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Would students be safer if they carried guns?

Gun safety questions still linger four months after the VA Tech shootings

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Virginia Tech students return to school
Aug. 20: Virginia Tech classes resume just months after the deadly massacre. NBC's Kevin Corke reports.
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Clint Van Zandt

On April 16, a major university and a nation stood still in an attempt to understand the devastation that was levied by one angry man with two guns.  That morning, 23-year-old Virginia Tech senior Cho Seung-Hui killed 33 and wounded 29 in an act of rage that still defies explanation.  In the aftermath of those killings, many thought to themselves, “If only someone could have stopped him sooner…”

As students at Virginia Tech prepare for a new school year, some believe they would be safer if they were legally allowed to carry guns along with members of the facutly and staff. It has been suggested that had just one student or faculty member had a gun, Cho could have been stopped before his total number of victims reached 62, thus saving perhaps dozens of lives. But others believe that the ensuing crossfire between Cho and armed students could have cost even more lives. They think our colleges and universities should be islands of learning in the sea of violence that seems to grip our nation on a weekly basis.  

I do not see this as a Second Amendment right to bear arms issue. I see it as a need and a safety issue. Do students really need to carry a gun on campus for personal protection?

Notwithstanding the slaughter at Tech, the murder rate on college campuses is 0.28 per 100,000 people, far less than the overall U.S. murder rate of 5.5 per 100,000. This means that a non-student is at least 20 times more likely to be a murder victim than a student at college. That is the way it should be. Our institutions of higher education should be places where people of all backgrounds come together to debate and discuss different ideas, and, if they've not learned otherwise, a place where they can be taught to disagree without using violence to make their point and get their way. Students need to fight for their ideas and beliefs, ones honed over the blazing fires of verbal discourse and debate.  But their fight should be with words, not bullets.

Guns on campus seem to increase other risks
Within the last decade the Harvard School of Public Health conducted a random sample of over 15,000 undergraduate students from 130 different four-year colleges. At that time 3.5 percent of the student respondents indicated they had a firearm at college. This same study concluded that students with guns on campus were more likely to engage in binge drinking, to have DUI offenses, and were more likely than other students to be injured severely enough to require medical attention while in college. Overall, the study found that students with guns on campus were more likely than those without guns to engage in activities that put them and others at risk.

Were all states to allow guns to be carried on campus, I believe the danger for everyone at such schools would increase. We know, for example, that approximately 25,000 college students attempt suicide and 1,1000 more are successful.

We also know that roughly 90 percent of individuals who attempt suicide with a firearm are successful. If we do the math, as college teaches us to do, the success rate of college suicide could increase dramatically if guns were easier to obtain. Guns that were bought, borrowed or stolen, perhaps from a roommate or from the desk of an absent-minded professor who let students know that he or she had a loaded gun in their office desk drawer.

If a student or a college employee is able to turn to a readily available gun as a means of conflict resolution rather than talking or walking away, the danger to all increases exponentially.

Put yourself, for example, in the shoes of the campus police officer, administrator, instructor or janitor who must confront a student who could possibly be carrying a gun under his sweatshirt. The tension between such individuals is automatically ratcheted up to a much higher level, one that could needlessly impact on the dialogue between the two.


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