Would Armed Campuses Be Safer?

Glenn Reynolds argues in a column in today’s NY Daily News that we’d be safer if only more of us carried guns.

In fact, some mass shootings have been stopped by armed citizens. Though press accounts downplayed it, the 2002 shooting at Appalachian Law School was stopped when a student retrieved a gun from his car and confronted the shooter. Likewise, Pearl, Miss., school shooter Luke Woodham was stopped when the school’s vice principal took a .45 fromhis truck and ran to the scene. In February’s Utah mall shooting, it was an off-duty police officer who happened to be on the scene and carrying a gun.

Police can’t be everywhere, and as incidents from Columbine to Virginia Tech demonstrate, by the time they show up at a mass shooting, it’s usually too late. On the other hand, one group of people is, by definition, always on the scene: the victims. Only if they’re armed, they may wind up not being victims at all.

“Gun-free zones” are premised on a fantasy: That murderers will follow rules, and that people like my student, or Bradford Wiles, are a greater danger to those around them than crazed killers like Cho Seung-hui. That’s an insult. Sometimes, it’s a deadly one.

David Kopel has a similar piece in today’s Wall Street Journal.

Last year the Virginia legislature defeated a bill that would have ended the “gun-free zones” in Virginia’s public universities. At the time, a Virginia Tech associate vice president praised the General Assembly’s action “because this will help parents, students, faculty and visitors feel safe on our campus.” In an August 2006 editorial for the Roanoke Times, he declared: “Guns don’t belong in classrooms. They never will. Virginia Tech has a very sound policy preventing same.”

Actually, Virginia Tech’s policy only made the killer safer, for it was only the law-abiding victims, and not the criminal, who were prevented from having guns. Virginia Tech’s policy bans all guns on campus (except for police and the university’s own security guards); even faculty members are prohibited from keeping guns in their cars.

It’s virtually axiomatic that, in the incredibly rare scenario when a psychopath comes to shoot up a room, that potential victims would be safer if some were armed and trained to use their weapon effectively. On the other hand, it seems rather obvious that having millions of normally law abiding people carrying guns on their person at all times would increase the incidences of rage shootings that wouldn’t occur if those people had to take the time to retrieve a weapon and hunt down the victim, since they’d likely return to their senses in the meantime.

What seems obvious, though, isn’t always true. Despite a trend in the past twenty years or so towards concealed carry and open carry laws being enacted in most states, there’s no evidence of an increase in violence to others by those not otherwise engaged in criminal behavior.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. OUTSIDE THE BELTWAY Would Armed Campuses Be Safer? It’s virtually axiomatic that, in the incredibly rare scenario when a psychopath comes to shoot up a room, that potential victims would be safer if some were armed and trained to use their weapon effectively. On the

  2. spencer says:

    I have not done the research and am probably wrong,
    but when I look at the list of school killings they all seem to occur in states with right to carry laws.

    It looks like having a right to carry law is a necessary condition for a school massacre.

    Now, I will just sit back and wait for your readers to prove me wrong by listing all the school killings in liberal Massachusetts.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    As I suggested in my post yesterday, I really wish that people would outline their specific proposals so that we could consider whether what they’re proposing would actually solve the problems they suggest and what their secondary effects might be. In the case of Glenn’s article he implicitly proposes that students be allowed to carry guns in school legally while only presenting examples of teachers successfully defending against attacks using firearms.

    While it may be an insult, I’d be happy to present examples of students shooting each other in schools for Glenn. We’ve had a couple of such incidents just this year here in Chicago. Perhaps it reflects a difference between Chicagoans and Tennesseeans or who knows what else but I don’t think that anybody in Chicago would feel safer if students were allowed to carry guns in Chicago schools.

    I continue to think that both the pro- and anti-gun folks are unseemly in their rush to propose solutions that, coincidentally, further their own predispositions. I’d also like to point a couple of other things.

    First, outliers make for lousy policy. Mass murders at colleges, while very dramatic, are also quite rare. It’s nearly axiomatic that, when you adopt a very general solution to solve a rare problem, secondary effects will overwhelm the primary.

    Second, the focus of both anti- and pro-gun advocates is misplaced. It shouldn’t be on firepower but on virtue. A really determined killer won’t be deterred by raising the marginal transaction cost on guns (which is what the anti-gun folks are proposing). And, as James suggests above, firearms are neither necessary nor sufficient to defend onesself successfully. Training is required, too. Courage, like mercy or charity is a virtue that one trains like a muscle, cultivating it day by day. Without the training most people, armed or not, will simply freeze in crisis situations.

  4. James Joyner says:

    Wikipedia lists these:

    Notable school shootings

    * Enoch Brown school massacre – Franklin County, Pennsylvania, United States; July 26, 1764
    * Bath School disaster – Bath, Michigan, United States; May 18, 1927
    * Poe Elementary School Attack – Houston, Texas, United States; September 15, 1959
    * Cologne School Massacre – Cologne, Germany; June 11, 1964
    * University of Texas at Austin Tower Massacre – Austin, Texas, United States; August 1, 1966
    * Avivim school bus massacre, Israel by Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP); 1970
    * Kent State shootings – Kent, Ohio, United States; May 4, 1970
    * Jackson State killings – Jackson, Mississippi, United States; May 14-15, 1970
    * Ma’alot massacre, Israel by DFLP (see [1]); 1974
    * California State University, Fullerton Library Massacre – Fullerton, California, United States; July 12, 1976
    * Parkway South Junior High School shooting – Saint Louis, Missouri, United States; 1983
    * École Polytechnique Massacre – Montreal, Quebec, Canada; 1989
    * Stockton Massacre – Stockton, California, United States; 1989
    * University of Iowa shooting – Iowa City, Iowa, United States; 1991
    * Concordia University massacre -Montreal, Quebec, Canada; August 24, 1992
    * Simon’s Rock College of Bard shooting – Great Barrington, Massachusetts, United States; December 14, 1992
    * Richland High School shooting – Lynnville, Tennessee, United States; November 15, 1995.
    * Frontier Junior High shooting – Moses Lake, Washington, United States; February 2, 1996
    * Dunblane massacre – Dunblane, Scotland, United Kingdom; March 13, 1996
    * Sanaa massacre – Sanaa, Yemen; 1997
    * Pearl High School shooting, Pearl, Mississippi, United States; October 1, 1997
    * Heath High School shooting, West Paducah, Kentucky, United States; December 1, 1997
    * Jonesboro massacre – Jonesboro, Arkansas, United States; March 24, 1998
    * Thurston High School shooting – Springfield, Oregon, United States; May 21, 1998
    * Columbine High School massacre – Littleton, Colorado, United States; April 20, 1999
    * W. R. Myers High School shooting – Taber, Alberta, Canada; April 28, 1999
    * Heritage High School shooting – Conyers, Georgia, United States; May 20, 1999
    * Santana High School – Santee, California, United States (near San Diego, California)
    * Osaka school massacre – Ikeda, Japan; 2001
    * Appalachian School of Law shooting – Grundy, Virginia, United States; January 16, 2002
    * Erfurt massacre – Erfurt, Germany; 2002
    * Monash University shooting – Melbourne, Australia; October 21, 2002
    * Rocori High School shootings – Cold Spring, Minnesota, United States; 2003
    * Southwood Middle School tragedy, Miami, Florida; February 3, 2004
    * Beslan school hostage crisis – Beslan, Russia; 2004
    * Red Lake High School massacre – Red Lake, Minnesota, United States; 2005
    * Dawson College shooting – Montreal, Quebec, Canada; 2006
    * Amish school shooting – Nickel Mines, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, United States; 2006
    * Platte Canyon High School shooting – Bailey, Colorado, United States; 2006
    * Henry Foss High School – Tacoma, Washington, United States January 3, 2007
    * Beirut Arab University shooting – Beirut, Lebanon; January 25, 2007
    * University of Washington- Seattle, Washington, United States; April 2, 2007
    * Virginia Tech massacre – Blacksburg, Virginia, United States; April 16, 2007

  5. Bithead says:

    On the other hand, it seems rather obvious that having millions of normally law abiding people carrying guns on their person at all times would increase the incidences of rage shootings that wouldn’t occur if those people had to take the time to retrieve a weapon and hunt down the victim, since they’d likely return to their senses in the meantime.

    That’s always been the assumption. However, history charts things a bit differently. As gun control has increased, so too have the kinds of killings under discussion.
    I commend to your reading, an article by Pierre Lemieux… who if I’m not much mistaken, was on campus last September in Quebec when a mass shooting took place. He makes the point that such mass killings were indeed rare in the 60’s and before., and that it was only AFTER gun conrtol started becoming more prevelant that they became LESS rare.

    I don’t know about anyone else, James, but I’ve never suggested an armed society as a miricle cure-all. I’ve simply suggested… if forcefully and repeatedly… that it’s the better option.

  6. markm says:

    Very tough call. I have many friends that legally own guns…but I wouldn’t hunt two seconds with them. They are not very conscious of the gun barrel so I just don’t hunt with them. Just because everybody has the right to own a gun and can legally purchase a gun doesn’t make them capable of carrying. Make sense?. It’s akin to people obtaining a legal drivers licence…CLEARLY there are some of those people that should NOT be on the road.

  7. Bithead says:

    James; the extra data you’ve posted in the comments would seem to support the contention that before the 60s such attacks were indeed rare…. as suggested by Lemieux.

  8. Dave Schuler says:

    That’s less that 50 worldwide over a period of 250 years. Sounds rare to me.

    The Japanese example is telling in refuting the claims of gun control advocates. Japan has the most restrictive laws on gun ownership in the democratic world. Essentially, ownership of guns is prohibited except in very rare cases. It doesn’t prevent school tragedies. Nor the assassination of mayors.

  9. cian says:

    James,

    Apologies for going off point here but I came across this on another site re John Derbyshire’s comment on the lack of courage shown by the students at VT. Its a quote from a comment he has up over at the corner concerning his first meeting with Pat Buckley:

    I passed a remark about the Mississippi River, to the effect that on first seeing it, down in the lower reaches by Natchez, I’d been disappointed to find it nothing like as wide as I’d thought.

    Mrs. B. slapped me down briskly. “Nothing wrong with the Mississippi. It’s a beautiful river.” I sank into the sofa cushions & spent the rest of the session trying not to be seen.

    Just as well she wasn’t carrying a gun, I suppose.

  10. David Harris says:

    I see both sides to the argument. I keep a cell phone in my pocket, but that doesn’t inherently compel me to use it in any situation. Conversely, the cell phone is complicated, and there is always a risk that I will use it incorrectly beyond the simple function of dialing.

    I hope the analogy is close enough. People aren’t (in my opinion) necessarily going to start committing crimes simply because they are carrying a weapon. Conversely, more people carrying weapons would seem to increase the rate of accidents substantially.

  11. My prediction is that we will see the two sides reaching opposite conclusions. Pro-gun control areas (e.g. Mass.) are likely to want to enact more gun controls. Pro-second amendment rights areas (e.g. Texas) are likely to pass concealed carry legislation for schools (at least teachers, maybe students). The 1991 Luby’s shootings prompted the concealed carry laws for Texas.

    I will hold off. If it turns out that a reasonable law would have kept the killer from getting a gun, I would consider supporting it. But absent such a fact, I would most likely be sympathetic to the right to carry.

    This was a lone gun man acting in a specifically “gun free zone”. More gun control legislation is like trying to fix McCain-Feingold with more legislation restricting free speech. Perhaps the problem was in trying to limit the constitutional right in the first place, not that there wasn’t enough limits already.

  12. Anderson says:

    down in the lower reaches by Natchez, I’d been disappointed to find it nothing like as wide as I’d thought.

    Damn, the river is HUGE at Natchez. What does he want, the Gulf of Mexico?

    And I am just amazed that anyone who’s actually taught college students thinks that anything would be improved if they all had pistols in their backpacks. That is, like, litmus for stupidity.

  13. uh_clem says:

    Reynolds is engaging in faith-based punditry again.

    He believes that nonsense because he wants it to be true, not because of some objective support for the position.

    Oh well, that’s why rational people ignore him.

  14. M1EK says:

    The Japanese example is telling in refuting the claims of gun control advocates. Japan has the most restrictive laws on gun ownership in the democratic world. Essentially, ownership of guns is prohibited except in very rare cases. It doesn’t prevent school tragedies.

    A very typical misrepresentation. “prevent” does not mean “eliminate”. If Japan has a far lower RATE of homicide, or school-shootings, or whatever you are measuring (as I bet it does), one could argue about whether the law contributed or didn’t, but your particular reading is nothing more than the knuckle-dragging repeating of talking points.

  15. spencer says:

    Thanks for the list proving my point wrong.

    Suspected it would be.

  16. Dave Schuler says:

    That’s a vapid reading of my comment, M1EK. Check the context. I’m writing in response to this highly specific outlier and, in that context, rates are irrelevant. The point is that even with the most extreme gun control law imaginable horrible incidents like the one at Virginia Tech won’t be eliminated which the Japanese example illustrates handily.

    My own view is that both sides are overreaching and exaggerating the benefits of their favored views and doing so at this early stage, before all the facts are in evidence and while emotions are running high, is wrong.

  17. Bithead says:

    That’s less that 50 worldwide over a period of 250 years. Sounds rare to me.

    It does.
    But perhaps we should be lookingb at cases that do not have the numbers of dead so large where problems have been averted by the ‘victims’ being armed, eh?

  18. Mark says:

    It looks like having a right to carry law is a necessary condition for a school massacre.

    There was no right to carry on campus. In fact, I do not know of any state where it is legal for someone outside of law enforcement to carry a firearm onto a campus or a school. “Gun-free zones” and all that…

  19. Alan Kellogg says:

    The problem was not the lack of weapons, it was the lack of initiative. We’re taught to obey authority, and who’s more in charge than an armed man? Note that those who did take the initiative to save their own lives — and the lives of others — never actually saw the gunman. It’s thoes who saw him who did what he told them to.

  20. JML says:

    Hmmmm… As to whether gun-free shcool zones are a good idea: Allow a bunch of immature, privileged, drunk and/or stoned young adults to run around packing heat – what could possibly go wrong? Not that this describes all college students, but imagine adding guns to the mix at a typical college/frat party.

  21. AkaDad says:

    I’m pretty sure that campus keg parties would be much safer with firearms.

  22. M1EK says:

    Sorry, Dave, re-reading now it’s very clear you were conflating reducing with eliminating. It’s a common tactic on that particular side of this issue. (“See? They have gun violence in the UK! And in France! So their gun control laws must not work!” while ignoring the fact that the _rates_ are miniscule compared to ours).

  23. Jeremy Brown says:

    Hmm… as I recall when I was in college, me and my friends found countless ways to injure ourselves and others *without* the use of firearms. I can’t imagine the bloodbath campus life would be if everyone was allowed to carry a gun. Heck, if just .01% of the cases involving girlfriends cheating on their boyfriends resulted in a gunfight out of jealous rage, that right there would double or triple our homicide rate.

    Anyway, why doesn’t anyone just ask a policeman if their job would be easier if everyone was packing heat?

  24. David L says:

    Professor Reynolds is wrong. It does not necessarily take a peraon with a gun to stop a killer It certainly helps What is takes to stop a killer is people willing to step up. In the Long Island Rairroad shooting, Colin Ferguson’s rampage was stopped when he was rushed and subdued by his would be victims.

    Now, I support the right to carry, but it people who are needed to take the necesary actions. The guns only help the good guys. What takes is gut check and that what was lacking in Blackburg, foritude.

  25. Steve Minor says:

    I once lived in El Salvador. I can’t say that every adult male above poverty level there carried a concealed weapon, but it was commonly believed (whether factual or not) that most of them did. I have no idea if this reduced the crime rate, but one apparent consequence was that criminals assumed their victims were armed, so they just shot them before robbing them. Ambush was a term I heard more frequently in El Salvador than in the Westerns I used to watch as a kid.

    An event I experienced personally occurred when dining out with my family in a nice restaurant. We were treated to an argument between two guys — obviously drunk — at the next table, which turned into a shouting match. When both of them jumped up from their chairs, I saw a pistol tucked into one of the guys’ pants. What do you do in a situation like that? Not only was I concerned that they would draw, I kept looking around the restaurant to see if anyone else had. Fortunately, no shots were fired. I guess my point is similar to that already made by others here, i.e., more guns in the hands of citizens can have unintended consequences, not the least of which is a climate of fear like the one I lived in in El Salvador..

  26. Bithead says:

    The problem was not the lack of weapons, it was the lack of initiative

    Interesting from a social perspective;
    Is lack of a firearm a symptom of lack of initiative?

    It’s certainly turning your wellbeing over to someone else, as opposed to taking the initiative yourself.

  27. Phranqlin says:

    Placing guns in the hands of college students would mean more suicides and accidental deaths, too.

    I was recently reading “Blue Blood,” a memoir by a former NYPD officer. His experience as a street cop in the South Bronx was that when all the drug dealers were packing, violence was more likely to break out because they’d whip out their guns and shoot each other at the slightest excuse. When gun laws were more strictly enforced, these people could no longer carry guns on the street and had to conceal their weapons in their apartments. Having to return to their residences and retrieve their guns gave the shooters a cooling-off period to calm down and think twice about shooting someone … and gave their targets a chance to escape.

  28. legion says:

    Try to imagine for a moment that you are the nutball on a killing spree. As you fire away, in a largely-random path, people think of one of several things – hide, run away, fight back. People who hide/cower are still; they may be hollering “don’t kill me”, but they’re basically furniture. People running away are moving; movement draws attention. People considering fighting back have to be actively looking at the shooter – you can’t, as that vile subhuman asshat Derbyshire suggests, count rounds & predict reloading times unless you’re watching the shooter.

    Looking at the shooter provides a chance for eye contact. Eye contact makes you the next target. Good luck.

  29. Anderson says:

    Try to imagine for a moment that you are the nutball on a killing spree

    Too challenging. If only there were some sort of videogame-like simulation that gave me the perspective of someone shooting large numbers of people …

  30. Anyone here familiar with Suzanna Hupp? Tracy Bridges? Ken Hammond?

  31. JohnG says:

    If you make gun ownership illegal, gun violence decreases, but if you allow everyone to walk around with guns or worse, concealed guns, then it’s like the Wild West all over again and blood will flow in the streets. I mean that’s what logic tells us, right? Therefore that’s the way it must have turned out in the real world.

    What’s lost in this conversation is that all these students could be armed off campus, and yet VT students weren’t getting into shootouts in town, where no doubt many of the drunken rage fueled madness that college ‘kids’ are prone to had to have occured.

  32. jim says:

    As info comes in, it turns that there were, of course, warning signs that this guy was about to go nuts.

    How about, in addition to the laws we already have, we have a database of people who are considered “at risk” for being about to go nuts, and make it easy to add people like this dude into the database?

    Then when they go and try and buy guns, they can not only be refused, this can then cause the cops to know who to pay attention to.

  33. trrll says:

    “How about, in addition to the laws we already have, we have a database of people who are considered “at risk” for being about to go nuts, and make it easy to add people like this dude into the database?”

    Because nobody has ever found a reliable predictor of violence other than a past history of violence. Sure, after an event of this sort, it is usually possible to find some indication of mental instability. But such psychological indicators are actually rather common, especially in this age group, so statistically they aren’t useful for prediction, even though they may provide a convenient “just so story” rationalization after the fact. Even diagnosed mental illness turns out to be a very poor predictor of violence.

  34. trrll says:

    An implicit assumption is that the perpetrators will act the same, or even be deterred if they imagine that people may be armed. But what is to prevent somebody intent upon such a crime from switching strategy? Charles Whitman barricaded himself in a high building from which he could pick off people in relative impunity, perhaps anticipating that people in Texas in 1966 might be inclined to return fire.

    The extreme rarity of mass shootings means that even if the incidence in accidental or intentional shootings as a result of more people carrying guns on campus is very small, it is still likely that more shootings would be caused than would be averted.

  35. Terry Lockhart says:

    Would carrying a conceal gun help in this situation? I for one doubt it would help. one thing the shooter needs training to handle the gun properly. As well time to practice. Most people don’t have the time or the patience for those skills. And gun in the hands of someone not trained to use the gun properly is a big danger to themselves as well as others.

  36. RJN says:

    It has been proven repeatedly that concealed carry leads to less gun crime. A gun owner, and occasionaly shooter, like myself, understands this. I don’t know anyone, reasonably well trained (not professional) with a gun, who I would not trust in an open, concealed carry, society.

  37. JohnG says:

    No the assumption is that even if the deterrence fails, armed victims can shoot back, incapacitate, or kill the attacker. If a crazy decides to kill a bunch of people, he usually understands he’s gonna die in the end. But instead of students and professors trying to hold doors closed while the gunman is shooting through it trying to kill them, maybe some of those people could have taken the guy out instead. Charles Whitman, holed up in a tower taking fire from all sides probably did a lot less damage than he would have if he was able to fire with impunity or if he would have been able to walk around the campus. It’s not like the VT killer was running around with a carbine. He had a 9mm Glock and a P22.

    And one would hope that someone who took the trouble to buy a gun legally and then get a CCP would also take the trouble to learn how to use the gun properly. I don’t think we can assume that someone would buy a gun for protection and then not learn how to use it.

  38. Bithead says:

    Placing guns in the hands of college students would mean more suicides

    I would point out that for your statement to be true, you would have to demonstrate that such hypothetical suicidal tendencies would not be satisfied by other means, absent a gun. Believe me, that they will usually find a way to off themselves if the desire is there. A gun is far from required.

  39. Not As Crazy As You says:

    As much as I am in support of gun control, I have to agree with the statement that had there been one or two people in those buildings with a gun, they would have been able to prevent this from happening and that a concealed-carry campus would provide significant deterrence to someone going on a shooting spree on campus. That said, I’m not about to change my views on gun control simply for the fact that if concealed weapons deter gun violence, there are other ways for these kind of lunatics to commit mass murder, namely bombs. This isn’t a “what-if”, by the way, it almost happened at the University of Oklahoma two years ago.

    Epilogue:

    I don’t think we can assume that someone would buy a gun for protection and then not learn how to use it.

    I don’t think we can assume that someone would buy a gun for protection and then learn how to use it. I don’t think we can assume exactly what every individual is going to do with a gun after they buy it, even if for protection.

    I don’t know anyone, reasonably well trained (not professional) with a gun, who I would not trust in an open, concealed carry, society.

    Then I suppose as long as the only people carrying concealed weapons are people you know, then I’m okay with that. Not really, though, since I have no idea how good of a judge of character you are.

  40. trrll says:

    “Charles Whitman, holed up in a tower taking fire from all sides probably did a lot less damage than he would have if he was able to fire with impunity or if he would have been able to walk around the campus.”

    Sounds like wishful thinking. Out of US shootings, Charles Whitman had the second highest body count of all time. There have been quite a few cases since then of people trying to walk around a campus shooting. The Virginia Tech shooting is the first example of this behavior resulting in a higher body count than Whitman’s. Even the Columbine killers did not exceed Whitman’s body count, and there were two of them.

  41. Michael says:

    Bithead:

    He makes the point that such mass killings were indeed rare in the 60’s and before., and that it was only AFTER gun conrtol started becoming more prevelant that they became LESS rare.

    I’d like to propose that the rise in mass killings is in fact related to the increase in unleaded gasoline. I’m sure historical timelines whould prove me right. Also, global warming is caused by the decline of piracy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Pchart.jpg).

    Just because two things change at the same time, doesn’t mean one caused the other.

  42. John Ryan says:

    Congress, court houses, airplanes we should be allowed to bring our guns to football games too.