On Campus

To holster or not to holster

U.S. campuses are entangled in a fierce debate about whether guns should be allowed on campus

A student at Memorial University in Newfoundland was arrested Tuesday afternoon after he was found with a pellet gun on campus. A professor later confirmed that the student, Chris Hardy, had performed a Monty Python sketch using the pistol for an engineering class project. But despite the fact that the gun was used for comedic purposes, Memorial, like other Canadian universities, didn’t take the incident lightly.

The university lauded the efforts of security services for apprehending Hardy, who was not charged, within two-and-a-half hours. The quick and decisive response was typical of Canadian universities, including the University of Winnipeg, where classes were cancelled earlier this year when a threatening message was discovered on a bathroom wall. But while Canadian universities have strict policies against bringing guns on campus, their U.S. counterparts are entangled in a fierce debate over the issue.

As is, Utah is the only state where students are not explicitly prohibited from bringing guns onto campus. But in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings last April that left 33 people dead, there is a growing movement arguing that students should be allowed to carry guns to protect themselves on campus. One lobby group, Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, was formed to promote second amendment rights (the right to bear arms) on university campuses across the United States.

In the vast majority of states it is permitted to carry a licensed concealed firearm in most public places, such as shopping malls and movie theatres, but not on a school campus. In some states the legislation is explicit; in others, schools set the policy and the government does not interfere.

According to the SCCC, “State laws and school policies stack the odds in favor of armed killers by disarming law abiding citizens licensed to carry concealed handguns virtually everywhere else.”

Bryce Eastlick, an SCCC organizer told the Kansas State Collegian that by permitting licensed gun owners to carry guns on campus, a shooting might be avoided. “When it takes the average police or security department between five and 15 minutes to respond to an emergency call, it becomes difficult to diffuse a situation in a safe and timely manner,” he said.

As for the Virginia Tech shooting, Eastlick says it draws attention to what the SCCC sees as the failure of “gun free zones” and the false sense of security they provide. “It has raised awareness on many different fronts: the false sense of security that students on campus have, the effectiveness of gun-free zones, as well as the lack of defense that those on college campuses have.”

To bring attention to their cause, SCCC members and organizers across the United States participated in a week-long demonstration in late October, dubbed the Empty Holster Protest. Students and faculty who supported the SCCC position went to school wearing an empty gun holster.

But not everyone agrees. “You don’t like the fact that you can’t have a gun on your college campus? Drop out of school,” Peter Hamm of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence told Fox news.

Hamm and others skeptical of the SCCC position want to see tighter restrictions on gun licensing, and more thorough background checks. The SCCC also supports such initiatives but doesn’t believe it is sufficient.

Despite signs that the Virginia Tech shooter was mentally unstable, he was able to purchase his weapons legally. Moreover, most states do not have the right to revoke gun licenses after they have been granted even if the mental state of the gun owner deteriorates over time.

A bill is currently being considered by the U.S. Senate, that would create a national database that would make it more difficult for persons unfit to carry a weapon to purchase a gun.

W. Gerald Massengill, a former Virginia state police superintendent, said recently that one approach that could be taken would be to put restrictions on firearm sales at gun shows where private owners often make sales without a license. “More guns on campus is not going to lead to a safer environment,” he told the Richmond Times.

Still, other law enforcement officials support the SCCC position. A Texas police chief recently said, “It doesn’t make sense to me that you can take weapons to . . . the library, but you can’t take [them] to the classroom.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.