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.