Can armed students stop campus gun tragedies?
Nathaniel Sheetz, a Penn State masters student from Lancaster, returns to his car after retrieving his handgun from the campus police station. Mr. Sheetz is a member of Students for Concealed Carry on Campus.
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Nathaniel Sheetz knows he and other Penn State University students are protected by armed campus police.
Just the same, he'd like to start bringing his own gun to class. If someone were to pull out a weapon and start shooting, he argues, he and his classmates could be dead in seconds before those officers arrive.
Mr. Sheetz belongs to a group whose controversial message is getting more attention after a string of school shootings this month, including one at Northern Illinois University in which a gunman killed five people and wounded 16 in a lecture hall before taking his own life.
Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, a group formed last year after the Virginia Tech massacre, contends that the way to prevent carnage is to allow people with gun permits such as Mr. Sheetz to carry concealed weapons on campus. The group's Web site says it has a presence on 150 campuses, including Penn State, the University of Pittsburgh and six other colleges in this state.
Make no mistake, plenty of people at Penn State and elsewhere are unnerved by the prospect of students or other civilians packing heat on a college campus. They note that colleges have relatively low rates of violent crime and that split-second decisions about when to use deadly force are better left to police.
But group members say a school's low crime rate is irrelevant to someone stuck in a room with a shooter.
"Right now, the most potent means of self defense I'm allowed to have is a can of pepper-spray. That's not going to do much against a man with a rifle and two handguns," said Mr. Sheeetz, 23, a masters degree student in industrial engineering from Lancaster, alluding to weapons carried by the Northern Illinois gunman. "The advantage of an armed citizen over an armed police officer is the citizen is already there when something is happening."
Colleges are rife with binge drinking parties and with young people pressured by everything from grades to romantic breakups. Imagine adding weapons to the equation, said Peter Hamm, spokesman for the Washington D.C.-based Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
"Anyone who has gone to college knows this is a terrible, terrible potential mix," he said. "These young people are flat out wrong."
He predicted the cause will go nowhere because "fortunately, the grown-ups are still in charge."
In Utah, students with a permit to carry guns are allowed by law to bring their weapons onto public university campuses, but guns are generally barred from colleges elsewhere in the nation. Pennsylvania law addresses only primary and secondary schools; campuses including Penn State have their own prohibitions against guns.
Dawn Blasko, an associate psychology professor who chairs Penn State's faculty senate, got a call last week from an instructor inquiring about changing the school's policy. But she doesn't sense any groundswell of support among her colleagues for the idea.
"Would I personally feel safer if my students were armed?" she asked. "No."
University Police Director Stephen Shelow said he relayed the proposal from Mr. Sheetz's group to Penn State leaders including President Graham Spanier, but that he sensed little appetite for loosening the prohibition.
He was not surprised.
Mr. Shelow said it's true the school's 47 sworn officers can't be everywhere on the sprawling campus of 43,000 students. But there are other scenarios that worry him just as much, including a well-meaning but inexperienced Good Samaritan suddenly in the middle of an armed confrontation in a crowded classroom.
"I have concerns about the wrong people being shot," he said.
Students for Concealed Carry on Campus tracks its 17,000 members largely through the group's Facebook site, said Stephen Feltoon, a national organizer and graduate of Miami University of Ohio. He says the organization, which also includes some faculty and staff, numbered 7,000 last October after it urged students to bring empty holsters to class as a national protest.
In the last week alone, the group says it picked up some 5,000 additional members amid media coverage of the latest shootings.
The Northern Illinois rampage on Feb. 14 came a week after a shooting by a female nursing student at a Baton Rouge, La., technical college left three dead, including the shooter.
It and several other campus incidents this month further frayed nerves at schools that already had added text messaging systems and other security upgrades after Seung-Hui Cho gunned down 32 students and professors before taking his own life last April at Virginia Tech.
It was the worst mass shooting in modern American history.
Legislatures in 13 states are weighing bills related to bringing guns on campuses, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Janna Goodwin, a staff member with the group, said the number is typical and that any year thousands of bills regarding guns are introduced.
James Boyle, president of the Arlington, Va.-based College Parents of America, said members he hears from generally want notification systems and other safety enhancements, not armed students.
The Brady Campaign's Mr. Hamm said he believes the formation of Students for Concealed Carry on Campus was encouraged by the gun lobby.
"Do I think this is some burgeoning grass-roots movement that represents the true beliefs of college students? Not in a million years," he said.
But W. Scott Lewis, a national spokesman for the group, called that claim baseless. He said his group receives no financial help from the gun industry, except for free gun holsters donated by some gun shops for the campus protest and three gift certificates from a Nevada firearms training institute that are to be raffled off as a fundraiser.
At Pitt, the topic drew strong reactions from students on both sides of the question.
Christopher Stiegel, 20, a sophomore psychology major from Peters, put down a book in the William Pitt Union long enough to explain that he plans to purchase a pistol for protection after his 21st birthday in November.
"It's our constitutional right. Why shouldn't we be allowed to practice that and protect ourselves?" he said. "You never know when somebody is going to come up and pull a gun on you."
Erin Wolfe, 22, a senior from Kempton, Berks County, disagreed. "Who's to say you're going to think fast enough, if you have a gun, to use it?" asked Ms. Wolfe, who is studying communications and creative non-fiction writing. "There's a good chance you could end up killing somebody else."
Pitt Police Chief Tim Delaney declined to be interviewed for this article. John Fedele, a university spokesman, said guns are prohibited on campus grounds.
At Penn State, students or visitors have the option of checking their weapons at the campus police station, where they are placed in secure storage until the individual leaves. Mr. Shelow said about 100 weapons are typically stored, but the number swells to about 200 with the arrival of rifles for hunting season.
Among those who check their weapons is Mr. Sheetz, who said he became interested in carrying a handgun because he thought learning to use it safely would be a good skill to develop. He said it strikes him as odd that on one side of College Avenue, a bustling commercial strip that forms a campus boundary, it's OK to be armed, but not the other.
"If I were to choose to go to an off-campus fraternity party with a gun, I can. If I want to go to a friend's apartment, I can. Or, if I want stop in a bar, I can," he said. "You don't hear about [gun] problems happening there with any regularity."
First Published February 24, 2008 12:00 am