This month, thousands of prospective college students across the country have higher learning on the brain: Some are rushing to get college applications in before a February 1 deadline. Others will even begin checking the mailbox for coveted early-acceptance letters. Soon families will be helping their young people weigh many different criteria, from academics to athletics to financial aid.
Now, in the age of mass shootings, another item has been added to the decision checklist: Are guns allowed on campus?
My office sits in the largest dormitory at one of the largest state universities in the nation. From my second-story window, I watch hopeful families drop their students at freshman orientation each summer.
I looked out that same window on May 1 of last year, but from a different vantage point. On that day, I was huddled under my desk, hoping to see what was happening below without getting hit by a stray bullet. One of my co-workers had run into the building, yelling for students to get inside offices or classrooms and hide. I assumed that there was an active shooter, and I prayed that my wooden door—the same kind of door that encloses thousands of dorm rooms—would be thick enough to stop a bullet.
As it turns out, there was no campus shooter. My quick-thinking colleague was shepherding people inside because a student suffering from mental health issues was attacking people with a hunting knife on the plaza between the dorm and the gym. One student was killed and three others were wounded before police apprehended the suspect on the steps of our building.
As tragic as that day was, it could easily have become much, much worse. You see, the state of Texas allows concealed firearms on public campuses. If the police hadn’t apprehended the alleged assailant so quickly, there’s evidence to suggest that an armed civilian might have attempted to intervene.
Moments after campus authorities issued an “all clear” message, one of my coworkers spoke to a student who claimed that he had been en route to grab his gun, which was stored nearby. Another colleague was visited in her office by a former student from one of her classes. He alluded to his concealed handgun and promised to “protect” her if anything like this happened again.
Like these would-be vigilantes, proponents of campus carry laws believe that more guns will make college safer.
I understand the impulse to arm students with every protection within our grasp. However, as a parent and an educator, I look to experts to help me evaluate which interventions will truly help keep my own and other children safe.
In a 2008 survey of university police chiefs, an overwhelming 86% of the chiefs disagreed or strongly disagreed with the proposition that concealed carry would prevent campus killings. More recently, public health researchers at Johns Hopkins University analyzed data from 2009-2015 and found that, “successful civilian uses of guns to stop a mass shooting were incredibly rare and about as common as armed civilians being shot while attempting to respond to mass shooting incidents.”
Why are successful civilian interventions in mass shootings so rare? The authors of the Johns Hopkins report concluded that “shooting accurately and making appropriate judgments about when and how to shoot in chaotic, high-stress situations” requires skills and tactical training that the average concealed-carry permit holder simply doesn’t have.
My own experience with the stabbing incident last May indicates just how unlikely it is that untrained civilians will make appropriate, unbiased judgments in a chaotic, high-stress situation. Because the fatal victim was white and the alleged perpetrator was black, the incident triggered a kind of racial panic on campus. Before I had even crawled out from under my desk, I saw rumors on social media that the violence was part of a coordinated attack on frat houses and other predominantly white residential enclaves.
To be sure, those fliers are artifacts of an overt racism that doesn’t reflect the explicit views of most students on our campus. Yet 40 years of social psychology research has documented implicit associations between blackness and danger or violence. Such associations, rooted in histories of colonialism and slavery, were easily triggered by the chaos and ambiguity of the stabbing incident, and they illustrate why an armed campus poses disproportionate risks for students of color.
These days, when I read pro-gun propaganda about armed civilians intervening in campus violence, I think back to the confusion that erupted on our campus before the university had time to communicate that the suspect was in custody. I feel like my school literally dodged a bullet, but it’s easy to imagine that more innocent lives could have been lost at the hands of a would-be hero with a gun.
It may be tempting to think that this vigilantism is just a Texas problem. But in fact, the NRA has been pushing a nationwide program of campus carry legislation ever since the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007. Since that time, bills that would force colleges to allow guns on campus have been introduced in 20 different states. In 2015, Texas became the eighth state to pass such a law. In a recent interview with the Daily Kansan, campus carry advocate Antonia Okafor admitted that Texas was a “test market” for campus gun legislation. Somehow, legislators think this “test” is going well. Arkansas and Georgia passed campus carry legislation in 2017.
As we head into the 2018 state legislative season, campus carry bills have already been introduced in Kentucky and West Virginia, and others are likely to follow in states across the country. Given the complexities of college campuses and the realities of implicit bias, these bills put all students, but especially students of color, at greater risk. Concerned parents and future college students need to examine prospective colleges’ gun policies, but they also need to keep an eye on their state’s legislative docket, and let their lawmakers know that more guns on campus won’t keep students safer.
-Dr. Paige Schilt
Dr. Paige Schilt is the interim director of the Sanger Learning Center at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of Queer Rock Love: A Family Memoir.