Just Say No to Guns on Campus

“Campus carry” legislation is a terrible idea.

A growing number of states are considering or adopting so-called “campus carry” laws to allow guns on college campuses and in buildings owned by any public college. So far, eight states have recently adopted policies allowing students to carry guns on campus, and in 2014, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 14 states introduced legislation allowing campus concealed carry. In Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal recently vetoed similar legislation after a protracted and controversial fight.

As a university dean, I believe that Gov. Deal’s decision was the right call, and that every state should resist policies that allow students to come to their classes armed.

In my role as an academic, I am acutely aware that most universities are inflicted with three extremely serious problems: 1) a student population that is increasingly stressed, feeling overwhelmed and at times prone to self-injury and harm; 2) an epidemic of alcohol abuse, and 3) a continuous threat of and occurrence of campus sexual misconduct, assault and date rape. Allowing guns on campus is going to compound on these existing crises, and further deepen and exacerbate them. It will also make the current efforts of solving them disproportionately more difficult.

Anyone who has ever worked or lived on campus knows that we are dealing with a special age group. Young people in general and students in particular tend to experience extremely high levels of stress, depression and times hopelessness. These students are often more emotional, volatile, easily swayed, and prone to rash and, at times, extreme actions in part because this might be the first time that a student is without traditional family or extended networks for support. In my career, I have worked with students who experienced an emotional crisis and acted brashly and violently following a break up, a failing grade, or just a general “blue period.” Often times, students lack an outlet for these emotions, causing them to resort to extreme acts to seek relief.

For college students, almost everything can be “an end of the world experience” and emotions, especially those of struggling students, tend to run high. Even when worst case scenarios are excluded, the student population is a very vulnerable one, both in terms of mental insecurity and anxiety, and the ability to cope with it. Surveys show that in 2015, 85.6% of U.S. students felt overwhelmed by what they had to do, 56.9% experienced overwhelming anxiety, 38.1% felt overwhelming anger, and 34.5% felt so depressed that it was difficult for them to function. Nearly 9% and 8.9% seriously considered suicide. In 2015 – 1,100 college students committed suicide, a majority of them by a firearm. Suicide is now the second most common cause of death among college students.  In almost every institution I have worked, I would hear about at least one instance of an attempted suicide during the academic year.

Allowing firearms in dorms, lecture halls, cafeterias and faculty offices would make it much easier for students experiencing stress or trauma to use those guns to hurt themselves or others. It would make it more likely that some of them would choose to resolve unpleasant or hostile situations by introducing the threat of gun violence, and in some cases, prompt the immediate use of it.

In addition to compounding the problem of increasing stress levels and the suicide crisis in academia, the introduction of guns will also negatively interact with the second campus emergency – alcohol consumption and binge drinking. Most American colleges and universities face a serious and a widespread drinking among students. It takes place in the fraternities and the sororities, in dormitories, and in off campus housing. According to the 2013 U.S. Health and Social Services Survey, almost 60% of full time college students in 2013 were drinkers, while 39% were “binge” drinkers, and 12.7% were “heavy” drinkers. This heavy use of alcohol was directly related to a broad array of problems including deaths, assaults, sexual abuse, injury and academic problems. Imagine what will happen within this already risky and combustible situation when we introduce an open or concealed carry.

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Students tend to do everything in small or big groups and in close proximity to each other. They mostly live together, attend lectures together, study together and party together. Within these close quarters, disputes and tensions tend to get magnified, and the presence of alcohol and firearms at the same time will pose a tremendous danger, not only to an individual students but to the groups and the community within which he or she operates. The mixture of alcohol, group living and guns on campus would assuredly lead to disputes turning into fatal situations.

“Campus carry” legislation also is likely to amplify the problems of campus sexual misconduct, assault and date rape. Only recently has this issue received a wider coverage and publicity and the newly publicized data show an ugly and an alarming picture. A survey by the Association of American Universities (AAU) administered among U.S. campuses at the end of the spring 2015 semester finds that 23% of female students report experiencing some form of unwanted sexual contact – ranging from kissing to touching to rape (with 10.8% experiencing penetration). These assaults were most commonly carried out by force or threat of force, or while the victim was incapacitated because of alcohol or drugs. The threat of sexual violence and the act of sexual violence itself is something with which many students have to live and cope during their college years.

Consider how the presence of firearms on campus is likely to affect this situation. A few possible scenarios come to mind. First, guns can enhance the number of sexual assaults and their severity because attackers would find it easier to coerce the other party to engage in sexual activity. Guns can also be used in self-defense and in preventing sexual assault and unwanted behavior, or they can be used by the affected victim to extract revenge and “punish” the perpetrator. Whether used for coercion, defense or revenge, the availability of guns on campus is not likely to help solve the crisis of sexual assault on campus. Rather, it would put a new, more deadly, unpredictable and uncontrollable layer on it.

College is tough. At times the non-academic part is the tougher one. As a faculty member, I am continuously concerned about the well-being of my students and the dire challenges they face outside of the academic arena. These dangers are real, and many will not graduate unscathed. But most of these threats are not deadly. The “guns on campus policy” will change all that. If campus carry policies don’t increase the actual amount of deadly violence in colleges, than the continuous and escalated possibility of it will change our campuses forever and for the worse.

Klara Bilgin

Klara Bilgin is Dean of the School of Public and International Affairs at the Virginia International University in Fairfax, Virginia.