Tuesday, February 22, 2011

On bringing guns to campus

I was really bothered yesterday by the news that the powers that be want to bring guns to campus. Today, I'm really, really bothered by this. Two points and then I'm done.

First, every semester I have to explain to students why they've failed. (Or, as they see it, why I'm failing them.) It could be that they didn't do the work or that they cheated, but I don't think I've had a semester yet where I haven't had to explain to someone very distraught why they failed one of my courses. I started to think about the consequences of this. I've had students tell me that they'll lose scholarships, they won't graduate, they won't be able to go to DC for a high paying internship, that they will be kicked out of the country because they will be kicked out of school, that their parents will do horrible things to them, that they'll never get into law/med school and that that's all they had lived for, etc... I don't always believe these stories, but I'm sure some of them are true. I guess I don't like the idea that the laws and policies will create a situation where students packing pistols get to come to my office and corner me to talk these things over. That's just crazy. Why should anyone have to work under those conditions? I don't see any real solution to this. I don't think that the situation being envisaged is one where I can insist that _my_ students don't carry firearms. I don't think the situation being envisaged is one where I can decide whether others are allowed into my office with a gun. So, what am I supposed to do? I guess I'll buy a vest, hide a pistol under my coat, and hope that I'm a quick enough draw to shoot someone before they shoot me but not so quick that I shoot someone who was reaching for a phone. Wonderful. What an insane thing to have to worry about. I hope the legislature comes up with the extra money for hazard pay.

The other galling feature of this is that the people affected by this policy have had no say in it. It's not as if the students or faculty demanded this. People who spend no time on the university campus have decided that it would be a good idea for students to carry handguns. Now, you can run safety arguments all you like (esp. if you ignore all the facts), but there's something oddly paternalistic about all this. If students and faculty are willing to run the horrible risk of being unarmed if dinosaurs or ninjas attack the campus, that's on us. It's really none of your business whether we decide to run this risk or not. I'm willing to live with the risk of being unarmed if something horrible happens on campus. I'll place my trust in the police and hope that if I duck and cover everything will turn out for the best. You should tolerate my foolishness if that's what you think it is. At any rate, outsiders have decided that it would be best for us to have guns brought to campus. Regardless of whether you think it would be safer to have guns or not, there's another principle in play here. We (i.e., those on campus) should have some say since we're the people at risk. If a critical mass of us decide there will be guns, I'll live with that. (I'll live with that by trying to leave, but I'll live with that). That's not what happened. It's people with no stake in it who decided that we should let college kids keep guns in dorms, carry them to lectures, and bring them into our offices. I've had a hard time being angry about this because I've found the suggestion that weapons should be allowed on campus simply incredible. Now that reality is sinking in, I'm just getting more upset.


krunk- said...

I grew up in the South. Lots of guns and gun carriers. What is usually pointed out is that the student who really wanted to shoot you would bring a gun anyway.

What this observation ignores is the potential for violent spontaneity. True, a student who really wanted to shoot you could go to the gun shop, purchase a weapon, purchase some bullets, put a gun in their back pack, and carry it up to campus to enact her violent intent.

However, most sane individuals would at some time during that process stop for a moment and think "Wait a minute, this is bat shit crazy." Probably before they even got to the gun shop. A fleeting thought. A second of violent intent.

For the casual gun carrier, that second is all it takes. One fleeting burst of uncontrollable anger or panic.

Back to my origins in a gun happy region of the U.S. I've had a gun pulled on, at, or around me as a threat 3 times. In every case, it was a casual gun owner who had a pistol in his vehicle, under his coat, or relatively close at hand. Every time, it was in the heat of the moment. Every time, they were the only one armed. Every time, the perpetrator later expressed remorse and disbelief that they "flipped out".

Guns on campus is a horrible idea.

Anonymous said...

>>I guess I don't like the idea that the laws and policies will create a situation where students packing pistols get to come to my office and corner me to talk these things over.>>

Here's another way to think about it:

Disgruntled/crazy students have long had the ability to "pack pistols" and come to your office. The crazies don't seek legal permission to do crazy stuff. Think about Virginia Tech, UT Austin last year, etc.

What these laws/policies allow is for YOU to also carry a pistol, in case an armed crazy comes into your office. Wouldn't you rather be armed should that happen? I would.

Wouldn't it be nice, while a student in your office is getting angry about a bad grade, to be able to gently stroke your Sig Sauer? ;-)

OBJECTION: These laws make it EASIER for crazies to carry guns on campus.

REPLY: It will be no more difficult for students to illegally conceal guns on campus. Whatever that guy at Virginia Tech did to get guns on campus can still easily happen.

What the laws do is make it easier for sane people who are willing to go through a tedious process of classes, paperwork, etc. to get a license to conceal and carry. That's a good thing.

I just found out that a student in my class is pretty seriously paranoid schizophrenic. Jared Loughner style. It actually made me consider getting a license to conceal and carry, and it would be nice to have the option.

Clayton said...

"Disgruntled/crazy students have long had the ability to "pack pistols" and come to your office. The crazies don't seek legal permission to do crazy stuff. Think about Virginia Tech, UT Austin last year, etc."

That's true, although strangely not a situation I've ever had to deal with. Why? In part because if any student carried a gun to my office and let it be known that he/she had a gun, the student would be looking at jail time. In part because the odds of having an outlaw student willing to bring a gun to campus regardless of the legal consequences is very, very, very, very low. So low. Incredibly low. Like, it never happens. When I lived in the dorms, we had a kid that had a gun and the RA found out. We never heard from that kid again. Expelled immediately. Which was good. He had serious problems with drugs and alcohol. That wasn't uncommon. Most of the kids in my dorm did. Put guns into that mix and we're talking about a very dangerous situation.

Now, you're right. I can try to arm myself and hope that if the homicidal and suicidal kid comes to my office I can squeeze off a shot before he/she does. That's really comforting. Why don't the yahoos who support having guns on campus (as opposed to hiring more cops) support having only faculty and staff armed?

"Wouldn't it be nice, while a student in your office is getting angry about a bad grade, to be able to gently stroke your Sig Sauer? ;-)


Clayton said...

Hi Krunk,
That's one of the things that really worries me. The segment of the population that would do something stupid if they had a gun on them seems much larger than the segment of the population that would go to the trouble to find one in order to do something stupid.

Here's what I don't get about these arguments. The primary argument seems to be this.

(*) If someone decided to try to shoot up the place and no students/faculty were armed, bad things would happen.

Sure, fine. There are ways of dealing with this. We could hire more cops. I mean, if you're going to argue that the campus is so unsafe as it is that we'd be safer if we armed children, the campus must be a really dangerous place. It's the sort of place you need cops. Alternatively, we could arm faculty and staff. I don't care if my department chair is packing heat. I care if the kid I'm kicking out lecture is. Either of these ways of dealing with a nearly non-existent threat is preferable to the "solution" on hand. Of course, neither of these options is under discussion. I'd joke that the best thing to do is have everyone strap dynamite to their chests to deter wouldbe killers, but I worry that some GOP lawmaker would run with the idea.

Anyway, this brings me to the obvious worry. It's absurd to try to do policy by evaluating conditionals like (*) and not taking account of the probability that their antecedent will be satisfied and then also considering the consequences of allowing guns if (in all likelihood) the antecedent isn't satisfied. If you're going to point to some alleged benefits of having an armed student body, let's do a f*&%king cost benefit analysis then. Let's see it. I haven't seen one.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Clayton said...


Jeeprs said...

Consider emigration. America is completely non-rational in these matters.

Clayton said...

Hi Jeeprs,
I think the only thing that stands in the way of my emigration is that I spend far too much time fantasizing about emigration. It's cut into my work time, making it that much harder to get someone abroad to hire me. But, good advice. I agree completely.

Jeff Watson said...

A similar bill is under consideration here in Arizona, and given the composition of our legislature it seems likely to pass.

It's worth considering, though, that in most cases simply showing or indicating that one has a gun with the intent to threaten another would amount to assault, defined as:

"Intentionally placing another person in reasonable apprehension of imminent physical injury." (ARS 13-1203); "intentionally or knowingly threatens another with imminent bodily injury" (Texas Penal Code 22.01)

The use of a deadly weapon would make it aggravated assault, a felony. So students (or faculty!) who feel emboldened by any change in the law should know that touching a gun or talking about a gun while showing an intention to threaten someone with it is still a crime involving jail time. (And even if it ain't prosecuted, it's still cause for civil damages).

The common law on assault (which requires neither physical contact nor an attempt at contact) goes back to the 14th century, when folks figured out that pointing a sword or a pitchfork at somebody was nearly as bad as actually trying to stab 'em with it. So even our Governors probably can't mess with it.

The harder question is whether legislatures, by intentionally causing students and faculty the immediate apprehension of violent injury, could be sued for assault. (Alas, I imagine not).

Daniel said...

I don't see why professors at UTSA want to say that college campuses aren't dangerous places. Will guns on campus make the place safer/more dangerous? That remains to be seen. It's a strategic decision and probably varies place to place. What's definately true is that UTSA has the potential to become much safer. You jest about dinosaurs and ninjas, but there are real threats to any college campus. If you actually think college campuses are a safe place, then you're just not paying attention.

I can see why professors might be worried about a greater threat to their safety. Sure, we might trade lap dance passes for gun point passes. And I totally agree that the people who made the policy shouldn't be the ones who made the policy. In the end, however, I think you have to admit that this might be the best utilitarian response to danger, if nothing else. There are a million better ways to make the place safer, but it's just piddly old UTSA. We have to do what we can with what we've got.

Clayton said...

"If you actually think college campuses are a safe place, then you're just not paying attention."

I haven't read through these carefully, but here are the crime stats:


It didn't seem to me that there's any real need to introduce guns into the system to deal with the sorts of crimes that take place on campus.

Daniel said...

Oh, right. Fallibilism. Notice I didn't say you're not paying attention to crime statistics generated by the university.

Do you really think that we should meet danger with a (I guess you want to say) proportional (minimal?) security? So if we throw a kid into the lion's den, all he needs is a whip to tame those lions. No need to bring guns into it. After all, lions don't typically eat humans. Especially not these lions, they've already been trained. Would you really say that handing the kid a gun is overkill?

We students are that kid. We're scared, too. Maybe it's unlikely that something will happen (given the past or whatever) but the possibility is always present. You should know that college students are of the age group when people snap and develop mental disorders. Not doing anything is irresponsible. _Maybe_ guns are a bad idea. _Maybe_ guns are all the security we need.

Anyways, you previously admitted that the opposition might be right. I hadn't seen your previous post. That's good enough for me.

Clayton said...

I take it that the stats strongly suggest that the "lions" on campus aren't real and so fears of the lions is irrational.

If the issue is safety, we have to compare two situations. The situation as it is (w/laws that prohibit guns) and the situations as it would be (w/laws that protect the right to carry guns). My hypothesis: adding guns to the mix won't make things safer than they are since they are now very incredibly safe.

I guess I don't understand what the counter-argument is. Is it that:
(a) the chances of being killed or harmed is lower if we introduce guns;
(b) it's irrelevant whether (a) is true or not because feelings that aren't based on facts, data, statistics, etc... matter.

I thought the issue would be about (a) and given how incredibly safe things have been, it's hard to see how giving civilians guns could make it safer (notice that there's been almost no violent crime on campus).

If the issue is (b), that's fine, but we have to take account of the feelings that people have who are comforted by guns and the feelings of people who fear guns. Working that out requires empirical evidence. My guess is that (b) won't support your case simply because most of the affected parties are scared of the prospect of guns on the campus.

Daniel said...

My objections are:
a)It's not clear why you would want to take anything from those statistics
b)Even if you took something from those statistics, it shouldn't be what you have taken
c)It's not just about how safe things appear to have been, it's also about how dangerous things could be

The crime statistics are generated by UTSA. Only when crimes are reported/dealt with do they show up on this list. Just because violent crimes are not on this list, that doesn't mean that they don't happen. I would have thought this was clear. After all, people are always making a big deal about how 9 out of 10 rapes aren't reported (okay, I made that stat up, but it's some high ratio that's close to one). I don't think you really judge how safe a place is by these kinds of crime reports. That'd be like making a $5,000 purchase of something on Amazon because of the reviews you read below the thing.

What the little story about lions is supposed to show is that we could generate the same kind of non-violent stats with lions as our subjects. We could have a pit of tame lions that have never been violent in their lives and have always been around humans. Regardless, I don't think you would throw someone in there without some kind of protection (maybe you'd even consider a gun). It does sound a little bit silly to say that college students are like lions, but it's sort of true. Both of them are potentially dangerous at random times. Yeah, hindsight is 20/20, but if people can tell when these shootings will happen, they shouldn't have happened. As you say, if a gun was in the right hands, it would have saved a lot of lives.

Basically, I'm just genuinely confused at why professors want to think that UTSA is a safe place. I guess most of the threats I'm thinking of couldn't be solved with guns (bombs, terrorists, etc) but I think you're lying if you say you're not worried about the students, too (with guns being illegal).

That being said, I really don't know if guns are a good idea or not. Probably not. UTSA is not filled with the brightest students. If we were a bunch of smart kids, it wouldn't really matter, we'd just be protecting ourselves from outsiders, I guess. Maybe since we're not the brightest we're just making a dangerous place more dangerous. What I do think, however, is that I never want to be in a situation where I can't protect myself or the people around me that I care about. If that means I have to bring a gun to school, maybe that's the thing to do.

Chris Ranalli said...

Hey Clayton,

I'm surprised you have to defend this view. I am appalled that it was even a live option for students to bring firearms onto a university campus.

My fear is that this legislation forces people who want to be as safe as they were prior to the legality of having firearms on campus to purchase firearms and carry them on campus. It parallels the reasoning that 'country A has nuclear weapons, so in order to be as safe as we were prior to their having nuclear weapons, we too need nuclear weapons'.

But that a law would put some people in this kind of position (the position where the above reasoning looks plausible) looks like some kind of moral offense. The point is that students and teachers should not be in a position where being safe requires carrying a firearm (or that maximizing safety requires carrying a firearm). (Why? The reason why is that putting someone in a position where they must do something in order to compensate for safety is almost never good).

Plus, the argument for carrying firearms on campus would need to compensate for the increased safety-risks of more people having firearms on campus.

Here's a (simple) reconstruction of the argument for legally carrying firearms on campus:

First, we are asked to compare the following three scenarios:

Scenario 1. Only people intending to harm other people carry guns on campus (though illegally), and no one else.

Scenario 1'. Only people intending to harm other people carry guns on campus (illegally), and people intending to protect themselves carry guns on campus (illegally).

Scenario 2. Only people intending to harm others and people intent on protecting themselves carry guns on campus (both legally).

The argument then runs: Scenario 1 is possible --it's possible that some people will carry firearms on campus intending to harm other people. But, Scenario 1' minimizes the risks introduced in Scenario 1. That is, Scenario 1' compensates for the risks of Scenario 1. But Scenario 2 compensates for both the risks of Scenario 1 and the negative consequences of Scenario 1' (such as students intent on protecting themselves illegally carrying firearms). Therefore, all things considered, Scenario 2 is the best option.

Reply: But that doesn't mean that the newly introduced risks of Scenario 2 have been accounted for. Scenario 2 would have to compensate the risks Scenario 2 introduces.
Any how, good luck!