Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Why Guns on College Campuses are Bad Policy

H 222 would prohibit the governing bodies of Idaho colleges and universities from regulating the lawful possession of a firearm while on campus. Eight other states are currently considering similar legislation. Florida just defeated its version of this bill.

The debate on this bill has largely been framed in the context of concealed carry permits. My reading of this bill reveals no distinction between concealed and open carry. Thus my interpretation of H222 is that anyone legally entitled to possess any weapon could do so if this bill becomes law.

The justification for this bill, according to its sponsor, Erik Simpson (R-Idaho Falls), is colleges and universities are  “…places where various serious crime occurs just like out in the streets of Boise or Idaho Falls or any other city in the state of Idaho.”

Generally speaking, US colleges and universities are far safer than the cities and counties they reside in. 93 percent of students become victims of violent crimes while away from campus. Idaho is no exception. For example, Boise reported 6 homicides in 2009, 1 in 2008, and 9 in 2007. During that same period, there were no reported homicides on BSU’s campus.  There were no reported robberies at BSU in 2007-2009 and 20 forcible sex offenses while Boise reported 198 robberies and 270 rapes during the same time period.

Thus H 222 falls into the category of a solution seeking a problem. But if the bill becomes law, the cure will be far worse than the illness. Consider the following items:

      • Very few people are trained in combat shooting situations. One study reports that police potential to hit their intended targets is 25% of the rounds fired. In the event that a shooting incident should occur on a college campus, the probabilities of armed students or faculty hitting the intended target are considerably less than that for the police. But the potential to hit unintended targets in crowded classrooms would be greatly magnified. Studies of the hit rates of military in combat reveal two items of note – the low rates of hitting their targets in combat are largely the result of poor marksmanship, especially when the adrenaline is flowing, and the unwillingness to kill another human being. Thus the argument that armed students or faculty could stop a Virginia Tech situation are dubious at best.
      • Armed faculty, staff, or students would only add to the confusion in the event of a campus shooting. In the event of a campus shooting, would you want to be holding a gun when the police arrive? What about armed civilians arriving late to the shooting scene? The tragedy in Tucson was very nearly made greater by this very circumstance – a bystander had picked up the shooter’s gun and was nearly shot by an armed citizen.
      • Idaho is one of nine states that has failed to submit a single name of mentally ill people to the national background-check system as required by law. Approximately 60 out of 1000 adults has a serious mental health issue. About a third of college students have sought some type of mental heath counseling. This means that gun dealers may be selling weapons unknowingly to potentially dangerous people because of a wildly inaccurate list.  How many more Jared Loughners are there trying to buy a gun legally at this very moment?
      • Alcohol is a regular feature of college life.42% of all college students report that they had engaged in binge drinking (five of more drinks) in the past two weeks prior to the survey. 
      • Currently four states and 25 colleges (out of approximately 4300 colleges and universities) permit weapons on campus. The introduction of weapons on college campuses is too recent and involve far too few cases to allow study of the impact of these policies. Research conducted by the Department of Epidemiology and the Injury Prevention Research Center at the University of North Carolina revealed that workplaces that permitted weapons were five times more likely to experience a homicide.
      • Suicide is the second leading cause of death for college students and thousands of students attempt suicide unsuccessfully each year. One large study revealed that half of all college students consider suicide at some point in their life. Studies also show that gun availability in the home correlates with an increased risk of successful suicide.
      • The Violence Policy Center reports that since May 2007, there have been 18 mass shootings where legal concealed handgun holders have taken, or have been charged with taking, the lives of 79 victims. Since May 2007, legal concealed handgun carriers have killed at least 288 individuals--including nine law enforcement officers--in 194 incidents in 29 states.
      • Backpacks are ubiquitous on school campuses. They hold an incredible array of items, including firearms. A Gardena High School (located in LA) student dropped his backpack causing a weapon carried inside to discharge, critically wounding one student and grazing a second student. How many backpacks are dropped each day in densely-packed classrooms? How many backpacks are lost or stolen on any given day, thus providing another source of illegal firearms?
      • This bill is premised on the legend of the urban gunslinger - a well armed community has less crime. But reality intrudes on the myth. Epidemiologists at the University of Pennsylvania discovered that armed citizens were four times more likely to be shot than unarmed citizens when confronted by armed assailants. States that have the highest percentages of gun ownership also tend to have the highest levels of gun violence. Louisiana is among the highest percentage of gun ownership and has the highest percentage of gun deaths. Hawaii is at the other end of the continuum.
      • What liability issues will be raised by this bill? Will faculty and staff have any type of immunity and/or indemnification? What liabilities will the institutions incur in the event of a shooting or an accidental discharge?
      • University campuses provide more than just classrooms and research space. They are also meeting places and entertainment venues. Over one million people visit BSU’s campus for non-academic functions. Do guns have a place in this environment? Will certain groups or entertainers stay away from Idaho’s college campuses if this bill becomes law?
      • One national study found that 94% of respondents were opposed to permitting guns on college campuses. A survey of students in my introductory class revealed that 80% were opposed to allowing guns on campus. The International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators is opposed to this type of legislation.
      This bill would introduce a far greater degree of danger on college campuses and would forever alter the dynamic between students and faculty and among the faculty.  Will the next student who becomes distraught during a discussion resort to violence? Will the next student who receives a bad grade respond with violence? What about the next faculty member who is denied tenure; will he or she resort to the type of violence that occurred last year at the University of Alabama? Introducing weapons on a college campus will create mistrust and inspire fear, which is contrary to an environment conducive to learning.

      If you are wondering what can go wrong by allowing guns on a college campus, I invite you to watch the following video - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MTfM7WGdWpM – in which a bereaved father asks the Florida legislature to vote no on a bill similar to the one now before the Idaho legislature. No parent should have to endure the misery that has ensued from the lethal combination of alcohol, a weapon, and a crowded college campus.

      This issue, like many other public policy questions, is about managing risk. The data point to the conclusion that college campuses are generally safer than the areas that surround them. Introducing weapons on a college campus would mean more risks to manage, not fewer. Those who support this bill are not looking honestly at the risks involved, nor are they looking at the reality of society so thoroughly inundated with guns. 

      I invite the legislature to assert its interest in making Idaho’s college campuses as safe and as inviting as possible by voting no on H 222.

      Update - this bill has died in committee as of March 25th. We will have to remain vigilant as I am sure that we will see this bill again in the future.

      1 comment:

      Anonymous said...

      Thoughtful article. Trouble is, every good argument falls flat when running into Article I, Section 11 of Idaho's Constitution.

      The senators on the committee should've stood up for a change and declared, one by one, vote by vote, their policy preference. This bill should have been allowed to be openly debated and voted on by the entire senate. But they were scared. It'd be the end of many political careers, and they knew it, if they had to vote No on this bill.

      They passed the buck by letting presumably "safe" senators kill it in committee. Problem is, there's that pesky lawsuit out there by the law student...which, by all accounts, he is going to win, and UI's disarmament zone will be stricken, as will, by extension, every other state university's policy prohibiting weapons.

      And we'll be back to the issue again, only this time from the angle it should've been all along - some senator or representative will have to propose a new law CREATING restrictions on university campuses (not a wise career move for a politician in Idaho), and then they'll be forced to vote one way or the other, up or down, on guns on campus.

      As is within their constitutional authority, per Article I, Section 11, Idaho Constitution. Something they should've done this year, this session.

      Funny thing, though - nobody addresses openly carried weapons; the legislature can limit concealed carry, but not open carry. Looks like we'll be having this debate all over again then.