Tom O’Hara: Allowing guns on campus is dumb, but it won’t change college life much

Stand your ground

Backers and opponents of letting people bring guns onto Florida’s college campuses can’t logically support their arguments until there’s more slaughter to analyze.

It appears that a bill that would allow students with a concealed-carry permit to bring their guns onto the state’s public college campuses will become law next year.

A similar bill died in the 2015 session but the National Rifle Association and the bill’s Republican supporters are getting the bill teed up early. Crucial House and Senate committees already have approved the bill.

Florida is one of 20 states that ban guns on public college campuses. The state has about 1.1 million students who attend its 12 universities and 28 colleges.

Everyone knows the arguments.

Proponents say campuses will be safer if trained gun owners who have met the requirements for a concealed-carry permit have their weapons with them. You have to be 21 years old to get a permit.

Supporters say that if a lunatic starts shooting people, a student with a gun will be able to stop them before they do much damage.

Here’s how NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer puts it: “The plain truth is campuses are supposed to be gun-free zones. They are gun-free zones where murderers, rapists and shooters can commit crimes without fear of being harmed by their victims.”

The opponents are a formidable coalition that includes college presidents, college police chiefs and the State University System, which oversees the state’s 12 public universities.

“All 12 of Florida’s public universities are confident that well-staffed and well-trained law enforcement teams combined with robust mental health services provide the best opportunity for universities to prevent crisis situations and minimize any threats to our campuses,” according to the system’s formal statement on the issue.

One complication is that there have not been enough campus shootings where a good-guy gunman has come to the rescue to provide the empirical evidence needed to resolve the debate.

Colleges are very safe places so there’s not much data to crunch. Kathryn Grant, director of the southeast region of Campaign to Keep Guns off Campus, attributes campus safety partly to the gun bans.

Grant and other opponents contend that if Florida lifts its ban, more guns will be tossed into the volatile stew of youthful hormones, mental illness and alcohol abuse that is part of college life. Having more guns in reach will mean more gunfire on campus, they say.

She points out that several gun-rights organizations already are gearing up to train students how to handle guns and urge them to stuff weapons into their backpacks. Opponents even suggest that heated debates about literature or philosophy might provoke a classroom gunfight.

I taught about 80 students in four classes at Florida Atlantic University last spring. One of them was a prison guard. Everyone had a backpack. They could have been packing Glocks for all I knew.

Campuses don’t have metal detectors at classroom doors. No one knows how many guns are on Florida’s college campuses each day.

It’s sad to contemplate, but the only way to know if letting students 21 and older carry guns will reduce campus shootings is to make it legal and see what happens.

My prediction is that it won’t make much difference.

Most students are younger than 21 so there won’t be that many legal gun-toting students. And I suspect that most madman killings will continue to unfold like the recent one at Umpqua Community College in Oregon.

Students there are allowed to carry concealed guns. In fact, John Parker, a 36-tear-old Air Force veteran, was on campus during the shootings and had his gun with him.

But by the time he was aware of the shootings, police had responded and he wisely decided to stay away from the scene because he didn’t want the police to mistake him for the shooter.

I think allowing guns on campuses is a dumb idea. If the ban is lifted, I suspect a few more students will think it’s either cool or prudent to carry a gun. And I suspect that will result in more shootings that otherwise would not have happened.

I also believe that a 21-year-old with minimal firearms training firing a gun during a rampage by a mentally ill man won’t stop the slaughter and might cause more.

And I believe that on a rare occasion a calm and savvy armed student would thwart a campus crime.

But there’s no way to know for sure whether the rewards would outweigh the risks unless Florida lifts the ban and we see what happens.

I’d rather the state not conduct that experiment, but it appears that’s what the NRA wants and our lawmakers are eager to approve.

Tom O’Hara is a veteran newspaperman. He is the former managing editor of The Palm Beach Post and the Plain Dealer in Ohio. 

For more state and national commentary visit Context Florida.

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