Joe Smith believes the 9mm handgun he carries is the reason he and his family are alive.
Last September, a man threatened to kill Smith, his wife and their toddler in a mall parking lot. The man said he had a gun, so Smith, 24, drew his and immediately his aggressor fled.
But Smith is not allowed to carry that gun when he attends classes at Ohio State University, where he is president of Buckeyes for Concealed Carry on Campus. And he feels Ohio’s ban on guns on college campuses puts him and others at risk, especially in situations such as his mall encounter.
“Whoever has the firearm wins the struggle for power,” he said. “Thank God he didn’t have a firearm and I did.”
College campuses across the country have been at the center of the debate over where people should have the legal right to carry concealed weapons since a student at Virginia Tech University shot and killed 32 people and injured 17 others in 2007. Just more than a year later, a gunman at Northern Illinois University killed five people in a lecture hall. And last April, a former student of a small religious college in California took seven lives.
Now, talks are beginning again with a renewed sense of urgency after the Dec. 14 tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut that claimed the lives of 20 first-graders and six adults and the July 20 shooting at the Aurora Century 16 Cinema in Colorado that killed 12 people.
Ohio is one of 21 states that ban concealed carry at institutions of higher education, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Ohio lawmakers are not presently considering any changes to that rule, but Arkansas, Georgia, Montana, Nevada and Texas are working to change their laws to allow weapons on campuses. Colorado is doing the opposite and is working now to ban concealed firearms on campuses. The change comes after the Colorado Supreme Court decided in 2012 that the University of Colorado’s policy banning guns violated the state’s concealed carry law.
Arguments are made on both sides of the issue: Opponents to concealed carry say college campuses are among the safest places students can be, with their own police forces to protect students, faculty and others. Proponents say gun-free areas only guarantee that criminals will be the only ones armed.
Drawing a line
After the Virginia Tech shooting, the response nationwide ultimately was to tighten gun controls and institute other security measures, including systems to quickly notify students in case of emergencies. When the debate came into the national spotlight again after the Sandy Hook shooting, more than 300 U.S. college presidents signed a letter to U.S. lawmakers opposing concealed carry on campuses.
Kettering College President Charles Scriven, who was among 14 Ohio college presidents to sign the letter, said he fears guns on campus would increase the likelihood of accidents or violent confrontations among students, especially if alcohol is involved. He said he fears it would increase the rate of effective suicides by college students.
“I’m doubtful that the presence of guns on campus would have a salutary effect,” said Scriven, whose school of 981 students is considering an active shooter drill for later this year.
“Where society goes a little astray, I think, is supposing that the Constitutional right to own guns is the right to carry guns anywhere you want to, any time of the day, no matter what your condition as a human being,” he said. “Where that line is, I’m not sure. But the debate is really important.”
At the same time, some students are preparing to push the issue in the Ohio statehouse and in court. Ohio law does allow individuals with concealed carry permits to keep their guns locked in their cars on campus.
The University of Toledo was the first in Ohio to survey students on whether they agree that “anyone who has concealed weapons should be allowed to carry it on campus for their safety.” About 49 percent of students agreed (2,480 people) and 45 percent disagreed (2,300).
Senior Patrick Richardson said the UT College Republicans plan to present the results of the student government survey to Ohio legislators to push to change to state law. He said student groups at other Ohio campuses are considering similar surveys.
“I hope that some day this could potentially save the life of somebody,” he said, adding allowing concealed carry on campuses “is a movement that’s sweeping the country. I do believe it’s only a matter of time before it comes to Ohio.”
Federal law does not address guns on campuses. Last year, 16 states considered bills on both sides of the issue. Ideas included allowing faculty and staff to carry firearms on campuses in Arizona and blocking financial support for colleges that do not “respect (the) right to bear arms” in West Virginia, according to the group Keep Guns Off Campus.
A bill in Illinois would have made colleges civilly liable for any injury suffered by a person with a concealed carry permit if they are hurt during a criminal act on a campus where they are prohibited from carrying their weapon. None of the 23 bills up for discussion nationwide in 2012 were passed, according to the group.
The last time an Ohio lawmaker suggested changing Ohio’s ban was in 2011, and the bill never left committee.
‘You cannot disarm criminals’
Advocates and opponents point to statistics and research to support their view.
College campuses are considered one the safest places to be in the country, said Charles Russo, Panzer Chair in Education at the University of Dayton and adjunct professor of law. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the criminal homicide rate on college campuses was 0.07 per 100,000 students on college campuses in 1999. That was compared to 5.7 per 100,000 people overall.
Colleges also often have their own police forces, so responding to situations where citizens possess firearms can complicate things, Russo said. Their police budgets reach the millions, including $5.6 million at the University of Cincinnati. Sinclair Community College’s budget of $2.7 million covers 21 full-time and three part-time sworn officers and 65 part-time safety officers. Miami University’s police department has a budget of $2.9 million and has 23 full-time and one part-time officers. Others, including Clark State Community College, contract with city police departments for coverage. Dayton has 27 full-time and four part-time police officers, but declined to release its public safety operating budget.
John Stefanski, student body president at Miami University, said students feel safe on the Oxford campus in part because of the on-campus police and city police departments.
“I think having concealed carry permits for students is completely unnecessary,” said Stefanski, of Canfield, Ohio. “Why do you need to have a gun to go to class? The library? A residence hall?”
Other students said a ban on weapons on campus effectively disarms them when they are walking off campus, where most crime occurs. About 93 percent of violent crimes against college students occur off campus, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
“Violent crime may not be immense on campus,” said Smith of OSU. “There is an immense amount off campus and you’re also disarming us there. The criminals know we are unarmed and we have valuable items like laptops and cell phones. These mass murders occur in gun-free areas. People victimize people who are in gun-free areas.”
Richardson said he has found that students unfamiliar with guns fear concealed carry on campus.
“The thought that more gun control equals less crime — that sounds great. That’s not the reality. The reality is you cannot disarm the criminals, so you might as well arm the good guys,” he said.
University of Dayton senior Michael Malloy said his goal is to bring a balanced conversation to campus and educate his peers. He is working to turn Flyers for Concealed Carry into an officially recognized student group at UD. Malloy visits the Miami Valley Shooting Grounds in Vandalia a few days a week to practice and at least once a week brings his classmates to educate them about handguns.
Malloy, 25, has had a concealed carry permit since turning 22. Ohioans must be at least 21 to apply for a license, must pass a background check and complete safety training to be eligible for concealed carry.
Malloy said he has avoided living on campus, because he could not keep his guns there, and he wishes he could carry his weapons on his walk to and from classes.
“I don’t necessarily feel that I’m at risk. I certainly do realize there have been incidents in the past around campus,” he said.
“It’s one of those things you hope you never have to use, but you’d rather have it and not need it.”