Guns on campus unlikely to increase safety, study finds

A report led by Johns Hopkins University researchers finds that only a small number of shootings occur in gun-free zones, and that intervention in active shootings by gun-carrying civilians is incredibly rare. 

Jon Herskovitz/REUTERS/File
Members of the University of Texas of the Guns Free UT group that includes faculty and staff protest against a state law that allows for guns in classrooms at college campuses, in Austin, Texas, in August.

A new study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health finds that allowing concealed carry on university campuses is unlikely to decrease mass shootings, and may worsen other violent crimes, contrary to some claims of those who support expanding campus carry gun laws.

Eight states currently allow concealed carry on college campuses, while approximately two dozen states leave that decision up to the school.

"Proponents of right-to-carry laws that make it legal for individuals to carry firearms, both on and off college campuses, often blame mass shootings on 'gun-free zones' and argue that arming more civilians can deter or stop mass shootings," Daniel Webster, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Research, told the Johns Hopkins news service.

"The best available evidence, however, does not support these claims," Dr. Webster added.

Several of the United States’ worst mass shootings have occurred on college and university campuses. The Virginia Tech shooting that killed 32 people in 2007 and the Umpqua Community College shooting that killed 10 in Oregon last year both occurred on college campuses, for example, as was an event that many Americans view as the first modern mass civilian shooting. On August 1, 1966, University of Texas, Austin engineering student Charles Whitman climbed the campus clock tower and shot 49 people, 16 of whom died as a result.

The Johns Hopkins report authors, a collaborative team of researchers from Johns Hopkins, Stanford University, and the University of Massachusetts, Boston, say that their research indicates that neither prohibitions or allowances on gun carriage in certain areas (such as college campuses) impact the frequency at which mass shootings occur.

While proponents of right-to-carry laws say that shootings are more likely to occur in gun-free zones, since individuals cannot protect themselves with firearms, researchers say that this is not the case. Just 12 percent of all mass shootings involving six or more people between 1966 and 2016 occurred in a truly gun-free zone, study authors found, while 84 percent of high-fatality mass shootings occurred in areas in which there was no evidence that guns were prohibited.

In fact, study co-author and Stanford University law professor John Donohue said, “Rather than deter gun violence, the most recent and most rigorous research on right-to-carry laws suggests that the laws are associated with increased violence with guns.”

Not only are college campuses often the scenes of already-reckless behavior, which could be more deadly if guns are present, but few attacks have ever been stopped by civilians carrying weapons.

Report authors cited an FBI study that found that out of a sample of 160 shootings in the United States, in only one instance did an armed civilian attempt to stop the attack.

Researchers say that their findings counter claims by right-to-carry advocates, who say that campuses are made safer by allowing individuals to carry weapons.

Practical implementation of concealed carry laws on campuses in Texas in recent months resulted in a range of reactions from community members, many of whom said that allowing students and personnel to carry weapons could detract from the educational experience on campus.

"College campuses are marketplaces of ideas, and a rigorous academic exchange of ideas may be chilled by the presence of weapons," wrote a number of educational associations, including the American Association of University Professors, in a statement last year.

Texas’ decision to implement right to carry laws on campuses on the 50th anniversary of the University of Texas, Austin, shooting was met with concern by educators, as The Christian Science Monitor reported in August. At the University of Houston, a public school, the faculty senate issued a set of recommendations suggesting that faculty "may want to be careful discussing sensitive topics" or "drop certain topics from your curriculum" as a result of the law. 

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