Another campus shooting, this time at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C., left one student dead and brings into focus the crisis of campus shootings, once again reviving the debate over whether guns should be permitted on college campuses.
An unidentified gunman fatally shot 19-year-old sophomore Anthony Liddell Tuesday evening at a dormitory some two miles from the main campus of the university near Myrtle Beach. No motive is known for the attack and a manhunt is underway for the gunman, who fled campus in a car, according to police.
By various counts, the South Carolina shooting marks the fifth college campus shooting incident of 2013 – including recent shootings at the University of Maryland at College Park; Hazard Community and Technical College in Hazard, Ky.; Stevens Institute of Business and Arts in St. Louis; and Lone Star College in Houston – amplifying the problem of campus shootings for Americans still scarred by the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, which left 32 dead.
Campus shootings are actually rare events and have not been on the rise, contrary to popular belief, say experts.
“We’re still talking about rare trends,” says James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University and author of the book, “Violence and Security on Campus.” “Contrary to people’s viewpoint, there’s no increase.... With almost 20 million college students in the US, and almost 20 homicides per year [on college campuses], on average, the probability is literally one in a million.”
According to data compiled by the US Department of Education and the Safe Schools Initiative, the campus homicide rate is about 1 death per one million people, compared with 57 deaths per million in the general population. (Campus homicide rates include murder by other means, in addition to campus shootings.)
Statistics on campus shootings are scarce and often conflicting, partly due to varying definitions of what constitutes a campus shooting. Some reports do not count shootings if there were no fatalities while others do not include incidents that occurred off-campus. However, most data suggest there are between one and three fatal campus shootings per year across the US.
An analysis by Slate and Jessie Klein, author of “The Bully Society,” found 39 college shootings between 1980 and 2012, in which at least one person other than the shooter died.
Campuses are relatively safe places, says Peter Langman, an expert on the psychology of school shooters and author of “Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters.” Grisly mass shootings, like those at Virginia Tech and the recent school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., make campus shootings appear more prevalent than they actually are.
“Something like that, where you have a great magnitude [of fatalities] can skew people’s perceptions,” says Dr. Langman. “A lot of people seem to think there’s an epidemic of school violence that’s getting worse and worse ... and yet when you look at the data, school related homicide has gone consistently down over the last 20 years.”
What has changed is 24/7 media coverage and technology that allows witnesses to record shootings in real time, says Langman.
“When there is a large-scale incident, there’s such overwhelming attention, it dominates the national and international media,” he says. “Meanwhile, on a day-to-day basis at schools across the country, there’s actually less violence – that doesn’t make the news.”
Campus shootings like the fatal incident at Coastal Carolina University Tuesday, also serve to reignite the debate over whether to permit guns on campus, first unleashed after the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech. Proponents, including the advocacy group Students for Concealed Carry, argue that students, if armed, would be able to stop shooters or put forth some resistance.
“Allowing law-abiding adults to arm themselves – including faculty and staff – would provide some deterrent effect,” says Kurt Mueller, director of strategy at Students for Concealed Carry. “It would provide meaningful resistance in the moment of truth.”
"The only guarantee is that a bad guy with a gun has free reign for as long as the situation maintains itself,” Mr. Mueller adds. “That situation is intolerable. I’ll take my chances with [a concealed carry holder]. That may not save me, but it will improve my odds.”
Opponents say introducing guns on campus makes them more dangerous, not safer.
“It’s a bad idea,” says Dr. Fox of Northeastern University. “Because college campuses are not rampant with crime, but they are rampant with alcohol and depressed students. Alcohol and depressed students and guns don’t mix very well.”
Statistically speaking rampages like the one at Virginia Tech “almost never happen,” says Langman.
“However the risk of students failing and being dumped is an everyday reality,” he adds. “Having everyone walk around with guns is not going to deter a rampage, it is going to result in people using guns when they have a bad day, flunk a test, someone dumps them, or they’re just not thinking clearly. It’s more likely to lead to other kinds of gun violence.”
Mueller, of Students for Concealed Carry, dismisses those arguments, insisting proponents of concealed carry aren’t trying to arm all students, simply allow those who have gun licenses to bring firearms to campus.
“We’re not trying to change who can carry, we’re trying to change where they can carry,” says Mueller. “People who already have licenses, who are already 21 years of age, who already carry in grocery stores and Wal-Marts and other places – if these people were as volatile as the opposition suggest, one would suspect they would be volatile in all these places they go.”
He points to Colorado State University, which began allowing guns on campus in 2003.
“There’s never been an incident there where a student operated a firearm in a wanton, negligent way as people suggest,” he says, adding that campus crime, including sexual assault, has actually gone down since the university began allowing concealed carry.
In recent years, campus shootings have led several state legislatures to introduce bills allowing guns on campus. Two years ago only one state allowed concealed carry at public institutions. Today five states, including Colorado, Mississippi, Oregon, Utah, and Wisconsin, have laws allowing concealed carry at public colleges and universities.
The remaining states split into two groups, according to a Wall Street Journal report based on data from the National Conference of State Legislatures: Some 24 states, which leave gun policy to individual universities, and 21 states that ban concealed weapons on campus.
In those remaining 45 states the debate over whether to allow guns on campus – amplified in the aftermath of shootings like those at Coastal Carolina University and Lone Star College – rages on.