BLACKSBURG, Va., April 16, 2008 -- On that windy April day last year, when death descended on Virginia Tech, students, faculty and staff confronted one of America's worst nightmares: A mad, broken young man, armed to the teeth. The memories are still raw.
"Hokie Nation," as they called the school's close-knit community, came together, rallied, and mourned with dignity and a distinctive spirit.
One year later, the Virginia Tech campus is once again an idyllic place, and Norris Hall, where 30 people were murdered by Seung-Hui Cho, and where he took his own life, is being transformed into a Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention.
So, it might come as a shock to learn that, for some students at Virginia Tech, the answer to Cho's gun rampage is concealed handguns — on campus.
"A lot of people don't understand the aspect of carrying for self defense," said Ken Stanton, a 30-year-old engineering graduate student at Virginia Tech, and the head of the Vermont chapter of Students for Concealed Carry on Campus. University policy prohibits students or employees, except campus police, from carrying concealed weapons, though visitors who have a valid permit are allowed to keep their guns.
Stanton says concealed weapons can protect students from muggers, rapists and even deranged school shooters like Cho.
"The reality is that it was probably the one thing that could have turned the tables. Many people tried to attack Cho while during this, and stop him. People closed doors, threw things at him ... so realistically speaking, there needed to be a stronger weapon of some kind for someone to have been able to stop him in the situation," Stanton said.
It's a tough sell in a community as traumatized by gun violence as Virginia Tech, but Stanton is convinced guns in the hands of licensed, responsible students would make the campus safer. He also believes that parents may come to accept the idea.
"The first reaction might be, 'Oh, my gosh, there's gonna be guns on campus.' But if you flip that around and understand that there are people there ready to defend themselves and possibly others if there's an attack, it actually becomes a safer place, in that sense, so it becomes an issue of understanding for parents," Stanton said.
Gaining Support Across America
Students for Concealed Carry on Campus is a nationwide movement that claims 25,000 members, and organizes, as most advocacy groups on campus do nowadays: on Facebook.
One of the 11 campuses that allows students to carry concealed weapons, Blue Ridge Community College, is just an hour away from Virginia Tech, outside Staunton.
Stanton points to that campus, and others, as examples of effective conceal and carry. "There has never been a shooting, there has never been a gun stolen, there has never been any of these speculatory [sic} situations where we say, 'oh, everything is going to go wrong,'" Stanton said. "It actually has been shown quite the contrary that students have been even more responsible with their right to carry on campus than others."
But Virginia Tech is different. It's a place scarred forever by gun violence.
"Nightline" met with several officers of the Students for Concealed Carry on Campus group at Virginia Tech. Nearly all of them knew someone who was killed by Cho last year, including Nina Camoriano. When she came to Virginia Tech, she accepted the school's ban on carrying concealed guns, but not any more.
"Since April 16th, I've realized that's really not an option and wanted to get involved to let the world know that we need the right to defend ourselves and we need it now. We can't be sitting ducks, and that's what all college campuses are right now. The more we hem and haw and just let things go, people are dying over this issue," she said.
Self-Defense or Unnecessary Danger?
And how do the Students for Concealed Carry on Campus members feel about college students carrying guns when they go out to party?
"Well, the funny thing about that is, you know people are already allowed to [carry] concealed off campus and that's where all the drinking happens," said Kenneth Anderson.
In fact, state regulations governing concealed weapon permits prohibit carrying a firearm into elementary schools, middle schools and high schools, places of worship, courthouses or places where alcoholic beverages are served or consumed.
Fellow member James Kenny added, "Also, a lot of the people you hear making that argument are people who don't know much about firearms and project their fears about firearms on others and say, 'oh, well, I don't trust myself with a gun, so why should I trust anyone else with a gun?'"
The students said it's all about self-defense.
"The beauty of concealed carry is that you don't have to carry to be protected by it," Camoriano said. "So, just the element of uncertainty makes a lot of these would-be criminals change their minds and choose a different place to attack."
Virginia is one of 39 states that issue concealed carry licenses to qualifying residents. Virginia requires a permit applicant to be at least 21 years old, and pass a firearms safety course and a background check, before carrying a gun.
School officials adopted a strict policy and established the rule banning guns from campus in 2006 — a rule that obviously did not stop Cho.
But most Virginia Tech students ABC News spoke with said that licensed, concealed weapons are not the answer.
"I think it's definitely a step in the wrong direction," said sophomore Jessica Blint, of Pittsburgh. "I think we should be teaching other things, like getting along with each other and ways to deal with anger and depression, instead of saying that the way we deal with that is to have a weapon on you."
After a year of trauma and grief and recovery, the school is moving forward, debating how best to stop such violence in the future, and how best to keep everyone safe.