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.

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