Cops and lobbyists clash over right to bear (hidden) arms

Sandy Hook shootings likely to fuel debate over carrying weapons on campus. Jon Marcus reports

December 20, 2012

Last week’s mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut has pushed the issue of gun control to the top of the US political agenda once more.

It is also sure to reignite a highly charged debate about the possession of firearms on university campuses - a debate that appeared to be veering towards allowing more students to carry concealed weapons.

The sprawling main campus of Arizona State University, with its 56,000-plus students, is just one place where feelings run high.

Crime is infrequent here, other than the occasional bicycle theft or case of public intoxication. However, late one night in October, two armed men robbed a pair of Arizona State students parked behind a dormitory and shot their car bonnet as they sped off.

No one was hurt. But anger over incidents like this has added momentum to a campaign to allow people to carry concealed weapons on campus, where they are usually banned.

“The status quo is not working. The status quo is hanging a sign on the wall that says: ‘No guns allowed’. And these policies embolden criminals by giving them a government guarantee that they will be the only people carrying a weapon on campus,” said David Burnett, a spokesman for the group Students for Concealed Carry.

In five of the 50 US states, it is legal to carry concealed weapons on campus. In 23 others, it is up to universities whether or not to allow the practice.

The Supreme Court in Colorado ruled earlier this year that people with state permits to carry concealed weapons could bring them on to the campuses of public universities, and Arizona legislators came close to following them. Supporters there have pledged to reintroduce the proposal.

Ironically, given last week’s events, the impetus for change has been propelled by campus shootings such as the massacre at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 2007, when 32 people were killed by a gunman.

Twenty-four people have died in mass shootings at US universities since then, most recently at Oikos University in California in April. There, six students and a secretary were killed on the same day that a national protest was launched by students agitating for the right to carry weapons.

False move

Many law enforcement officials at US universities think this would be exactly the wrong response.

“Having more guns on campus is not the solution,” John Pickens, chief of police at Arizona State, told Times Higher Education the morning after the armed robbery. “It’s the emotional reaction.”

Civilians are not trained to respond when someone starts to fire a gun in a crowd, Chief Pickens said. If innocent people brandished firearms in response to a mass shooting, the result would be chaos.

“We don’t know who the good guy is and we don’t know who the bad guy is,” he warned.

He added that making guns freely accessible on a campus populated mostly by 18- to 22-year-olds was a particularly bad idea. “The students are at that age where they do not make good judgements,” he said.

“There is a strong correlation [on campuses] between alcohol and other crimes. If they are under the influence of alcohol and they are carrying a weapon, they are not going to make the best decisions.”

But Mr Burnett, a student at the University of Kentucky, countered: “It taxes the imagination to assume that somehow these students are latent criminals waiting for the policies to change so they can go on drunken shooting sprees.”

Restrictions are in force in most states that prohibit anyone under 21 from carrying a concealed gun. That disqualifies most university students. And to get a permit to carry a concealed weapon, most states also require applicants to pass a written exam as well as a test of proficiency in shooting.

Mr Burnett argued that objecting to students carrying weapons on the grounds of their lack of training suggested that state law was “insufficient for a college campus for some unknown reason”.

In Colorado, where concealed weapons are now permitted on campus, an analysis by the University of Colorado found that less than 1 per cent of faculty, staff and students held permits to carry one.

Chief Pickens and Mr Burnett agreed on one thing: police cannot be at the scene of every crime the moment it occurs.

But Mr Burnett said: “I should be permitted to participate in my own self-defence.”

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