Weapons 101

What role do guns have on a college campus? Virginia institutions have come down firmly on the issue, but others have loaded opinions.

The issue of guns on a college campus

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Is a university more like a public library or a public school? Many Virginians believe the answer to that question is a matter of life and death.

The difference between those two institutions is that firearms are allowed at one and not at the other. That’s a balance Virginians have struck on guns throughout decades of hearty debate. Virginia is an open carry state, meaning that adults are permitted to carry holstered weapons in plain view in most public places—on Main Street, municipal parks and, yes, many libraries. There are notable exceptions that virtually everyone agrees on, places where the presence of a firearm would be too disruptive—schools, courthouses and airports, for instance. That’s why it’s important to figure out what kind of site a university is; the answer determines whether or not guns belong there.

Virginia’s public colleges and universities have come down firmly on this issue. State law leaves the decision about weapons on campus to the governing body of each individual institution. In Virginia, not a single one allows students and faculty, other than law enforcement personnel, to have guns on campus. The fine print varies a little bit—Old Dominion University and most other Hampton Roads schools explicitly extend that prohibition to visitors, too—but on any given day, a vast majority of people on the commonwealth’s college campuses are unarmed.

That’s worrisome to Kurt Mueller, spokesman for Students for Concealed Carry (SCC), a national gun rights advocacy group for university students. “College is a different environment. It’s not inherently safe,” says Mueller. The biggest difference, according to Mueller, is that anyone can come and go on a college campus. He believes that universities’ openness should give lawabiding citizens the ability to defend themselves with deadly force—a right they enjoy most other places.

Mueller, an Alexandria resident who became involved with SCC as a student in 2008, isn’t suggesting that universities allow open carry on campus; he realizes the sight of holstered weapons would compromise the learning environment. Instead, SCC wants them to honor concealed handgun permits. In Virginia, that would restrict those who can carry on campus to people at least 21 years old who have gone through an application process that includes a background check as well as proof of completion of a firearms safety class.

Mueller says this is a reasonable compromise on the matter of guns on campus. The firearms would be out of sight and therefore not a distraction to instruction and studying. What’s more, says Mueller, the type of people who go through the steps to acquire a concealed handgun permit are, in terms of age, more mature. They go out of their way to get the permit in the first place. “When you say ‘guns on campus’ people automatically think out-of-control, drunk frat boys running around with weapons, but that’s far from who a concealed handgun permit holder is. We’re educated, responsible citizens,” he says.