Also, it would make grades more… final, if profs were packin’.

March 31, 2009, 4:16 pm

Dear Texas Legislature,

I am given to understand that you are considering making it legal for students over the age of 21 to carry concealed weapons on campus.   The thought is that doing so would prevent mass murders like the one that happened at Virginia Tech.

It’s a pleasant daydream for these Walther Mittys.  One can imagine any number of ways, all out of bad action movies.  The tall young professor with the twinkling blue eyes, his class interrupted by a gunman, athletically rolls under the desk, brings up his weapon, and fires two shots into the torso of the assailant… the alternachick literature prof who had been a pacifist until she learned the error of her ways in Guatemala, pulls her weapon from her organic hemp rucksack, and wounds the gunman in the leg…. the elderly don with the tweed blazer and bowtie, calmly firing his antique revolver, ejaculating “You shall not interrupt my lecture on Charlemagne, you cur!”

(“It says, ‘Puppies bark for it’, on the box.”)

Here’s the thing.  School shootings are exceedingly rare events.  They are great exemplars of the maxim “hard cases make bad law”, because they’re impossibly difficult to contain within a policy, whether that policy is how a school should respond to a student struggling with mental illness, or what safety measures a college should enact, or whether guns should be permitted on campus.

The problem with endorsing concealed carry as a solution to these kinds of rare events are many.  I’m going to focus on one, namely that there seems to be a direct correlation between the numbers of students owning firearms on campus, the likelihood that someone will be armed when the shooter bursts through the door in Wachowski-style slow motion, and (this is the crucial bit) that likelihood that accidental shootings will occur.

So let’s kick the tires.  The idea here is supposed to be that if students are armed, the bad guys will either decide not to target classrooms, or that they will be stopped by a clear-eyed gun owner. I find the first disjunct implausible; almost every school shooting has been a planned last stand for the gunman.  There’s only so much rationality we can assume.  The second is less obviously wrong, but let’s do the math.  You’d need to assume not just that some students will carry, but that a significant amount will carry, as classrooms do not consist of the entire student body.  Maybe one in every 30?  That way one can ensure an adequate distribution of firearms in all of the early classes.  One would need more gun owners in freshman chem, because many students sleep in.

Two problems from the perspective of public safety.  The first is that quite a lot of students wouldn’t be eligible; they’re either too young, or can’t establish residency requirements (at least that’s what they say when they try to register to vote.)  So we’re going to have to find our gun-owners in the rest of the student population.  This makes it look less and less like a viable safety measure (remember, we need a critical mass of carriers or else we’ve just added lots of guns) and more like a very silly idea whose appeal lies in fantasies.

Okay.  So suppose anyone could have a gun!  Given enough guns to ensure adequate mass-murder-coverage, we are surely going to have secondary problems, even if we suppose all of the gun owners are perfectly responsible.   (That’s a huge spot.) College dorms and apartments are not the most secure locations; are all of their friends and roommates responsible?  Never drunk and stupid? Never depressed over a girlfriend or boyfriend leaving?  Never angry over a grade or a rejection or a slight?  Never dealing drugs?  The likely scenario is not a handsome senior bravely facing down the mass murderer (who threatens his delicate girlfriend with a leer…), but a drunken frat boy shooting himself in the leg, or a student murdering his ex-girlfriend and then himself, or an accidental death due to too much alcohol and too little common sense.

And, of course, you don’t get to assume that you’re the hero in the drama.  You might be Jack Bauer.  You might be the Plucky Extra Who Failed To Get the Safety Off.

So, if (as is likely), few students carry, the chance of shooting the gunman (as the music swells…), with a slightly higher chance of accidents; if many students carry, the chance of shooting the gunman (crescendoooo..) is greater, but so is the likelihood of other incidents.   Add to that the rarity of school shooting, and the proposal looks like this: to stop an incident that occurs perhaps once a decade, we will take steps to ensure that other, more common harmful incidents (that don’t garner national attention) are more likely.

Perhaps there are other reasons to want guns on campus, but stopping the next VA Tech ain’t one of them.


Those of us who have to work on campus.

P.S.  Were I in a Swifter mood, I’d suggest we arm the profs.  Older, more responsible, established in the community, definitely present in the classroom, and–bonus!!  shorter office hours.

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