It’s a myth that guns on campus will make us safer

Janet P. Stamatel

The Kentucky House Committee on Education is currently considering a bill (HB 249) that would allow carrying concealed lethal weapons on K-12 and college campuses.

This is the kind of policy that might make us feel safer but that could actually increase violence at schools.

Mass shootings at schools are tragic events, not just for the families and friends of victims, but for all of us who are concerned for the safety of our children. From the 1999 Columbine High School massacre to the more recent killing of 27 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, the images of these awful events are permanently etched in our memories.

But when we let fear shape public policies, we end up with a false sense of security without actually addressing the problem. Allowing firearms on school and college campuses is an example of such a reaction.

This is why we need to develop evidence-based policies based on scientific research, which does not support many of the myths regarding mass violence at schools.

▪ First, mass shootings at schools are rare, although they do not seem that way because of media coverage. In 2015 more than 12,000 people were killed by guns, but only 39 of those deaths resulted from mass shootings (where one or two offenders killed four or more victims). That is less than one-half of one percent. Of the 129 mass shootings that occurred in the U.S. between 1966 and 2015, only 12.5 percent happened at schools.

▪ Second, some believe that offenders will be more likely to target gun-free zones because they will not encounter resistance. Research on previous mass shootings does not support this idea. Only about 12 percent of mass shootings since 1966 took place in gun-free zones. Offenders in these kinds of shootings are usually motivated by revenge and they often expect to die in the incident, therefore the presence of guns at schools does not work as a deterrent for them.

▪ Third, some believe that armed students or staff will be able to stop a shooter in an active shooting situation, but this is extremely unlikely. Only four mass shooting incidents in the U.S. since 1966 were stopped by an armed civilian. Successfully intervening in a sudden and chaotic situation requires tactical training and an ability to shoot accurately in a highly stressful situation. Most civilians are simply not prepared to operate lethal weapons under such conditions.

We also need to consider the possibility that firearms at schools could actually increase violence, especially on college campuses. College students are generally 18 to 24 years old, which is the peak age for violent offending in the U.S.Additionally, college students work in high stress environments and socialize in settings with high alcohol use, both of which are risk factors for violence. Adding guns to this mix will only increase the likelihood of violence.

Lastly, we should consider the effect that firearms would have on the educational environment of our campuses. Education is designed to encourage debate, challenge opinions, and push us outside of our intellectual comfort zones. Allowing guns on campuses will discourage discussions about difficult topics and stifle intellectual development.

Students and teachers should be able to get the most out of these experiences without fearing violent reactions to disagreements in the classroom or dissatisfaction over grades.

We should not replace one source of fear with another. Fear is a natural response to violence, but we cannot let it dictate our public policies. The scientific evidence simply does not support campus carry laws as a means to improve public safety.

Janet P. Stamatel is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Kentucky.