Inside the Fight Over Guns on Campus

Inside the Fight Over Guns on Campus

On the first day of class at UT Austin, August 2016, a "Cocks Not Glocks" group highlights "the absurdity" of state laws that allow guns in public places, like campuses, but not sex toys. Sandy Carson/ZUMA

How a group of students teamed up with the gun lobby to get firearms in the classroom at over 200 colleges – and counting

How a group of students teamed up with the gun lobby to get firearms in the classroom at over 200 colleges – and counting

On a sweltering day last August at the University of Texas at Austin, a flock of 30 undergrads are settling into a frigid lecture hall when teaching assistant Nick Roland enters with his crimson-red tee hugging a holstered Glock 23. Three weeks earlier, Senate Bill 11, also known as "campus carry," went into effect in Texas, allowing students on 38 public campuses to carry concealed, loaded handguns to class. Roland, 32, is pursuing a Ph.D. in history after a tour in Iraq. Before that, he was an undergraduate at Virginia Tech in 2007, during the deadliest school shooting in modern history; among the 32 students killed was Roland's hallmate. "l'll never forget that day," he says. Lean and handsome, with a crop of boyish brown hair, Roland says his gun has led to some tense discussions with grad students, a phone call from a parent and near-unanimous opposition from his colleagues. His class lecturer, Robert Icenhauer-Ramirez, told me, "I just hope someday the legislature allows guns to be carried into their offices." (Handguns actually are allowed in the capital building.) But none of this has kept Roland from carrying his gun most days to class, where the title of the course is projected in large letters at the front of the room: CIVIL WAR.

More than 200 colleges across the U.S. allow campus carry. Since SB 11 became law, statutes have gained a foothold in two more states, Tennessee and Ohio, and various legal actions have inched versions of campus carry into five others – including Oregon, Pennsylvania and Virginia. This year, 12 other states are considering similar legislation. "It's a disturbing trend," says Andy Pelosi, executive director of the Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus. "They're picking up one state a year."

With few exceptions – notably, Texas – the public overwhelmingly opposes guns on college campuses (a recent poll in Florida puts opposition at 62 percent), as do a majority of chancellors, university presidents, parents, students, professors and, notably, campus police. But as Adam Winkler, a law professor at UCLA, says, "Because colleges have seen these high-profile mass shootings, campuses have become the fundamental battleground over guns and self-defense."

UT Austin, one of the country's premier public universities and a liberal enclave in the red-state South, marked campus carry's greatest achievement yet – and its fiercest point of opposition. On the first day of class, a student group called "Cocks Not Glocks" distributed approximately 5,000 dildos in protest of SB 11, highlighting a discrepancy in Texas law that bars sex toys in public but not handguns on campus. Students gathered under the UT Tower, as young women tossed dildos with the frenzy of a humanitarian mission. "If they're packing heat," one sophomore protester yelled, hoisting a giant dildo with both hands, "then we're packing meat!"

UT Austin was also the site of the first campus mass shooting in American history. In 1966, Charles Whitman, an engineering student at UT, hauled a trunk of rifles, pistols and shotguns to the 28th floor of the campus' iconic tower, and meticulously gunned down 48 people over the course of an hour and 36 minutes. Roland notes that a few armed civilians had fired up at Whitman. "What we can hopefully do is give people the ability to fight back," Roland says.

After class, I visit with Roland at the weathered gray house he is sharing with a housemate and a pit bull named Dolly Parton. He leads me into his room – a shrine of sorts, with all four walls covered by Virginia Tech regalia – and hauls out his collection: a customized AR-15, 30-round magazines and a Romanian training rifle. At his desk, he swivels around with a loaded Remington 870 shotgun. "It seems like common sense to try to have some" – he searches for the words – "different options." He racks the slide with a startling shuck. "This is an issue I happen to be very passionate about," he says. "I want someone to look me in the eyes and tell me why, as an individual, I can't exercise a particular self-defense option."

Shortly after the Virginia Tech shooting, in 2007, Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson suggested the massacre might have been averted had other students been armed. The comment was met with national ridicule; even the NRA's Wayne LaPierre disavowed the idea. But for a small group of conservative college students, mostly in the South and West, it was a rallying cry. One of them, an undergrad at the University of North Texas, launched a Facebook group: Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, or SCCC (later shortened to SCC). Its first stunt – an "empty holster protest" – was picked up by Glenn Beck on CNN. "The only people with guns in schools are the bad guys," Beck thundered – which was news, surely, to many thousands of campus police. Months later, Northern Illinois University had a campus shooting. "Suddenly, we were the hottest ticket in town," says Scott Lewis, an SCC founder in Texas. "Within a week, we'd been on Good Morning America, Fox News, CNN." The exposure, he says, "was addictive."

The concealed-carry movement had spent two decades advancing citizens' rights to carry a handgun in almost every state; SCC was pushing to expand those rights into classrooms and other school facilities. "Why am I allowed to carry at a local movie theater, but not the campus theater?" asks Lewis. "That's the case we made." The group attracted interest from the Second Amendment Foundation, a fringe gun-rights group that is currently suing the State Department on behalf of the inventor of the 3D-printed gun. SAF's founder, Alan Gottlieb, who is 69, hosted some of the SCC members at a 2007 conference outside Cincinnati and saw a "perfect marriage" with the pro-gun millennials. Before a crowd of elderly white men, SCC's college-age leaders were greeted like rock stars. "Not old, white, bald guys!" Gottlieb says. "It was great!"

By 2009, SCC had expanded its chapters and gained the support of the NRA. But that same year the group lost its first battle in Texas – outflanked by opponents at UT, led by grad student John Woods, who had lost his girlfriend in the Virginia Tech shooting. "I couldn't believe these people were trying to use our tragedy to push this agenda," Woods says.

But an idea for how to bypass state legislatures soon struck another SCC member, Jim Manley, who was then a 26-year-old law student at the University of Colorado. On behalf of the SCC, Manley filed a pre-emption lawsuit, which can overturn local gun bans on the grounds that they are "pre-empted" by state laws that safeguard gun rights; Gottlieb's SAF claims to have struck down 600 ordinances with the technique. "I graduated in May," Manley says with a chuckle, "and in December, I sued my alma mater."

The case, Regents v. SCCC, eventually went before the Colorado Supreme Court, and was decided in March 2012. Because Colorado's concealed-carry law omitted "campuses" on its list of exempt spaces, the court found, guns had to be allowed on public campuses throughout the state. Manley got the news while exiting a plane in Denver. "I opened it on my phone," he says, "and just yelled in the airport."

The floodgates opened: Wisconsin, Mississippi, Kansas, Idaho and Arkansas each passed campus-carry bills. By the time Lewis' efforts in Texas paid off last year – after three failed attempts – the NRA was calling the legislation "NRA-backed campus carry." "Let's be candid about it," says Gottlieb. "If we go back five years, the concept of getting states to pass laws to carry guns on college campus was a dream. Well, now it's a reality. It's happening."

Since 1977, household gun ownership—a predictor of youth gun purchases—has diminished 34 percent. "Campus Carry,” Gottlieb says, “will get people on campus who say, ‘Hey! I’ve been around guns now, they don’t scare me anymore – there’s a good side to a gun. And I’m going to get one.’” In Gottlieb's analysis, two iconic events buoyed support for gun rights: September 11th, and the Supreme Court's landmark Heller decision, in 2008, which overturned local bans on handguns. Now, he says, the right student in the right classroom at the right time could change the American gun debate immeasurably. "If the person with a gun stopped a campus shooting, support for gun rights would jump, and I think the increase gain would stay," he says. "It would spread like wildfire."

A day after "Cocks Not Glocks," I navigate UT's Liberal Arts Building to find the office of Jennifer Glass, a sociology professor who filed for an injunction to halt SB 11 (it failed) and has since sued the university with two other professors. "Hi," Glass says when I arrive at her door. Under the law, faculty must verbally inform visitors their office is gun-free – every time – so she quickly adds, "No guns are allowed in my office. If you are not carrying, please come in."

With Midwestern directness, Glass sums up the new rules under SB 11: Students aren't obligated to answer whether they're armed.; guns must remain near their owners – a backpack or purse is fine; UT managed to restrict guns from parts of dorms and some offices, but elsewhere students can keep a bullet in the chamber, ready to fire. Glass suggests the risks are a high price to pay in the name of avoiding another Virginia Tech. "We're talking about black-swan events – exceedingly rare," Glass says. "A gun could go off accidentally, or be used by a student on drugs or alcohol. All because you're afraid of a mass shooter?"

Government data suggests homicide rates on campus are minuscule, about one percent of the general public's. "We know classrooms are among the safest places that people can be," Glass says. But there are about 43 firearm accidents every day across the country, a statistic borne out at a handful of campus-carry universities. In 2011, at UT Austin, a fraternity brother was arrested for firing his rifle inside the house's laundry room. In 2012, a Utah student's gun went off, wounding him in the leg. In 2014, a professor at Idaho State shot himself during class. SCC members cite data showing no uptick in crime at universities with campus carry, but student license holders, it turns out, are still students: Harvard researchers have found that students who keep guns are more prone to impulsive decision-making and dangerous habits, like drunk driving. "Arming young people who tend to drink and do crazy things," says the study's author, David Hemenway, "seems like a recipe for disaster."

To avoid the threat of guns, some students and faculty have found creative sanctuaries. I leave Glass' office for the Cactus Café, an on-campus bar. The dildo protest had roared near the entrance, but inside the mood is sedate. In a corner, Robert Oxford, a sandy-haired graduate student in the history department, quietly grades papers. "Welcome to my office hours," he says.

Bars are among the few spaces exempted from campus carry – just like in the Old West, guns have to be left at the door of the Cactus Café. Oxford describes the growing paranoia on campus. "We now have this added drama, this unknown, whether anyone has a gun," he says. "And we're not allowed to ask. It puts the whole classroom on edge." A young woman joins our corner, 23-year-old Andrea Fuentes, a recent graduate who declined to attend UT's film school due to SB 11. This week, she is saying her goodbyes. "This could be the last time I'm on campus," Fuentes notes. "In the last semester, the only mood I've been able to see is from people who are terrified."

Outside the Cactus Café, I meet Dave Palla, a 21-year-old senior with curly blond hair and a fraternity-rush T-shirt. He has a license to carry. "They think we're too dumb, or something, to be responsible," he says, "which in my case is 100 percent not true." Palla tells me about a UT sophomore who stormed the library with an AK-47 in 2010, before killing himself on the sixth floor. By all accounts, the response from police and SWAT teams was nearly perfect – they arrived in under four minutes, the result of millions of dollars in training spent after Virginia Tech. But if something similar happens, Palla isn't taking any chances. "I'm not going to be sitting around," he says, "with nothing that I can do about it."

In nearby San Marcos, I meet Dr. Pete Blair, a former cop who now runs ALERRT, one of the most elite training facilities in the U.S. for active-shooter drills. Since Virginia Tech, law-enforcement professionals and private citizens have made trips here, running through simulations with actors playing the likes of Seung-Hui Cho or Adam Lanza. As gunshots boom outside his dusty trailer office, Blair describes the "nightmare scenario" that haunts every officer: friendly fire.

Imagine, for instance, an armed student had responded to the gunman in the UT library. "He wants to be a good guy and do the right thing," says Blair. So the student runs inside, only to confront another armed student responder. They might simultaneously fire. Or they begin screaming until police arrive, who also might mistakenly shoot. Or the students find the assailant, and miss. Blair described a recent police firefight in Times Square in which two bystanders were struck – NYPD officers, some of the best-trained in the country, average about 34 percent accuracy. "Anytime a weapon discharges, that bullet's going to go somewhere," says Blair. "That somewhere could be an innocent person."

In fact, during the 2010 library shooting, Austin's police chief, Art Acevedo – who testified against SB 11 – ordered plainclothes officers to stay outside the building in order to avoid confusion. "In the past, if you saw someone on campus with a firearm," he says, "we could assume that, more than likely, it's a violation of law. Now it's a totally different set of circumstances."

Across the U.S., campus-safety experts warn of ways an active-shooter intervention can go south. During a 2009 experiment run by the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, police department (in partnership with ABC News), students at Muhlenberg College were given standard firearms training, then handed practice Glocks and placed in a classroom. When a mock shooter stormed the room, the armed students were consistently mowed down in seconds – shot in the head and chest, often before anyone could unholster a gun. "My heart is still pounding," one of the students later said. Another described how little prior training had helped: "It's just completely different."

There has yet to be a recorded case of a school shooting stopped by an armed civilian, though two incidents came close. In 1997, a high school student in Pearl, Mississippi, shot nine classmates, killing two; the shooter was fleeing in his car when an assistant principal confronted him with a handgun. Then there was the 2002 case at Appalachian Law School, a small campus in Virginia. After a disgruntled student shot four students and two faculty members, he walked to the front pavilion, lowered his emptied gun and kneeled. Two other students – both off-duty cops – ran to retrieve guns from their cars. Meanwhile, two unarmed students tackled the assailant, with the gun-wielding pair close behind. State police lauded the unarmed bystanders, but gun-rights advocates spun the event as an instance of guns on campus stopping an active shooter. "I'm a gun advocate, but it really irritates me that people are trying to use this as a plug," one of the unarmed students, Ted Besen, said afterward. "The NRA is minimizing the tragedy that happened here."

According to a report that ALERRT coauthored with the FBI, which cataloged 14 years of active-shooter incidents, 26 cases were stopped by a civilian – 21 unarmed, five armed (the five included four off-duty security guards and a former Marine). A 2014 campus shooting at Seattle Pacific University ended when a student charged the shooter with pepper spray. "Congresswoman Giffords, when she was shot, the [shooter] stopped to reload, and the guy tackled him," says Blair, whose ALERRT Center teaches a defense protocol called Avoid-Deny-Defend for unarmed civilians. "When you start talking about training someone for combat shooting, that's a whole other level of training."

Last summer in Maryland, police chiefs convened for the Campus Safety East summit, where hundreds of officers sat through glum presentations like "New Perspectives on Active-Shooter Training." When I ask a dozen attendees at one seminar, "Strategies for Unarmed Security," who among them supported campus carry, the question is met with silence. "As a gun guy, I generally favor concealed carry," says Lt. John Weinstein of NOVA College in Virginia. "There are permit holders who could shoot the hair off a gnat's ass, but there are a lot of people who can't, and these same people are running around college campuses."

A bear of a man with a long nose and a crisp mustache, Weinstein is an NRA supporter who left a gig as a professor of international relations to become a cop. A few weeks after the conference, I visit him at his tiny Virginia office. As opera plays on the computer, Weinstein presents a granular case against campus carry, from the dynamics of weaponry to the odds of a classroom shooting ("34.6 times 10 to the minus seventh"). "As an archconservative," he says at one point, "it pains me to be making the argument of the left."

Weinstein explains, for example, what went wrong in the Muhlenberg experiment. "At around 150 to 175 heartbeats per minute, you start to lose your peripheral vision, lose your auditory acuity, and your body goes into survival mode," he says. "I'm in a crowded classroom, my hands are shaking because my heart is beating, I've lost my peripheral vision, I don't know who's on either side of me, I have audio exclusion, and now I'm going to take a shot?" He shakes his head. "The chances are greater you're hitting another evacuee."

Back at the ALERRT Center, Blair directs me past the booming gun range and into a spacious hangar containing simulated school and office spaces. ALERRT leaders tell me that UT Austin is "seriously considering" a program to train undergraduates here in armed-response drills. Texas is one of the few states that require time at a gun range for a concealed-carry license. But in 2013, the state cut its training requirement in half, from ten hours to five – a course I passed easily, having never before touched a gun. A well-known loophole allows Texas citizens to get a license after viewing a 30-minute YouTube video and parting with $19.99. The workaround is valid in 31 states.

In the hangar, a swarm of men in green camouflage and police baseball caps glide in delicate packs, squinting down rifle barrels. Today's drill, a "breach exercise," is inspired by Virginia Tech. A squad of six burly men surround a steel door. A blast of metal on metal erupts, and the squad leader, gripping a 12-gauge shotgun, hustles his unit into the faux conference room. "If there are going to be people with firearms on campus," Blair says, "then we can get them the highest level of training."

Days after the dildo protest, pro-gun activists released a video depicting female protesters shot in the head (SCC denounced it). Across campus, anonymous students left bullet casings outside classrooms; a sliver of paper inside one read, "Triggered?" That week, a 21-year-old student flashed his gun in the Perry-Castañeda Library, a clear violation. Then, in mid-September, a student's gun misfired in a dorm room at Tarleton State, one of the 38 public-college campuses in Texas enacting SB 11. SCC, which had previously rebutted its opponents for failing to provide evidence of misfires, rushed a press release attributing the event to a "period of adjustment." Roland was still undeterred. "Looking at the big picture," he says, "being able to potentially defend ourselves with firearms is a better situation than the reverse."

No one, not even the SCC, knows exactly how many American campuses now allow guns. Universities are required by law to disclose basic safety information, but that doesn't include statistics on campus carry, such as accidental discharges, gun-flashing, or whether a school allows guns in the first place. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., has introduced legislation to change that, requiring universities to publish gun policies for prospective students. "That's a big hole," says Ellison. "Students and families need to be able to make a rational choice about their exposure to guns."

In the meantime, campus carry continues to pick up states. Last December, Gov. John Kasich signed a campus-carry bill in Ohio. Unlike Texas', Ohio's law allows for an opt-out clause; campus carry is no longer illegal, but universities set their own rules. SCC's new entity, the SCC Foundation, is financing more insurgent lawsuits, and leaders believe they've found up to 30 states where universities could allow guns. Last month, Arkansas’s governor, Asa Hutchinson, signed the first Campus Carry law of 2017. (Hutchinson thanked an NRA representative on hand at the bill ceremony for the group's support.) Next up: legal battles in Georgia and Iowa. "There seems to be more of an appetite by the gun lobby for these bills," Pelosi says. "They smell blood."