The Sentencing of Brad Bartelt, Active Shooter

Active shooter truck

How can we know or trust the intentions of someone with a gun on campus?

On Friday, I shared some of the reasons why guns on campus are a threat to public safety. That same day, in Jonesboro, Arkansas, Brad Bartelt was sentenced to 18 years in prison—18 years for terroristic threatening (which involves a threat against a government building or agency, like a public university) and 6 years for making a terroristic threat (a threat against people), sentences that he will serve concurrently, with the possibility of release in just 4.5 years.

Last December, Bartelt drove his truck into the middle of Arkansas State University’s campus, flying a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag (used by, among others, anti-government groups) from the truck and waving a gun around. Inside the truck, he told police, was a gas can and a propane tank. University police sent out an active shooter alert, sending campus into a lockdown. Students in the middle of finals were locked into their classrooms, and those in the halls crammed into offices and closets for more than an hour, waiting for the standoff to end. Some students in dorm rooms pulled out their own weapons and hunkered down in case of a room-by-room sweep by a mass shooter. (Yes, they faced disciplinary action for having guns on campus.) The event started in the late afternoon, and the teachers on the campus preschool and childcare center carefully moved sleeping children on their cots to the “safe room” in the interior of the school. Like other faculty with children in the childcare center and public school system, I couldn’t pick mine up, and they all waited at their schools until the “all clear” was given and campus slowly emptied.  It was a terrifying experience, which I’ve written about before, worse for those who have witnessed gun violence in the past, including the many veterans and police officers who enrich the A-State campus and those whose lives were shaped by the 1998 mass shooting at nearby Westside Middle School.

Bartelt’s defense attempted to shift attention away from his actions to the response of the university, particularly the university police, claiming that the “active shooter” alert exacerbated the situation and that when A-State realized that the situation was not life-threatening for anyone except the suicidal Bartelt, the university was embarrassed and so did not back away from the claim that he was a public threat.  They suggest the campus should have been warned of an “armed intruder,” not an “active shooter.”

Interestingly, this is the same explanation that many students and even some faculty suggested in the weeks after the standoff: Bartlelt didn’t fire a shot, so he shouldn’t have been defined as an active shooter.

All those of us on campus had that day was the knowledge that Bartelt was willing to violate other campus rules (driving up on the lawn with his truck), displayed signs of violent right-wing ideology (his “Don’t Tread on Me” flag), and was waving a gun around. In conversations with the 911 dispatcher, Bartelt said he wanted to kill himself, not someone else, though it was soon released that he had posted on Facebook two days earlier that he was both homicidal and suicidal. Given his erratic behavior and earlier claims, why in the world would university police have trusted his claim that he had just one round in his shotgun and that he intended to use it on himself? And even if it were trustworthy—even if Bartelt only wanted to kill himself (or provoke a gunfight that would have result in his death by police shooting)—we can’t trust that his goal wouldn’t have changed over the course of the afternoon.

The problem with the defense’s argument is the same one that creates a problem for conceal and carry on campuses (and conceal and carry everywhere, and open carry everywhere, too).  It’s the reason why so many of my gun-loving students criticized the university police department for issuing an active shooter alert: they don’t want to admit that guns on campus are always a problem.

When everyone has a gun, you can’t tell who the “good guy with a gun” is and who the bad guy is. This is why police officers so often oppose open carry and even conceal and carry.  It makes their job harder. And guns—even when they are carried legally, even when they are toy guns carried by children—increase the stress of the situation and the likelihood of a bad outcome, even for children—a terrifyingly common occurrence. Combine this with racist assumptions about the violence of black men and boys and you end up with law abiding conceal and carry permit holders dead at the hands of police.

There are plenty of responsible reasons to own a gun. Even handguns are used for recreational uses. (Though I think having a hobby that involves a lethal weapon is rather stupid.) But there is no reason to have a handgun on campus on your person. (I say this having gone to college in central Pennsylvania, where a lot of students brought hunting rifles to campus so they could hunt after class and on weekends. They had to store them in the campus security office, which seems pretty reasonable to me.)

When you carry a handgun, either openly or in a concealed manner (which is very often not concealed), I can’t tell if you are safe or not. It’s like when I see a dog off leash.  Even if his owners assure me he’s the sweetest dog in the world, I get to the other side of the street. I have to be responsible for myself and my safety, and since I don’t know your intention (or your skill level with that firearm), I have to treat you like you could be a danger to me. You chose to carry a handgun, and I can only assume that means that you are prepared to use it. And I don’t want to be around that.

Active shooter trainings stress situational awareness—that we all have to be vigilant all the time for odd ducks (the guy with the trenchcoat in summer time) and people you don’t recognize, that you have to always know the plan if a shooter opens fire in every setting (in every classroom, in every hallway, in every restroom). (I’ll write about the emotional cost of this at another time.) That means always being aware of potential danger and taking responsibility for your own safety. Campus conceal and carry advocates say that this is why we need guns on campus—so that faculty, staff, and students can be responsible for our own safety. So I’ll take up that charge and treat those who carry guns on campus like the threat they are, whether they have fired a shot or not. It seems like Bartelt’s jury agrees.



Guns on Campus Don’t Kill People, Students Do

But we can’t ban students, so let’s discourage guns

School is back in session in Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Oregon, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin, all places where guns are now or are soon slated to be permitted on college campuses. Like a lot of post-secondary educators, I have a lot of thoughts on the matter, and like most people familiar with the literature on guns, I think bringing guns to campus is a stupid idea that will only contribute to a culture of violence. I also don’t think it is required by the Constitution, even as interpreted by the Supreme Court in District of Columbia v. Heller.

Here are just a few of those thoughts:

Suicide increases dramatically with gun ownership, and college students are already some of the most vulnerable to suicide, with the suicide rate peaking among people 20-24.  The rate is even higher among young LGBT people and those who have been sexually assaulted. If universities are to care for the most vulnerable, making guns less accessible is a good step. And, of course, every death by suicide or attempt at suicide hurts not only its most immediate victim but the friends and community around that person.

Guns are already on campus, and they are already a danger. In April, Arkansas State University, where I teach, saw a burglar break into multiple cars in one evening. At least two of those cars had guns in them, which is against university rules. The suspect was caught when he attempted to scratch off the serial number of a semi-automatic handgun he’d stolen and sell it at a local pawn shop. No gun is ever completely secure, and compliance with gun safety is generally overstated. Guns on campus will end up in the hands of people who have ill intentions. We are lucky if that is just to sell it illegally and not commit violent crimes.

Even when people have “good” intentions with guns (more about that in a later post), they think they know more than they do—as repeated studies of the Dunning-Kruger effect among gun users shows. Gun instructors know this too. They are rarely prepared for the complex situation of actually using a gun in a high stress situation.

Getting a legal license to carry a gun is remarkably easy and requires little facility with a gun or training in situational awareness or decision-making. This year, a student of mine got hers after a training session with two classmates, women in their mid-50s, who were visibly and admittedly inebriated. They still passed. (To his credit (?), the instructor administered the field test for these two in a space separated from the rest of the class, which in itself is probably a recognition that they should not have been allowed to handle firearms.)

Training works to improve retention of firearm skills but when the state doesn’t think that training is important, it’s hard to convince would-be gun owners of the fact that they probably aren’t the sharpshooters they think they are. People 18-22 are especially bad about recognizing the limits of their abilities, and men this age, in particular, are much more likely to engage in risky behaviors where they are overestimating themselves. And when police officers, who are also often undertrained, miss their target the large majority of the time, there is no reason to think that untrained, unpracticed college students will do better.

Generally speaking, states with more guns have higher rates of death by gun, with a near perfect correlation in some cases. There is no reason to think that a college campus would be different.

These are some of the thoughtful reasons why guns on campus put us all on more dangerous ground. In the next few days, I’ll share a bit about the emotional consequences of guns on campus.

Author Q & A at John Fea’s The Way of Improvement blog

John Fea is one of my favorite Christian scholars–a historian by training, a great defender of the teaching and scholarship of history, and a person who, thankfully, takes his role as a public intellectual very seriously. He is also an astute political observer whose commentary on the 2016 election and, in particular, evangelical engagement with Donald Trump, has been spot on. (Fea is the one who broke the national news that Trump had met with prosperity gospel preacher Paula White and had a born-again experience.)  He’s also a professor at Messiah College, a place close to home and dear to my heart.

I was fortunate that Fea recently asked me to participate in the Author’s Corner section of his popular blog, The Way of Improvement Leads Home. If you are a fan of central Pennsylvania, Juniata College, or doomsday prepping or just want to learn a little bit about the backstory of God Hates, check it out.

Also, here’s a picture of the beautiful Middle Octorara Presbyterian Church, both the older building and the newer one, referenced in the piece. MOCPC2MOPC4

_The New Territory_ Reviews _God Hates_

Have you read The New Territory yet? It’s devoted to “land, people and possibilities” of the lower Louisiana Purchase: Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Arkansas and includes feature articles and literary pieces. A beautiful place deserves a beautiful magazine, and The New Territory is gift to us. The second issue has just been published, and I’m proud to report that it includes a review of God Hates.

Generous Turnout at KCPL for _God Hates_

The KC Public Library is a wonder! About 300 folks turned out this week to learn about the history and theology of Westboro Baptist Church and how this group fits into American religious history–and the present state of American religion. I couldn’t have asked for a kinder reception from the library or a more engaged audience. Despite the serious topic and the fact that many people in the audience have been hurt by the tactics of WBC and other anti-gay groups, there was a lot of laughter and good spirits.

If you it, you can catch the talk online. And if you listen and have questions or want to share your own story, feel free to contact me at

And if you like the work of the library, be sure to say thank you with a donation.

Below, a capacity crowd at the Kansas City Public Library on August 9, 2016. 

KCPL library crowd

_Up to Date_ Interview Available Online

It was a treat to work with Steve Kraske on KCUR’s Up to Date yesterday for an interview for a very special reason: Kraske used to work as a journalist in Topeka, covering Westboro Baptist Church in the early 1990s, and I relied on his reporting about the church when I was doing the research for God Hates. I was grateful for Steve’s excellence in reporting then, and it was an honor to be part of his show now.

You can listen to “Westboro and the Religious Roots of Hate” online. If you like what you hear, be sure to stop by KCUR’s donation page and say thank you for their work.

_God Hates_ on _Up to Date_ with Steve Kraske

If you live in the Kansas City area, you’re lucky for lots of reasons, and KCUR’s Up to Date, hosted by Steve Kraske, is one of them. I’m lucky to get to be a guest on a show I’ve long enjoyed and learned from. If you are in the listening area, you can find Kraske’s interview with me today from 11-12 on 89.3, or you can listen online at Up to Date, where you’ll also eventually be able to find the episode archived. (And while you wait for it, check out Kraske discuss the question The End of White Christian America with the founding CEO of Public Religion Research Institute Robert Jones, who has recently written the book on the topic.)

If you listen from 11-12 tomorrow, you can also call in at (816) 235-2888 or email at If you like what you hear, come on out and join the conversation at the Kansas City Public Library at 6:30. Check out the details and RSVP here:

And if you like Up to Date, be sure to say “thank you” for the work KCUR does by making a donation.

A Preview of KCPL’s “God Hates” Talk

For folks attending tomorrow night’s talk at the Kansas City Public Library, here are three questions I plan on talking about during the lecture:

  1. How does Westboro Baptist Church’s theology support their picketing? (See the picture below, of a church member picketing at the Supreme Court in 2010 while other church members are inside arguing _Snyder v. Phelps_, which they won. If you’d like to use the photo in any way, feel free, but please be sure to credit it to me.)
  2. Why do people leave WBC? Why do they stay? Why do they join?
  3. How does WBC make sense in the context of American religion historically and in the present moment?

If you are attending tomorrow night’s talk, what are the questions/topics you’d like to hear about? Email me at to be sure I put them on the list.

And if you’re not registered to attend tomorrow’s event but plan on coming, you can register here to help the library plan the event:

More dead kids photo.png

Can the Religious Right Get Over Trump’s Lack of Grace?

It requires quite a feat of imagination to think that Trump will uphold and advance the major causes of the Religious Right.

Having basically given up on the hope that Donald Trump could pass as a Christian worthy of white evangelicals’ support, politically conservative Protestants are now trying a new tactic: admitting that he’s not quite got the hang of Religious Right morality while arguing that he’d still do more to promote their particular vision of Christian America than his rival Hillary Clinton. This requires, of course, overlooking a lengthy list of behavior that violates not merely Christian ethical standards but basic expectations for human decency.

After that high hurdle has been overcome, it requires quite a feat of imagination to think that Trump will uphold and advance the major causes of the Religious Right: anti-abortion politics, “religious freedom” (a term that basically means that religious groups and individual business owners are exempt from laws they think contradict their teachings, including insurance mandates that include particular forms of contraceptives), and the appointment of socially conservative Supreme Court justices, especially given that he seems more interested in watching TV than in reinforcing the City on a Hill. Nothing in his history indicates that he would even know what these ideals are, much less how to go about realizing them. I’m not sure that a man who has repeatedly made lewd remarks about children would make eliminating child pornography (a 2016 Republican platform goal) a reality.

Plus, of course, the fact that this list—which really all boils down to sex (abortion, contraception, and LGBT rights and the Supreme Court justices who will oppose them)—isn’t the only list imaginable that Christians (conservative or progressive) could choose to care about. There’s also prison and justice system reform, racism, sexism, economic inequality, poverty, the refugee crisis, health care access, and our constant state of warfare.

In principle, though, the idea that a person’s religious affiliation or beliefs don’t matter as much as the job they would do in office is move in the right direction for the Religious Right. Is that move as exploitative as Donald Trump’s conversion? Probably so.

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