Clayton E. Cramer: Concealed weapons on campuses won't increase threats


February 18, 2014 

When SB 1254 (Sen. Curt McKenzie's guns on campus bill) came up last week, I was one of three college faculty who signed up to support it. I know other faculty who agree but could not speak.

What's the goal? It is not the everyday crime problem. Idaho campuses are generally quite safe. Between 2000 and 2012, U.S. gun sales skyrocketed and murder rates fell — but there has been a dramatic increase in what the FBI calls "active shooter incidents." They do not always happen where guns are prohibited — but often enough to suggest a connection.

A common (although not universal) characteristic of these mass murderers is severe mental illness. No surprise; multiple studies find that murderers and other violent felons are disproportionately severely mentally ill.

What can we do to stop these? Of the 104 active shooter incidents that a recent FBI report studied, three ended when victims shot the killer. Another 14 ended when victims "subdued" the killer. In at least some of those incidents, such as Appalachian Law School in 2002 and Clackamas Mall in 2012, victims subdued the killer at the point of a gun.

These incidents are rare (typically 1/4 of 1 percent of U.S. murders), but with enormous impact. They are also difficult to deter, because the killer thinks he is shooting zombies or aliens, and intends suicide. One of the reasons that Students for Concealed Carry on Campus organized after the Virginia Tech massacre was the realization that a gun-free campus guarantees such a killer (who is not afraid of death) won't have anyone returning fire.

If this were an entirely new idea — allowing concealed carry licensees to carry on campus — there might be some reason for concern. But there are at least six states that allow this, including our neighbors of Colorado and Utah, which have similar concealed carry laws. In both states, some campuses allowed concealed carry; others were forced to by court decisions (University of Utah since 2006 and University of Colorado, Boulder since 2012). My analysis of the change in violent crime rates for both sets of campuses shows no difference between those that allowed it and those that did not.

Is allowing concealed carry on campus the best solution to the mass murder problem? No. The root cause of these tragedies was the well-intentioned destruction of the state mental hospital system, starting with the Community Mental Health Act of 1963, signed by President John Kennedy, and the legal consequences of Lessard v. Schmidt (E.D. Wisc. 1972). People that used to be hospitalized when they first showed serious symptoms now often have to kill someone, or close, before anything happens.

In most states, it is difficult to involuntarily commit someone unless they are an imminent danger to themselves or others. Many of the recent mass murders involved people who were recognized as dangerous — but not an imminent danger. Idaho is one of the minority of states whose law does not require imminent danger — but perhaps because of this, we are short of mental hospital beds, or at least short of them in the right places.

I would prefer to fix the mental health system (and not just Idaho needs work on this). But since we are not going to even try, can those of us who teach and have at least a moral responsibility to protect our students have a fighting chance?

Cramer teaches history at the College of Western Idaho. His most recent book is "My Brother Ron: A Personal and Social History of the Deinstitutionalization of the Mentally Ill" (2012).

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