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Straight Talk: The American Nightmare - Laws, Campuses and Guns

The US is a preferred destination for international students. However, the recent spate of campus violence has cast a long shadow over its academic institutions. What is the historic and legal foundation for USA’s gun laws and what are their long term repercussions? Take a look with Dr. Pushkar.
BY Pushkar |   20-10-2015
Minute of silence at White House for Sandy Hook school shooting

Universities in the US and the UK remain the most preferred destinations for young Indians who wish to study abroad. After all, both are English-speaking countries and home to some of the world’s best universities. However, despite such obvious similarities, there are some important differences between their universities. Among other things, all leading British universities are public institutions whereas most front-ranking American universities are private institutions. There are notable exceptions, of course – institutions such as the University of California at Berkeley, and at Los Angeles, or the University of Michigan, are highly-ranked public institutions.

Guns set them apart
One of the other big differences between the US and the UK, one that does not have much to do with higher education but is not irrelevant to it either, is this – gun culture.

Seven American states—Idaho, Oregon, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Mississippi and Wisconsin—permit “campus carry.” In plain English, it means that students have the right to carry concealed weapons on campus, even in classrooms (in Wisconsin, the law currently allows public institutions to forbid guns in college buildings but that may change). It gets worse.

Only 19 states ban guns outright and as many as 23 states allow individual colleges and universities to set their own campus carry policy (see here for details).

Across the Atlantic, in the UK, there is no such love for guns (see here for comparisons between US gun laws and those in other countries).

Do guns matter?
The issue of guns on campus is in the news these days because there have already been two shooting incidents on college campuses this month – at Texas Southern University and Northern Arizona University. Last month, there were shootings at Delta State University in Mississippi and Umpqua Community College in Oregon.

The issue of guns is also in the news because students at the University of Texas in Austin are protesting Governor Greg Abbott’s S.B. 11 which allows “license holders” to “carry a concealed handgun throughout university campuses, starting Aug. 1, 2016.” While private universities are free to set their own gun policies, Austin students, (and faculty), have no choice but to contest the campus carry law.

For prospective students from India, one way to approach the gun culture in the US is to be indifferent to it. After all, here in India, guns or not, most of us read about, hear of or witness multiple forms of everyday violence. In other words, since we are accustomed to different kinds of violent acts all around us, random incidents of shooting on college campuses in the US should not be a cause for worry.

Having said that, it is also reasonable to wonder why state governments in the US should permit concealed weapons on campus. Indeed, what kind of society believes it is quite alright for students to carry weapons to college?

Guns on campus
At the risk of simplification, we can identify three common views on the matter of guns on campus.

The first, of course, is in complete agreement with the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  The right to carry arms is considered sacrosanct by a large cross-section of American people and they do not change their views even after shooting incidents such as the one in Umpqua Community College, where the shooter asked potential victims their religion before he started firing.

The second view is, as one might expect, in complete opposition to the first – that guns have no place in a civilized society. A milder version of it is opposed to guns on campus. The Austin protestors likely include both – those opposed to guns altogether and others who are opposed to guns on campus.

The third view includes several middle-of the road versions that are a bit of both. Some of these views seem quite insidious. For example, writing in the Washington Post, Christopher Ingraham acknowledges that the campus carry law is odd but then concludes that it “makes supporters gleeful, opponents enraged and is ultimately of very little consequence.”This position can be interpreted as one which sees laws as inconsequential.

Others acknowledge both guns and gun laws as problems but still take the middle position for practical reasons. So, for example, Nicholas Kristoff of the New York Times notes that: “We’re not going to eliminate guns in America, so we need to figure out how to coexist with them.” He proposes a public health approach in which the goal could be a modest one – of making guns smart and safe.

The harm that campus carry does
Whether one of these views or some mix of competing views prevails in terms of gun laws, it is evident that the incidence of campus shootings has a disturbing impact on students, faculty and others. The issue is not whether students actually carry guns or not, and whether they will actually use them. The issue is also not whether state laws already permit citizens to carry guns. A college campus or classroom is simply the wrong place to be carrying a gun!

Among other things, as Rick Jervis points out: “Besides the risk of a chaotic classroom shootout, guns on campus pose another risk: a chilling effect on classroom discussions and debates.” The faculty, especially women professors, is expectedly worried about a weaponized work environment. Some professors are becoming somewhat afraid of students. College administrators are forced to take threats scrawled on bathroom walls seriously. It is easy for a journalist to write that campus carry is inconsequential when he does not work on a college campus and has never had to disagree with students in the closed space of a classroom or office.

On balance, campus carry laws in the US should not become a deterrent for international students, including those from India, to study at an American university. However, it is useful to know which states in the US have ‘easy’ gun laws and which do not, especially for college campuses. Equally important, students should be mindful of archaic and/or foolish laws that exist even in one of the supposedly more civilized countries in the world. Frankly, it is appalling that many states support laws permitting concealed weapons on campus.

I would personally choose not to study at a college or university located in a gun-friendly state.

Pushkar (@PushHigherEd) is Assistant Professor, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, BITS Pilani-Goa.




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"In other words, since we are accustomed to different kinds of violent acts all around us, random incidents of shooting on college campuses in the US should not be a cause for worry." Good logic!
26 May 2017

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