Having guns on campus debated

Published April 23, 2007

BLACKSBURG, Va. - As Virginia Tech killer Seung-Hui Cho rampaged through this leafy rural campus Monday, students called 911 for help, desperately barricaded classroom doors, jumped from windows and prayed that the shooting would stop.

Some guns rights advocates say that the number of dead might have been lower if someone other than Cho had had a weapon that could have been used in defense.

"One can never say for sure that someone could have stopped the shooter, but we can say that if no one was armed, there was no way to stop him. We just don't know what would have happened," said Alan Gottlieb, chairman of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, a gun rights group based in Washington state.

The slayings at Virginia Tech have reopened a long simmering debate in this state - and nationwide - about whether students and faculty members should be allowed to carry concealed weapons in the classroom.

Others think that letting students carry guns could lead to even bigger disasters.

"We think it's an outrageous proposition," said Brian Siebel, an attorney at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. "The shooter could have just armed himself with high powered weapons and worn a flak jacket."

Virginia law is murky. Although it bans guns from elementary and secondary schools, universities are left to create their own concealed weapons policies. University officials have declared Virginia Tech a gun-free zone.

Universities decide

Forty states - including Virginia and Florida - allow adults to carry concealed weapons if they pass an application process that includes a stringent background check.

But most either ban guns from classrooms outright or let universities set the rules. Only Utah explicitly allows students over 21 to carry weapons to class, much to the chagrin of university administrators there.

In Florida, guns are banned on college campuses by statute.

University of Florida president Bernie Machen was president of the University of Utah in 2001 when the state attorney general issued an opinion that the university's ban on guns violated state law. Administrators decided to challenge the opinion in court.

"The mood of the campus at the time, that being of the faculty and staff, was that it was not an appropriate place to carry guns, that this was dangerous, and they asked me as university president to challenge the legality of this," Machen said Friday.

A lower court ruled in the university's favor and in 2004, Machen moved to Florida.

But, following amendments to state law, the Utah Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that colleges could not block firearms from campuses.

Machen said that he had received hundreds of e-mails and letters since the Virginia Tech shootings, few of which have advocated that students or faculty should carry guns.

"I would say 98 percent of the comments and feedback speaks to increased security," Machen said.

A focal point

Even before Monday's shooting, Virginia Tech had become a national focal point for the concealed weapons debate.

Following a 2005 incident, where a student was disciplined for carrying a gun to class although he had a concealed weapons permit, state General Assembly Delegate Todd Gilbert introduced a bill that would have allowed students over 21 to carry guns on campus.

Virginia Tech and administrators at other area universities campaigned vigorously against it and the bill was defeated last year.

But following Cho's rampage, some gun-rights groups - though not the National Rifle Association - are pushing to overturn concealed weapons bans on university campuses.

"Gun control is the problem and not the solution," said Erich Pratt, a spokesman for Gun Owners of America, a gun rights organization that mainly lobbies Congress. "People like Cho just want to go to a place where they're the only person with a gun."

Pratt said he expects the Virginia Tech shooting to prompt debate in state legislatures and Congress over concealed weapons laws.

Students have weighed in on social networking Web sites like Facebook.com where clashing groups have popped up with names like "VT could've been stopped with concealed carry" and "Do not use the VA Tech tragedy to advocate gun rights."

Both sides mobilized

Experts say that the Virginia Tech killings have mobilized both sides of the debate - in effect helping neither side and largely maintaining the status quo.

"People take away the lessons from this that they want to take away," said Florida State University criminology professor Gary Kleck. "This gives the pro-gun-control lobby arguments and the carry lobby arguments."

Kleck added that even if Virginia Tech allowed guns on campus, Cho might not have been stopped.

"If someone was there with a gun, they might have intervened and he may have been stopped," Kleck said. "But we know that only about 1 percent of people carry weapons, which means it's unlikely that a student would have carried a weapon in the first place."

Gilbert said Thursday that he wasn't sure if anyone could have stopped Cho, even if handguns were allowed at Virginia Tech. But, he said, students and university employees who pass background checks should be allowed to carry.

That could deter common criminals and killers alike, he said.

"The issue is do armed citizens, each and every day, stop and deter crime. Of course they do," Gilbert said before adding that he hadn't decided whether to reintroduce his previously defeated state legislation.

It's unclear, however, whether university administrators now feel moved by arguments like Gilbert's.

In a Roanoke Times op-ed article last year, Virginia Tech spokesman Larry Hincker wrote that guns had no place on a college campus. "Guns don't belong in classrooms. They never will. Virginia Tech has a very sound policy preventing same," he wrote.

Thursday, however, he didn't want to talk about the issue.

"I'm not going to go into that," Hincker said. "Next question."

Times researchers Carolyn Edds and Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.