More guns on campus?

April 18, 2007|By THOMAS F. SCHALLER

Monday was a weird, difficult day.

On the day of the Virginia Tech shootings, I was leading a student field trip to the WBAL radio studios to watch a live broadcast of The Ron Smith Show.

For more than a year in 2004 and 2005, I appeared weekly on Mr. Smith's show. I like him and respect his intellect; he's one of the best-read, most thoughtful and all-around sharpest commentators in the Baltimore media - period.

But he and several people who called or e-mailed his show asserted that the massacre Monday might have been averted if there were fewer restrictions on carrying concealed, permitted weapons.

One caller said it would be a good idea for faculty members to be armed; another boasted that if he had been on campus, the killer would have been "at room temperature" sooner.

To validate the claim that guns improve safety, Mr. Smith cited the work of political scientist John Lott, who wrote a methodologically rigorous and controversial book called More Guns, Less Crime, the central claim of which is that political jurisdictions with more guns have lower crime rates.

But a recent study for the Brookings Institution by Yale University Professor John J. Donohue demonstrates more than a few problems with Mr. Lott's research.

For one thing, Mr. Lott coded several states incorrectly, using the date of passage of the "concealed-carry" law rather than the date when the law took effect. When this error is corrected, it "wipes out" Mr. Lott's finding that robberies declined in concealed-carry states.

Mr. Donohue then extended Mr. Lott's 1977-1992 data set by five years, through 1997 - and guess what? In the latter five-year period, crime in concealed-carry states increased - and the effect for the full 21-year period showed no difference between states with and without permit laws.

Mr. Lott has also claimed to have survey data showing that "98 percent of the time that people use guns defensively, they merely have to brandish a weapon to break off an attack." But when critics asked him to produce these survey results, Mr. Lott ducked and dodged and eventually said his computer had crashed.

Neither Mr. Lott nor his critics have a monopoly on the evidence or conclusions. The debate about guns and violence will and should continue.

I support gun rights, if a bit grudgingly. As an avowed civil libertarian, I don't think one can support the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments while ignoring the Second.

Putting empirical and constitutional controversies aside, I just think it would be absurd for faculty members to carry guns around campus.

There's an asymmetrical power relationship between faculty and their students: We give them assignments and determine their grades, which may affect their future employment and graduate school opportunities; conversely, students rate our performance, and some have learned to appeal quite forcefully for reassessments of bad paper or exam grades.

I have had a few tense moments on campus - usually involving rare instances of plagiarism or cheating. I also have students dealing with tough personal problems. Some are fretting about loved ones in Iraq. Others are grappling with romantic, familial or financial worries. Last summer, a student's father came to my office looking for a son who had disappeared for days along with thousands of dollars the father had provided him for tuition. (He suspected his son had a gambling problem that had taken a dark turn.)

If an unhinged student ever enters my classroom with a loaded weapon and lethal intent, I suppose I will wish I hadn't said this, but here it is: I don't want to be armed in my classroom, and I don't want my students armed, either.

Maybe that's justPollyannaish, liberal thinking on my part. But aren't conservatives always telling us some things are worth dying for? To me, living on a campus where students and faculty are not walking around carrying lethal weapons is something worth risking life and limb for.

Virginia Tech engineering professor Liviu Librescu did just that. A true hero, he died Monday while barring his classroom door against the killer so some of his students could leap from the windows to safety.

The deaths Monday were tragic. But I'd rather live in an America with one Professor Librescu than in an America with thousands of professors and millions of students trooping to class armed with more than their ideas.

Thomas F. Schaller is an associate professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and author of "Whistling Past Dixie." His e-mail is schaller67@hotmail.com. His column appears Wednesdays in The Sun.

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