‘Gun-free,’ but with no guarantees
The deadly shootings at Virginia Tech call into question the wisdom of designating such zones.
By RICK MONTGOMERY
The Kansas City Star
“It’s a cruel hoax to say you’re gun-free but you’ve no way of enforcing it.”
David Kopel, research director of the Independence Institute
Campus officials earlier this year posted the signs – a revolver stamped with a red slash – advertising the University of Kansas ban on carrying concealed firearms.
George Pisani sees them as invitations to a tragedy.
“Here’s the myth,” said Pisani, a retired KU biology instructor and gun-safety teacher. “You pass a policy saying you’re gun-free, you put up a sign, shake hands, pick flowers and say, ‘We’re all safer now.’
“The fact is you’ve just made yourself more vulnerable” to an armed madman.
The debate isn’t new. But until the massacre at Virginia Tech University, the effectiveness of “gun-free zones,” which Virginia Tech proudly claimed itself to be, was largely a back-and-forth between the usual suspects in the argument over gun rights.
Now the topic has boiled over into the mainstream, the grist for major newspaper columns, student blogs and talk shows, all asking: Are gun-free zones really a good idea?
Even a potential presidential contender, former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, is challenging universities and others that ban firearms to rethink their policies. He says trained citizens who wish to arm themselves should be allowed to – especially in places lacking checkpoints and metal detectors, where gun-free can’t be guaranteed.
Others argue that porous zones are partly the result of concealed-carry laws that list such areas but provide no funds or standards for making them secure.
“Virtually all of these mass shootings occur in gun-free zones – or pretend zones,” said David Kopel, research director of the Independence Institute, a Colorado think tank. “It’s a cruel hoax to say you’re gun-free but you’ve no way of enforcing it.”
Gun-control advocates say allowing firearms into areas meant to be “safe havens” would only lead to more bloodshed.
“It’s cockamamy … and speculative to think that arming a teacher is going to save lives,” said Brian Siebel of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which in a new report accuses the gun lobby of “forcing” firearm possession into gun-free schools and private businesses.
Generally, universities are safe havens, he said, and rules against firearms have helped make them so. KU has not suffered a shooting on campus in 35 years, and that wasn’t fatal.
KU officials said the signs emphasizing its no-weapons policy were needed after the state of Kansas in 2006 legalized the carrying of concealed weapons.
On the Missouri side, colleges, government buildings, and many churches and businesses established gun-free zones of their own following the state’s passage of concealed-carry in 2003.
But enforcement is spotty and often unclear. Missouri law, for example, protects people who carry guns into gun-free zones from being charged with a criminal offense, so long as the weapon isn’t brandished and the gun owner has a permit to carry.
In Kansas courtrooms, lawyers and spectators are barred from carrying guns, but the judge can pack one.
And some campuses that ban firearms, including the University of Missouri-Kansas City, don’t post signs saying so because the law in certain cases doesn’t require it.
“Posting signs is not beneficial to anyone,” said Scott Shelton, UMKC security chief. “If you’ve got them everywhere … you could have some law-abiding citizens wondering if this is a safe place to be.”
Bucking state concealed-carry law, Virginia Tech’s gun ban carried penalties of expulsion for students and dismissals for faculty members caught with a firearm.
But on April 16, it didn’t keep student Seung-Hui Cho from moving through campus undetected with two pistols and dozens of rounds of ammunition. Cho killed 32 people, all unarmed, before turning a gun on himself.
“Can a gun-free zone stop a maniac from doing harm? Absolutely not,” said Matt Bennett, co-founder of the Washington-based Americans for Gun Safety, which considers itself centrist on gun control.
“But can it stop violence and accidents from happening because of stupidity and drunkenness among college students? It probably can,” he said, just as it may keep shoppers in a mall, customers lining a bar or co-workers in an office from reaching for their guns in the heat of an argument.
“That’s what these policies are really intended to stop. They’re not intended to stop the Chos of the world.”
Yet the Chos of the world have reframed the debate in some statehouses.
In a surprise move two days after the mass shooting, a Tennessee House panel voted to repeal a law that forbid the carrying of handguns on government-owned property, including parks and playgrounds.
“We’ve been piecemealing this thing year after year,” said state Rep. Rob Briley, a Nashville Democrat who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “Why don’t we just let you take your gun anywhere you want to?”
Not known for championing gun rights, Briley said he was dubious of the gun lobby’s claims that an armed citizenry can help thwart crime.
“But I think it’s time to get all these gun-free zones out on the table and have an open and honest discussion on which ones make sense,” he said. “As it is, people don’t know where you can carry and where you can’t.”
Briley stressed that the Virginia Tech tragedy did not prompt his amendment.
With memories of the massacre still fresh, the Kansas Legislature late last week voted to override Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’ veto of a bill blocking cities from passing their own laws about where concealed handguns can be carried.
Concealed-carry laws in Kansas and Missouri identify several places that are allowed to be gun-free, including universities, courthouses, taverns, professional sports stadiums and polling places.
A federal law in 1994 turned kindergarten through 12th-grade schools into gun-free zones – five years before the Columbine High School shootings – and even the National Rifle Association backed the concept.
“For the NRA, it’s a bargaining chip” for getting concealed-carry bills approved, said Kansas Sen. John Vratil, a Leawood Republican who leads the state Senate Judiciary Committee. “They (the NRA) fear if they don’t have gun-free zones included, there won’t be the votes to get a law passed.”
Andrew Arulanandam, pubic affairs director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, said: “It’s fair to say there is a problem in this country, and we believe what’s needed is a national dialogue involving teachers, law enforcement, parents, security consultants, to discuss what’s it going to take to make these places safe. It can’t be a one-size-fits-all approach.”
Beyond the difficulties of keeping guns out of gun-free zones, some argue the zones might attract shooters bent on inflicting mass carnage without facing armed resistance.
“I call them unarmed-victim zones,” said Kansas Sen. Phil Journey, a Haysville Republican who sponsored Kansas’ concealed-carry law. “It was a joke until (the Virginia Tech slayings), but it’s not funny anymore.
“There is no doubt in my mind if one those students had even a modicum of training on how to properly use a gun, it would’ve shortened (Cho’s) job quite a bit.”
It has happened before:
- In February, an armed man walked past a sign saying, “No weapons allowed” and opened fire on shoppers in a Salt Lake City mall.He murdered five persons before Kenneth Hammond, an off-duty police officer who also had violated the mall’s firearm ban, pulled his gun.Hammond exchanged fire with the killer, pinning him down long enough for other officers to arrive and shoot him dead.
- In 2002, a shooter at Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Va., was tackled and subdued by fellow students who had retrieved handguns from their cars in the parking lot. (It remains a matter of dispute whether the gunman saw their weapons before he dropped his.)
- In Pearl, Miss., Assistant Principal Joel Myrick grabbed a handgun from his car to apprehend a school shooter in 1997.The problem with armed resistance against a rampage, experts note, is that poorly trained citizens could gun down innocent people in the crossfire. However, the Brady Campaign and Americans for Gun Safety are hard-pressed to cite examples of that happening.On the other side, gun-rights proponents can only assume mass slayers pick gun-free zones to avoid resistance. However, there is little to no evidence in the writings or testimonials of the killers that it enters into their thinking.
‘Get rid of them all’
The Virginia Tech Pistol and Rifle Club’s Web site carries a statement mourning the loss of faculty and fellow students. As for the university’s gun ban, “We … note that restricting appropriate firearms for good, responsible citizens leaves the field completely open to psychopathic criminals.”
The club’s president, Stephen Davids, said most students and faculty disagreed with his view that the campus would be safer if qualified citizens were permitted to carry guns.
“A lot of people who haven’t shot guns or grown up with them look at what happened and say, ‘Let’s just get rid of them all,'” Davids said.
The University of Utah last year went to court in a failed attempt to exclude itself from a state law that would allow guns there. Republican state Sen. Michael Waddoups said he believed “the only way to truly be a gun-free zone is if it’s secured,” as is the case at airports and many courthouses where everyone steps through metal detectors and officers check patrons.
That is virtually impossible at university campuses, said Kopel of the Independence Institute.
In a recent Wall Street Journal column, he called for increased security measures such as highly-trained armed employees and weapons placed in secret lockboxes – steps similar to those taken by Congress to allow airline pilots to be armed after Sept. 11, 2001.
“Maybe you don’t want drunken students having access to guns in their backpacks,” Kopel said. “But what about professors only?
“Better that some victims be armed than none at all.”