The University of Colorado currently forbids holders of conceal-carry permits to be armed on campus. A current bill under review in the Colorado Legislature would allow permit holders to carry on campus. As a graduate student at CU-Boulder, I took interest in a resolution proposed by the United Government of Graduate Students (UGGS) that would oppose allowing conceal carry on campus. What follows is adapted from my response to the resolution, which was sent to the UGGS representatives a week before their February 19 meeting to vote on the resolution.
Prejudice, intolerance, and taking responsibility for your feelings The resolution makes just one argument in opposition to the bill:
Many students believe that concealed weapons in classrooms, other educational facilities and social buildings at the University of Colorado represent a perceived danger to other students as well as to faculty, instructors and graduate teachers. This resolution claims that because some people will *feel* unsafe knowing that others on campus might be armed, no one on campus should be armed. The resolution does not claim that allowing people to carry on campus will *actually* threaten the safety of others, or result in more crime. It cites no evidence that jurisdictions allowing concealed firearms have higher crime rates than those that do not. Instead, the premise of proposed resolution is how some people's lifestyle choice (carrying a firearm for self-defense) make others feel: if this choice makes people feel unsafe, then this lifestyle should not be tolerated.
If a *perceived* threat is a valid criterion for forbidding lifestyle choices, what other regulations should the college impose? To my knowledge, mace and pepper spray are allowed on campus. Many students take martial arts classes, often to learn self-defense, and, as an UGGS representative trained in martial arts told me, those highly skilled in a martial art consider their own hands and feet to be weapons. If enough people felt unsafe because someone near them *may* have mace or be skilled in a martial art, should the University enact prohibitions to allay these feelings?
These days, might people have a rational fear of Muslims and those who look as they are from the Middle East? If the presence of such people on campus makes other uncomfortable, should UGGS support legislation prohibiting such on campus? What about those prejudiced against blacks, who think they are all crooks? What about *their* feelings? Or is the University to encourage some forms of prejudice and stereotyping while condemning others?
Many people believe that listening to heavy metal, playing violent video games, and reading pornography, and hate literature makes people more likely to commit violent crimes. If enough people are uncomfortable with these goods on campus, should they also be banned, or should people take responsibility for their own emotions?
If legislation can concern merely what people feel, what about people who, in response to a perceived threat, want to arm themselves? In response to September 11, any people chose to purchase firearms and apply for conceal carry permits. Their decision is their own business, as it does not involve imposing their values on others.
I spoke to a few graduate students about this issue, and often they ask, in an incredulous tone of voice: "Why would anyone *need* a gun on campus?" Yet, I can't imagine them asking a woman why she 'needs' to carry mace or be trained in self-defense. Doing so would be insensitive, to say the least. Through these conversations I'm learning that firearms is more than a lifestyle choice; it's a cultural issue, and the "gun culture" is quite foreign to many academics. Having grown up with people trained in the martial arts, we think they are "like us", are responsible, and their potentially lethal abilities are no threat.
There is a gun-owner stereotype; they are not like us. They don't read *Harpers*, listen to NPR, drink microbrews, and surely don't think of themselves as "the Other". The stereotypical gun-owner is out of "our tribe" and hence according to our primal instincts, must be feared. As Mario Cuomo said, gun owners are "hunters who drink beer, don't vote and lie to their wives about where they were all weekend." As you might suspect, the truth is more interesting, as described by *The Economist* and Salon. In addition to women, lesbians, and homosexuals, organized supporters of self-defense include doctors and Jews. Here's a list of other such organizations.
I suggested that the graduate students read about the experience of Abigail Kohn, who wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on the American gun culture. Her book,*Shooters: Myths and Realities of America's Gun Cultures*, will be published by Oxford University Press in early 2003. She's related her experiences in the May 2001 issue of *Reason* magazine.
Alas, this line of argument was not very effective. One of the representatives claimed that allowing students to defend themselves with guns would drive away some foreign students who would be appalled by such a policy. True or not, it is quite hypocritical for an American university to expect, promote, and even demand, American students to accept and tolerate foreign cultural practices but not require foreign students to have the same respect for American cultural practices.
We've all heard of the "ugly American" tourist who fails to appreciate other ways of life, but perhaps foreign students who look down upon the American gun culture are being just as small-minded. After all, carrying a gun for self-defense is a great expression of what makes America great: personal responsibility, self ownership, independence, and assertiveness. 1 These virtues, embodied in property rights and entrepreneurship, have allowed Americans do create unprecedented amounts wealth, without which the American Universities could not exist.
The Facts, as if they mattered My next line of argument concerned how allowing permit holders to carry concealed firearms on campus would make the campus safer. For a more detailed summary of the facts concerning guns, crime, and gun control laws, I strongly recommend Trust the People: The Case Against Gun Control by Democrat and ACLU member Dave Kopel and Is There a Right to Own a Gun?, by Michael Huemer, a Philosophy professor at the University of Colorado.2 Huemer also makes an excellent moral case for gun ownership and against gun control.
The principles of economics apply to criminals too, but they seek the biggest buck for their bang, that is, the prey on victims who can't defend themselves. Both interviews with convicted felons and John Lott's study of the effect of liberalized conceal-carry laws3 confirm this hypothesis: criminals fear that their victims are armed more so than they do the police, and that rates of murder, rape, and aggravated assaults declined in areas where conceal-carry is allowed.
Criminologist Gary Kleck found that are used defensively 2.5 million times every year, which is about three times the rate of crimes committed with guns. This study is so thorough, it motivated pro-gun control criminologist to publish A Tribute to a View I have Opposed in an academic journal. The Sierra Times catalogs news reports of such heroism and Robert Waters has written to books of such incidents.
Still, my fellow graduate students were not convinced. They did not agree with, but did not refute, my argument that people should take responsibility for their emotions instead of responding to them by taking people's choices away. Nor, despite the studies, were they convinced that allowing concealed firearms on campus would make them safer.
An UGGS Vice President wrote:
University students live and study in very close quarters and are under significant amounts of stress. Adding concealed 'deadly' weapons, such as guns or knives, is an unhealthy and potentially deadly addition to this mix. Since only students older than 21 can have permits, and very few of these students live in the dormitories, this is a non-issue. Most of the graduate student representatives realized that no law can stop a premeditated shooting. Their concern was that a permit holder would use the gun unwisely in the heat of a classroom discussion or to intimidate a graduate student teaching assistant into giving a better grade. Is the University setting that much more stressful than the "outside world"? Stress and heated discussions often arise in the workplace, during the commute, at restaurants and bars, and sporting events.
To try further attempt to allay this prejudiced fear of gun owners, I compared the percentage of conceal carry permits that get revoked 4, ~0.1% with the that rate that police officers get arrested in New York and Washington D.C.: 0.3% and 1.9% respectively. In Texas, permit holders are about one-third as likely to be arrested as the general population and much less likely to commit serious crimes. Also, civilians are five times less likely to shoot an innocent victim than is a police officer.5
After discussing this issue with graduate representatives for two hours, I finally asked one of them a simple question: What would change your mind? This is a great time saver, and it quickly unmasks those who dogmatic types with whom rational discourse is a waste of time. While the representative found the studies about defensive gun use and the benefits of concealed carry plausible, she thought the trends might not hold on the campus environment. If I could prove that she'd be no less safe with conceal carry allowed on campus, then she would change her mind. I appreciated her answer, but suggested that the burden of proof was on her to show a difference. She insisted that it was mine.
This is wrong for both logical and political reasons. Logically, one cannot prove a negative. Given the proven benefits of allowing concealed carry in non-university settings, she is asking me to prove that changing one variable, whether or not the permit holders are on a university, does not change anything. Her position is akin to the "precautionary principle" popular among anti-technology environmentalists and the FDA who want to ban technologies or medications with definite and sometimes life-saving benefits because it cannot be proved that they will never cause harm. Politically, this is the equivalent of being guilty until being proven innocent. Under this principle, the authorities forbid everything by default, and the people must ask for permission to do anything.
Rights Matter The argument for allowing people to defend themselves with firearms does not rest only on empirical evidence that it reduces crime. In response to the common concern that allowing people to arm themselves will result in "Wild West-style" shoot-outs, novelist John Ross explains
Although no state has experienced what you are describing, that's not important. What is important is our freedom. If saving lives is more important that anything else, why don't we throw out the Fifth amendment? We have the technology to administer an annual truth serum session to the entire population. We'd catch the criminals and mistaken arrest would be a thing of the past. How does that sound? Many gun control advocates claim that if their prohibition saves "just one life", then it's worth it. I'd like to turn this argument around: If gun control *costs* just one life by denying the basic human right of self defense, then it is immoral. Those who played a part in passing legislation prohibiting a means of self-defense that could have prevented harm to an innocent person are partially responsible for it. As Michael Huemer writes:
[T]he National Crime Victimization Survey indicates that such alternative means of self-protection would be relatively ineffective -- individuals who defend themselves with a gun are less likely to be injured and far less likely to have the crime completed against them than are persons who take any other measures. ... The situation is analogous to one in which the accomplice, rather than taking away the victim's only means of defending himself against the killer, merely takes away the victim's most effective means of self-defense, with the result that the victim is killed.
Conclusion People commit inexplicable atrocities, and it is frightening to contemplate what motivates such action. Every culture has fabricated evil demons that possess us to do evil, and have tried to eliminate them: sex, drugs, rock and roll, books, video games, movies, and guns. This voodoo social policy might bring piece of mind that the evil has been exorcised, but this ritual sacrifice of freedom and personal responsibility brings no security.
Violent criminals are responsible for their actions; the cause of their evil comes from within. In the dramatic scene of *Minority Report*, where the Tom Cruise character faced his apparent fate to kill a man, the "precog" exhorted "you can still choose". Peaceful citizens should take responsibility for their own personal security just as they do their financial security. For some, this means carrying a concealed firearm. If our own bodies belong to us as private property, self-defense is a basic human right.
We are also ultimately responsible for our emotions and hence should not blame them on external circumstances or people. They belong to us, and holding people hostage to fear by prohibiting an effective means of self-defense is not only irresponsible, it endangers people's lives.
The responses to my criticism and discussion of this issue were quite civil. Several students, while disagreeing with me, sincerely appreciated my challenge, both for its quality, and for breaking the usual unanimity of viewpoints. Without my efforts, the graduate student government would have swiftly approved the resolution. No one seemed to mind that after an hour of discussion, the vote was postponed for two weeks. Perhaps during this time some representatives will consider this matter further.
Notes 1 For a great discussion of the role of guns and other means of self-defense in different cultures, as well as the social role police officers play in them, see *The Samurai, The Mountie, and the Cowboy: Should America Adopt the Gun Controls of Other Democracies?*. This award-winning book comparing gun control legislation and results throughout the world. Named Book of the Year by the American Society of Criminology, Division of International Criminology.
2 Huemer's paper is forthcoming in the April 2003 issue of *Social Theory and Practice*.
3 Lott's study is well known. His book, *More Guns, Less Crime* is in its second edition, and Law Professor David D. Friedman chronicles the debate over its findings.
4 *More Guns, Less Crime*, 2nd Ed., pp 219-221.
5 Original source: Carol Ruth Silver and Donald B. Kates, "Self-Defense, Handgun Ownership, and the Independence of Women in a Violent, Sexist Society," in *Restricting Handguns: The Liberal Skeptics Speak Out*, ed. Donald B. Kates (Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y.: North River Press, 1979), p. 152.
Brian T. Schwartz is a doctoral candidate in Electrical Engineering at the University of Colorado, where he is also active with the Campus Libertarians. He would like to thank Michael Huemer, John Thrasher, and Bruce Tiemann for their contributions to this article.