Do Weapons Increase Safety or Threaten Students?

The national debate over gun rights on campus hits home at Virginia Tech.

January 8, 2009, 12:28 AM

Aug. 15, 2007 — -- If a college student is allowed to bring a handgun to class, will it increase the risk of violence toward other students or provide the student with a necessary measure of self-defense?

The issue of gun control has long been a subject of national debate, but in the months following the mass shooting at Virginia Tech, discussion has centered on college campuses.

On April 16, 2007, Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho used two handguns to shoot and kill 32 members of his college community in what stands as the largest mass shooting in American history.

"The university was struck today with a tragedy of monumental proportions. There were two shootings on campus. In each case, there were fatalities," said Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger, who spoke candidly on the shooting later that same day.

Questions about Cho's mental health, the weapons he purchased, his motives and security at the university became controversial issues after the tragedy.

Now, as students return for the fall semester at Virginia Tech, the questions of gun rights remain largely unresolved — both at a school, where gun violence is a recent memory, and on the national scene.

Gun control at schools and universities is legislated on a state level, and there is no federal legal standard. Currently, 38 states have banned weapons on school grounds, with 16 states extending that ban to college campuses. Even so, individual universities are often allowed to create their own campus security rules.

At the extreme end of the gun rights spectrum sit many rural states.

With vast stretches of land open for hunting and farming, along with a sparse police presence, Montana is known for its liberal gun control policy. It is a state where close to 90 percent of households contain firearms, according to a Montana Shooting Sports Association estimate.

This is, in part, due to a state law that allows Montana residents to openly carry firearms without a permit, and to also carry concealed weapons with the legal permission of a county sheriff.

Montana's liberal policies also stretch onto its college campuses. At Montana State University, many students check their rifles and ammunition at the front desk of their residence halls.

A recently proposed ban of concealed weapons on the MSU campus prompted a heated response from students. "The idea that they're instituting the exact same policy as Virginia Tech is ludicrous. People who use guns for ill aren't going to follow university policy," said Dan Bothwell, a premed student at the university.

Another western state, Utah, allows students over 21 to carry concealed weapons at public universities, drawing on a 2004 law that permits concealed weapons on state property. That law was challenged by the University of Utah in a case that reached the state Supreme Court, but failed to overturn the legislation.

Students for Concealed Carry on Campus is a nonpartisan grass-roots group that supports gun rights on university campuses.

In a written statement on the group's Web site, Chris Brown, the founder, and a senior at the University of North Texas, explained the group's stance.

"As a college student, and a concealed handgun license holder, when I step onto campus, I am left unable to defend myself. My state allows me to carry a handgun in public, but there is some imaginary line drawn around college campuses for silly reasons. And those silly reasons are getting people killed, raped and robbed."

Jon Vernick, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research in Baltimore, said the contention that more guns make a campus safer is simply wrong.

"Rather than arming students, we should instead focus on making it harder for criminals and other dangerous persons to gain access to firearms in the first place," Vernick explained in an e-mail to ABC News.

"We have approximately 30,000 firearm-related deaths in the United States each year — about 80 per day," said Vernick, "more than two Virginia Techs happening every day."

While those on either side of the issue cite evidence supporting their claims, conclusive data on right-to-carry laws and concealed weapons is scant. "Research devoted to understanding the defensive and deterrent effects of guns has resulted in mixed and sometimes widely divergent findings," concluded a 2004 report on firearms and safety, produced by the National Research Council.

Fall semester classes begin on Aug. 20 at Virginia Tech. An initial report on last April's shooting incident, commissioned by Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, is expected to be released during the first week of classes at the college.

A second independent panel, that includes former Homeland Security director Tom Ridge, is expected to release its findings on the shooting in the coming months.

In Virginia, the law states that universities can prohibit students and faculty from carrying weapons onto campus, even if those students have state permits to carry concealed handguns. Following the shooting in April, Virginia Tech approved a violence prevention policy, reaffirming its ban on students and employees bringing guns on campus.

Not all Virginia Tech students agree with the university's ban on weapons and, for some students, the April shooting was a sign that students should have more, not fewer weapons.

"A law to prevent gun ownership doesn't do anything except keep good standing people more dependent on the government, so I am against any kind of gun control," explained Jeremy McClay, a senior at Virginia Tech, who supports gun rights on constitutional grounds.

Referring to the Virginia Tech shooting, McClay explained that "If students had been armed, I think the outcome would have been the same ... ownership of a firearm does not mean you are proficient at it."

Jamal Carver graduated last spring from Virginia Tech with a degree in engineering science and mechanics. He was in his Monday morning engineering class when Cho began shooting into the Norris Hall classroom. Carver, one of several wounded in the assault, suffered gunshot wounds to his arm and stomach.

Carver shared his thoughts on gun rights. "I think I'd rather have it where students can't have guns on campus," he said, adding, "there should be some sort of system where a person has to go through some kind of a serial background check" before being allowed to purchase a weapon.

Four months after the shooting, Carter explained he is doing well, physically, and that he is "emotionally fine ... besides the occasional bad dream." He said he plans to attend graduate school in the near future.

"A lot of people have sort of moved on," he said, speaking about fellow classmates, many of whom go back to school next week. Carver expects those returning to be more jittery and aware of their surroundings when they attend classes in the fall.

"It will just be different."

Additional reporting by ABC News' Logan Koffler.

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