Thursday, March 5, 2015

Guns on Campus: An Administrator's View

Last week I blogged about the politics surrounding the intersection of gun rights and the "campus rape crisis", with particular note taken of an Assemblywoman in Nevada making some (what seem to me) silly claims about the effectiveness of guns in women's self-defense. That post ended up being a lot about the tactical self-defense assumptions behind the "more guns on campus" prescription, and the unexamined values underlying that argument.

In this post I want to put on my other hat as university administrator and look at this question from more of an institutional point of view. University administrators have been universal in their rejection of proposals to put more guns on campus, whether that involves arming faculty or allowing students to carry weapons. While it would be easy for those in the gun rights camp to dismiss this resistance as knee-jerk academic liberalism, some of those university presidents are themselves gun owners from across the political spectrum. What they all share is a responsibility for campus safety that leads them to the conclusion that guns on campus will make things less safe, not more.

To understand why administrators think this way it's important to understand the pressures and incentives they operate under. Many discussions about guns and self-defense are centered on the micro level: the attacker and the (potential) victim. Assemblywoman Fiore of Nevada talks exclusively in these terms, about the interaction between women (as potential victims) and possible attackers. But administrators know that the university itself is a key player, because whatever happens on campus tends to get blamed on the administration.

For proof of this see any of the dozens of marches, sit-ins, and other protests by students on campuses across the country in the last year or two. Regardless of the merits of the particular grievances, each of these protests has carried a common message: it is up to The Administration to prevent rape and sexual assault on campus. This is also the view of a large number of federal investigations currently underway, as well as a raft of civil lawsuits filed in recent years. Many arguments for the right to carry guns flow from a radically libertarian and individualist view of the world. Unfortunately, that's not the world that universities live in.

So administrators really do want to reduce the incidence of rape and sexual assault on their campuses, for a host of reasons. If they thought that a abundance of firearms would accomplish that task, I've no doubt that at least some of them would get on board with the idea. So why don't they?

The first point is that a university president or provost does not have the luxury of looking at one issue at a time. They have to consider the consequences of decisions across a host of different dimensions. The introduction of guns on campus is an excellent example. A concealed weapon is not only a self-defense tool in a potential rape situation. It may also be deployed in the course of an argument, it may be stolen and used elsewhere or for criminal activity on campus, or it may be accidentally discharged. There are plenty of examples of all of these things in the news, and all of them tend to make the people in the vicinity distinctly less safe. There is also, as many have pointed out, the dangerous mix of guns and alcohol - the latter substance something that many college campuses are awash with.

There are cost implications as well. If a university changes its policies (or they are changed by legislation) to allow guns on campus, a host of people will need to be trained on how to handle situations involving firearms: campus police, faculty, staff, and others. Training takes time and money. Campus police forces may likewise have to change protocols and tactics, and to reequip themselves (more body armor?) for those changes - which again has a price tag. Higher education officials in Texas have estimated that it would cost that state's universities $47 million over six years to implement proposed "campus carry" legislation. Given the size of that state and its university systems, I think that's a reasonable guess - and those costs will, of course, either be passed on to students in tuition hikes or be deducted from other things campuses are currently doing, like educating their students.

Finally, there are serious moral issues that nobody in the gun debate seems to want to grapple with. When a Boise State professor asked, "When may I shoot a student?", the question was taken to be satirical. But it's actually a very serious question for anybody carrying a firearm - when and under what circumstances are you prepared to take a life, and how do you practice thinking and action in such a way that, when crisis comes, you will respond the way you want to? As I've written before self-defense of any kind is a discipline, acquired only through study and ongoing practice. How do you know that, faced with a situation in which a gun is in your hand, you won't do something that in a calmer moment you would find morally horrific? Articles have been written about how PTSD in soldiers comes often not from the act of being shot at but from the act of killing. Fiore and her ilk are far too cavalier about the impact of actually shooting another human being, whatever the circumstances, on the person doing the shooting.

Introducing more guns to campus, even if they prevent a small number of rapes, begins to look like a very bad bargain. Others will be placed in danger, and some may be shot and killed. The university will bear significant costs up front, and the potential for massive liability down the road, if anything goes wrong. Many people will be frightened and confused by the proliferation of guns around them. The chances of someone dying on campus - from an administrator's point of view, one of the very worst things that can happen - will go up exponentially.

Given all of this is it any wonder that university presidents, however much they may be pro-gun in their personal lives, are loathe to want more weapons on campus? The current debate and arguments made by the more-guns side of the argument will not succeed, because the people making those arguments are too focused on a narrow (and, in my view, misguided) view of self-defense. One of the cardinal rules of argumentation: know your audience. It's clear that so far, those outside academia who are trying to push more guns onto campuses didn't learn this in school.

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