It was a sickeningly familiar scene. A student-gunman opened fire Thursday during a lecture at Northern Illinois University, killing five and wounding 15 before turning the gun on himself. The deadly spree was the fifth school shooting this week—and a traumatic reminder that for all the efforts to improve campus security nationwide since the massacre at Virginia Tech last year, students and faculty remain disturbingly vulnerable.
A nonprofit organization called Students for Concealed Carry on Campus would like to change that. The group, whose 12,000 members nationwide include college students, faculty and parents, champions legislation that would allow licensed gun owners to carry concealed weapons on campus, in the hope that an alert and well-trained citizen could stop a deranged shooter before he or she could do serious damage. According to the National Conference on State Legislatures, 13 states are currently considering some form of "concealed carry" legislation aimed at campuses. Utah is the group's model; after a state Supreme Court ruling found that the state university had violated a law allowing permit holders to carry concealed weapons, the school agreed that guns could legally be carried on its grounds. Some states, like Colorado, do not explicitly ban licensed students and faculty from carrying hidden weapons onto school grounds, though most universities in such states impose restrictions of their own.
There are signs that the "concealed carry" group was making headway even before the tragedy at Northern Illinois. Earlier this month the South Dakota House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to force state universities to allow students to carry weapons on campus, according to GOP state Rep. Tom Brunner. The bill, which Brunner sponsored, recently died in the state senate, but Brunner said he intends to bring it back as soon as he can. "It's not an issue that's going to go away," Brunner said. "We feel pretty passionate [that] students and teachers should have a right to defend themselves, and weapons on campus should be a part of the plan."
But critics say such legislation would not have stopped suspected Northern Illinois shooter Steven P. Kazmierczak from carrying out his violent spree. (The Illinois legislature is considering a bill that would relax the state's concealed-carry restrictions.) Kazmierczak snuck a shotgun and three handguns onto campus in a guitar case and under a coat before walking into a geology lecture and opening fire. Police have recovered 48 bullet casings and six shotgun shells from the crime scene. "It's ridiculous to say someone with a gun could have saved the day," said Brian Malte, the state legislation and politics director at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, "with people running all over the place and people getting caught in the crossfire." Malte says his group opposes the concealed-carry legislation, because allowing firearms to saturate college campuses, where young people drink heavily and live communally, would only heighten the danger of deadly violence.
W. Scott Lewis is a board member and spokesman for Students for Concealed Carry on Campus. Lewis argues that states with the most relaxed concealed-carry laws also happen to be among the safest. He points to Colorado State University, which has allowed concealed weapons on campus for 10 semesters without incident; the same is true for nine state universities in Utah's system, where concealed weapons have been allowed in university classroom buildings since 2006, Lewis said. NEWSWEEK's Suzanne Smalley spoke to Lewis about the bill, the tragedy at Northern Illinois University—and his fears that it could happen again. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Why do you think it would help matters if students were allowed to carry guns on college campuses?
W. Scott Lewis: We're talking about licensed individuals age 21 and above, in most states, who have gone through extensive background checks, training, testing, etc. Basically, these are the same individuals who are licensed to carry in virtually all other unsecured locations in these states. By unsecured I mean anywhere where there are not metal detectors and X-ray machines. So you're saying that individuals who are licensed to carry in office buildings, movie theaters, grocery stores, restaurants, shopping malls, churches, banks, etc.—they're currently not allowed to carry on college campuses for some reason … College campuses are unsecured locations. Anybody can walk onto a college campus carrying just about anything they please. So what happens is these state laws and these school policies that prohibit concealed carry on college campuses stack the odds in favor of dangerous criminals who have no concern for following the rules.
There are reports that the police arrived within two minutes yesterday.
A skilled shooter with a bolt-action hunting rifle or a pump-action shotgun can still fire about one shot a second. So you're talking about firing off a lot of shots in two minutes before police arrive. So basically it boils down to the simple fact that police and security officers can't be everywhere at once. It sounds to me like the police had an amazing response time … But they just simply were not in that classroom when the shooting started, and the only person who really could have mitigated this situation is somebody who was in the classroom when the shooting started.
One of the Virginia Tech victims has come out and said he opposes this idea because of college students being young, drinking heavily … it could open the door to even more violence.
This is not a debate about keeping guns out of the hands of college students. What we're proposing would not change who is able to obtain a concealed-handgun license. It would not change who is able to buy a firearm. College students over the age of 18 can already buy firearms in most states. College students over the age of 21 can already obtain concealed handgun licenses in some states. Basically, under our proposal the same trained, licensed individuals who are not getting drunk and shooting people off of college campuses are the same trained and licensed individuals who are not going to be getting drunk and shooting people on college campuses.
How are you bringing this [effort] to the attention of legislators?
We're getting our campus leaders and our regional directors and our general members—we have members in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. We also have members in Canada, the U.K. and Israel (they've got a long fight ahead of them). As for U.S. members, we're basically just having these students and faculty members and parents and concerned citizens lobby their state legislators and write letters. We're trying to get out op-ed pieces and information packets and fliers and everything we can to educate people on the facts of this issue. That's really our biggest hurdle right now: ignorance of the issue. There's a lot of statistics out there that show that concealed handgun license holders are five times less likely than nonlicensed holders to commit violent crimes. You can look at the 40 right-to-carry states with liberal concealed-carry laws, where they have not seen any escalation in gun violence, gun accidents, etc. as a result of allowing concealed carry. There are currently 11 U.S. universities that have for a combined total of 60 semesters allowed concealed carry on campus without an incident. You haven't seen an incident of gun violence, an incident of gun theft, no gun accidents … Although you can't say in any particular situation whether or not concealed carry might have prevented or mitigated a school shooting or a sexual assault or anything of that nature, you can say that allowing concealed carry would even the odds. And that's what this is really about: evening the odds and taking the advantage away from these dangerous criminals.
There's a famous example in Luby's Cafeteria in Texas. A woman with a concealed-carry permit was unable to stop a gunman from killing her parents and 21 others in 1991 because she had left her gun in her car to avoid breaking the state's law at the time, which banned gun owners from carrying their weapons into public places.
She went before the state legislature and she said, "Look, if I'd been allowed to have my gun on me I could have stopped this guy. He had his back to me. He was only a few feet away. I didn't need lightning-fast reflexes. I didn't need dead-eye accuracy. I just needed my gun" … She had been carrying the gun for several years for personal protection, and because she was a chiropractor she had become worried that because there was no legal provision for concealed carry in Texas at the time that if she got caught carrying that gun she might lose her chiropractic license, so she started leaving it in the car. When this shooting started she reached into her purse for a gun that wasn't there and basically watched both of her parents be gunned down by this madman because she was unable to defend herself.
There was the example at the church in Colorado Springs back in December where they actually allowed members, encouraged certain members who had a concealed-handgun license to carry their guns at church. These people were not licensed security guards. They had not been through the state-mandated security guard training or any of that. These were simply people who had concealed-handgun licenses, and the church said, "You know, we'd appreciate it if you would carry your guns at church for the protection of this church." And this woman actually managed to shoot a guy as he was walking through the door armed to the teeth, like Rambo. So concealed carry has mitigated dangerous situations like this in the past.
On how many campuses do you now have chapters?
We have organized chapters on about 100 campuses. The way we define an organized chapter is any campus that has a defined campus leader … We have members on well over 500 campuses. It changes from day to day.
Do you have to be 21 [to get a license to carry a concealed handgun]?
In most states you do. Six [states] issue concealed-handgun licenses starting at the age of 18 and these are all very rural, sparsely populated states. We're talking about Montana and some states like that.
So this might also be about getting that age lowered?
We're not seeking to get the age lowered … If you look at the Virginia Tech massacre, 19 of the 32 victims were over the age of 21. So we're not trying to change existing concealed-carry laws in any aspect—except removing college campuses from the list of places off limits to concealed-handgun license holders, in the states where it's prohibited. We also want to see states say that public, state-funded colleges cannot enact school policies that override state law. We want them to basically follow Utah's lead of saying, "Look, you're a state institution. You have to follow the state laws and allow people to use their state licenses on your property."
Have any of the Virginia Tech family members or survivors joined in the effort?
I don't believe we have any of the victims. We definitely have quite a large chapter at Virginia Tech. But we don't have, as far as I know … any of the actual [victims] or their family members [who] have joined us.
Is copycatting turning into a big issue? Does that increase the urgency?
That's definitely a factor. People are deciding, "I'm not just going to kill myself. I'm gonna go out in a blaze of glory and make everyone remember me."
If a few of these people who attempted this walked through the door with guns drawn and got shot down before they could do much damage, I think a lot of them would start to lose interest. Because they'd realize, "Wow, I'm not gonna get famous getting shot in the chest as I draw my gun on a classroom full of potentially armed students." So there's a chance that as far as the fame factor goes that it could be a deterrent.