Few hearts are harder to drive a stake through than the one that beats in the chest of a bad idea. Accordingly, the Associated Press reports that 12 state legislatures are considering proposals that would allow holders of concealed carry permits to bring handguns onto college campuses. Among the states considering these proposals are Florida, Michigan, and Arizona, as well as my own state, Texas.
In fact, in Texas, more than half of the representatives in the House have signed on as co-sponsors of a bill that would force colleges and universities to allow guns on campus. The Senate is expected to adopt the proposal, as well, and Governor Perry, who enjoys being photographed while discharging a pistol, is sure to sign the bill.
I'm guessing that the proponents of concealed carry on campus have all at some point referenced the shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007, during which a deranged gunman killed 32 students and teachers. If only, proponents say, some percentage of the teachers and students had been carrying handguns, the massacre would have been prevented.
Nevertheless, educational leaders across the nation are not thrilled. Francisco Cigarroa, the chancellor of the University of Texas System, worries that encouraging more handguns on campuses will actually make them less safe. For one thing, suicides are already the second-leading cause of death among college students; it's entirely reasonable to speculate that more access to handguns -- an instant and ever-ready instrument of death -- will encourage more impulsive suicides.
Accidents are likely to increase, as well. Proponents of handguns on campus rely on the notion that anyone who can pass a background check and complete a concealed carry training course will automatically acquire the maturity and judgment to carry and use a firearm safely. But in fact accidental discharges are not unheard of even among the best-trained handlers of firearms. We have no reason to believe that every 21-year-old college student with a new Glock is going to be able to resist showing it around to his pals. Accidents are inevitable.
Given these downsides, the motivation behind the push for guns on campus is worth consideration. The wish to defend oneself in a situation like the one at Virginia Tech is entirely rational. But a fantasy is at play here that goes well beyond self-defense.
Pardon me if I speculate that nearly all concealed handgun carriers have imagined themselves as the heroes of a Virginia-Tech-like shootout in which their deft marksmanship averts a tragedy. Given our infatuation with guns, I suspect that nearly every male in our culture has had these fantasies at some point. I did. When I was 10.
Since handguns on campus will change irremediably the essential culture of the classroom, just as their presence would change courtrooms, a realistic assessment of what will occur when the first gun is pulled in a crowded lecture hall is called for. It's worth remembering that even among the armed services, where soldiers are trained, wear uniforms, and are ordinarily organized along battle lines, a significant portion of the casualties in war are the result of "friendly fire" -- some experts say up to 25 percent. Confidence that the citizen/vigilante, untrained, inexperienced, and excited, would be able to use his weapon judiciously in a crowd where some portion of the other students are pulling their own weapons, is unwarranted.
Fortunately, most concealed carriers will never be put to this test. Despite Virginia Tech, statistically colleges and universities are some of the safest environments in our country. If state legislators genuinely believe otherwise, they should take rational protective measures like the employment of trained professional shooters and their generous placement in campus buildings and classrooms. Generally this would be a waste of money, but if it derailed plans to arm a cadre of young guys with ready trigger fingers, it might be the most important step in the direction of safety that they could make.
John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.