns and Gun Threats at College,” Journal of American College Health 51, no. 2 (2002): 57–65, https://doi.org/10.1080/07448480209596331. Alcohol use is associated with increased aggression, impaired judgment about whether to shoot a gun, and worsened aim when firing.14Brad J. Bushman, “Effects of Alcohol on Human Aggression,” in Recent Developments in Alcoholism, eds. Marc Galanter et al. (Boston: Springer, 1997), 227–43, https://doi.org/10.1007/0-306-47141-8_13; Dominic J. Parrott and Christopher I. Eckhardt, “Effects of Alcohol on Human Aggression,” Current Opinion in Psychology 19 (February 2018): 1–5, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2017.03.023; Brendon G. Carr et al., “A Randomised Controlled Feasibility Trial of Alcohol Consumption and the Ability to Appropriately Use a Firearm,” Injury Prevention 15, no. 6 (December 1, 2009): 409–12, https://doi.org/10.1136/ip.2008.020768.

Mental illness is a significant problem among college students. In another 2019 national survey, three out of five college students reported “overwhelming anxiety” in the past year, and two out of five “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function.”15American College Health Association, “National College Health Assessment II: Reference Group Executive Summary, Spring 2019” (Silver Spring, MD: American College  Health Association, 2019), https://bit.ly/3lJeu5e. Rates of suicidal ideation also doubled between the 2006-2007 and 2016-2017 school years.16Sarah Ketchen Lipson, Emily G. Lattie, and Daniel Eisenberg, “Increased Rates of Mental Health Service Utilization by US College Students: 10-Year Population-Level Trends (2007–2017),” Psychiatric Services 70, no. 1 (November 2018): 60–63, https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.ps.201800332. With access to firearms tripling the risk of dying by suicide, the danger of allowing more guns on campus is clear.17Andrew Anglemyer, Tara Horvath, and George Rutherford, “The Accessibility of Firearms and Risk for Suicide and Homicide Victimization among Household Members: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” Annals of Internal Medicine 160, no. 2 (January 2014): 101–10, https://doi.org/10.7326/M13-1301.

States that allow guns at colleges and universities have seen students and staff alike suffer from negligent gun violence on campus. For example, in Idaho, just a few months after the passage of a 2014 law that forced Idaho colleges to allow individuals to carry guns on campus, a professor with a permit unintentionally shot himself in the leg during a chemistry lab.18Associated Press, “Idaho State University Teacher Accidentally Shoots Self in Class,” CBS News, September 4, 2014, http://every.tw/188lNOu. In 2016, a permit-holding student in Texas unintentionally discharged his gun in his dorm room just weeks after a guns-on-campus law went into effect.19Claire Cardona, “Tarleton State Student Accidentally Fires Gun in Campus Dorm,” Dallas Morning News, September 15, 2016, https://bit.ly/3mGzISB. In 2017, a Utah student with a concealed carry permit reached into his backpack and unintentionally fired his gun in a campus cafeteria, hitting a table and light fixture. It was the second incident of unintentional gunfire on the campus in two years.20Luke Ramseth, “UVU Student Accidentally Discharges Firearm near Campus Restaurants; No One Injured,” Salt Lake Tribune, April 26, 2017, http://bit.ly/2qj103T. In 2019, a Georgia student unintentionally shot and wounded himself in a campus lounge.21Gabriela Miranda, “UGA Community Debates Gun Law after Accidental Shooting on Campus,” The Red & Black, October 24, 2019, https://bit.ly/37pkknc.

See all gunfire on school grounds incidents in your state

Everytown for Gun Safety started tracking incidents of gunfire on school grounds in 2013 to gain a better understanding of how often children and teens are affected by gun violence at their schools and colleges.

Guns on Campus Lead to New Liabilities

States that have passed legislation forcing colleges to allow guns on campus are struggling to deal with the consequences. In Texas, where a guns-on-campus bill passed in 2015,22Texas SB 11 (2015). implementation has been extremely contentious. Prominent faculty members have left to take jobs in other states, and educators have withdrawn from consideration for jobs at Texas universities.23Molly Hennessy-Fiske, “New Law Allowing Concealed Guns on Campus Roils University of Texas,” Los Angeles Times, March 24, 2016, https://lat.ms/2Ih12YJ. Professors in both Texas and Georgia have brought lawsuits over guns-on-campus laws,24Matthew Watkins, “Three UT Professors Sue to Block Campus Carry,” Texas Tribune, July 6, 2016, https://bit.ly/36MJBsy; Eric Stirgus, “Professors Ask Court to Overturn Georgia’s Campus Carry Law,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, September 28, 2017, https://bit.ly/2We1Ocr. and although the suits were ultimately dismissed, they demonstrate the discontent faculty members feel when they are forced to teach on campuses that allow guns.

In addition to potential lawsuits and loss of faculty, guns on campus would burden colleges and state budgets with hefty costs. These laws result in new expenses to ensure campus safety, including additional police and security staff, metal detectors, cameras, and protective gear. In order to comply with a Kansas law that forces colleges to allow guns on campus and implement costly security measures at each building where guns are prohibited, three universities estimated that it would cost more than $2 million to secure their athletic facilities.25Maura Ewing, “New Campus Gun Laws Have Colleges Shopping for Metal Detectors. For Big Schools, the Bills Are Eye-Popping.,” The Trace, April 25, 2017, https://bit.ly/36KYA6f. When public universities in Florida evaluated the costs of guns on campus, one university estimated spending at least $1.1 million in the first year,26Scott Travis and Gabrielle Russon, “Campus-Carry Bills Come with Hefty Price Tag, Schools Say,” South Florida Sun-Sentinel, January 15, 2016, https://bit.ly/349ZgjR. and the state’s community colleges estimated they would need at least $74 million to prepare for the policy.27Kristen M. Clark, “Florida State Colleges to Ask Legislature for $74M to Enhance Campus Security,” Tampa Bay Times, December 17, 2015, https://bit.ly/2WhGIKf. In 2014, after Idaho passed legislation that forced colleges to allow people to carry guns on campus, five state schools had to request more than $3.7 million from the state to increase security in the first year alone.28“Concealed Carry Law Costs Idaho Colleges $3.7M,” Campus Safety Magazine, February 5, 2015, https://bit.ly/3orOME9. And in West Virginia, a 2019 guns-on-campus bill proposed in 2019 was estimated to cost more than $11 million dollars to implement.29West Virginia Legislature, HB2519 Fiscal Note, February 7, 2019 https://bit.ly/3mAiLJB.

Key Stakeholders Oppose Guns on Campus

Among students, there is widespread opposition to guns on campus. According to a wide swath of surveys conducted as recently as 2018, the majority of students across multiple college campuses oppose allowing guns on campus,30Matthew R. Hassett, Bitna Kim, and Chunghyeon Seo, “Attitudes toward Concealed Carry of Firearms on Campus: A Systematic Review of the Literature,” Journal of School Violence 19, no. 1 (2020): 48–61, https://doi.org/10.1080/15388220.2019.1703717. and legislation to force guns on campus has prompted protests by students.31Charles Boothe, “Right to Protest: Students from across State Plan March against Campus Carry Bill,” Bluefield Daily Telegraph, March 3, 2019, https://bit.ly/33DSQZR; Conor Griffith, “WVU Students Protest against Campus Carry Bill,” Morgantown News, February 21, 2019, https://bit.ly/36xxYW8; Hilary Butschek, “UGA Students, Professors Protest ‘Campus Carry’ Bill, Demand Gun-Free Campus,” Florida Times-Union, March 17, 2016, https://bit.ly/36vMxcD; Dave Philipps, “University of Texas Students Find the Absurd in a New Gun Law,” New York Times, August 24, 2016, https://nyti.ms/2LcWZOf. Students have also expressed concern about how these laws could affect their specific communities. For example, LGBTQ students fear they would no longer be able to safely express themselves with guns allowed on campus.32Ema O’Connor, “Texas LGBT Students Say They Don’t Feel Safe Now That People Can Carry Guns on Campus,” BuzzFeed News, August 29, 2016, https://bit.ly/3lL6j8G. Students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities worry about heightened danger from law enforcement around students who are potentially armed, noting that they regularly face intimidation and threatening interactions with law enforcement on campus.33Ema O’Connor, “Texas HBCU Students Worry More about Police Now That Guns Are Allowed on Campus,” BuzzFeed News, September 1, 2016, https://bit.ly/3qs4mBD.

These concerns are shared by other groups at colleges and universities. A 2018 study found that, on average, all kinds of members of the campus community—including those who own guns to protect themselves—believed that allowing concealed carry on campus would damage a school’s academic environment and potentially escalate contentious situations.34James A. Shepperd et al., “The Anticipated Consequences of Legalizing Guns on College Campuses,” Journal of Threat Assessment and Management 5, no. 1 (March 2018): 21–34, https://doi.org/10.1037/tam0000097. In surveys conducted in 2012 and 2013, 95 percent of college presidents and 94 percent of college faculty indicated they opposed concealed carry on campus.35James H. Price et al., “University Presidents’ Perceptions and Practice Regarding the Carrying of Concealed Handguns on College Campuses,” Journal of American College Health 62, no. 7 (October 3, 2014): 461–69, https://doi.org/10.1080/07448481.2014.920336. Additionally, a 2014 survey of university police and security found that nearly three in four opposed students having firearms on campus.36Robin Hattersley-Gray, “Study Shows Most College and K-12 Protection Personnel Oppose Concealed Carry on Campus,” Campus Safety Magazine, December 11, 2014, https://bit.ly/37mEMq8.

Everytown Research & Policy is a program of Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, an independent, non-partisan organization dedicated to understanding and reducing gun violence. Everytown Research & Policy works to do so by conducting methodologically rigorous research, supporting evidence-based policies, and communicating this knowledge to the American public.

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