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Monday, Aug. 25, 2008

Guns on Campus

Could it become a reality in Wisconsin?

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On April 16, 2007, Seung-Hui Cho opened fire on the campus of Virginia Tech University. By the time the smoke cleared, 33 people, including Cho, were dead and 15 more were injured.


On Feb. 14, 2008, six people were killed at Northern Illinois University-including the shooter, Steven Kazmierczak-and 18 people survived with injuries.

These two killing sprees re-opened a debate on how best to protect the safety of students on college campuses. One response has been to meet fire with fire-to allow students to carry concealed weapons while attending class, hanging out at the student union, studying at the library, working in a lab or meeting with professors or advisers.

Eric Thompson, owner of the Green Bay-based TGSCOM Inc., an online gun vendor whose customers included Cho and Kazmierczak, has turned these college tragedies into a crusade to allow guns on campus. Thompson argues that more concealed weapons on campus-which traditionally are gun-free zones-will protect the public from future attacks. Thompson even spoke at Virginia Tech this April to make his case, in an appearance that was opposed by the school's administration.

Thompson and his allies argue that putting guns in the hands of students and faculty is a better option than waiting for security or the police to arrive when a crisis occurs.

"Nobody is going to be there to protect us," Thompson said in an inter view with the Shepherd.

"Too often, guns are used in ways that people never imagined," said Jeri Bonavia, exec utive director of Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort (WAVE). "People that choose and want to protect themselves should not be prevented from doing so." Yet critics contend that arming students and faculty members will do nothing to pre vent armed attacks on campus, and could even increase the number of firearm injuries or deaths among young people who are grappling with the responsibilities of adulthood and the stresses of school.

Could It Happen Here?

Currently, only two states-Wisconsin and Illinois-completely ban the carrying of concealed firearms, so any concealed carry advocate would have to change that law first. That doesn't seem likely in the near future, as Gov. Jim Doyle's vetoes of previous concealed carry bills have been sustained, and Democrats, who tend to oppose concealed carry, currently control the state Senate.

However, some schools are being proactive and are not waiting for the state Legislature to act. John Pauly, the provost of Marquette University, said that Marquette is trying to acquire an exemption from any concealed carry law that may be passed in Wisconsin to prevent concealed weapons on Marquette's campus.

Like Marquette, UW-Milwaukee opposes allowing students to carry concealed weapons on campus. "We believe the police force that we have on our campus is best suited todeal with situations that might require an armed response," said Tom Luljak,vice chancellor for university relations and communications at UWM. As of the end of the 2007-08 school year, 11 universities around the country per mit students to carry concealed weapons on campus. One of these schools is Colorado State University (CSU), located in Fort Collins, Colo., with a student pop ulation of just under 25,000. To obtain a concealed carry permit, CSU students must be over 21, pass a background check and have no prior felony convictions. While CSU students are not permitted to have guns in the dormitories and must store their handguns at the police department, they are allowed to carry concealed weapons in classrooms and around campus.

Advocates-such as the 30,000-member Students For Concealed Carry on Campus (SCCC)-want the same system to be implemented in Wisconsin.

At least six schools in Wisconsin have a branch of Students for Concealed Carry on Campus: Madison Area Technical College, UW-Green Bay, UW-Platteville, Lawrence University, UW-Madison and Marquette University.

Bret Bostwick, leader of UW-Madison's SCCC branch and president of the Wisconsin chapter of SCCC, said it's a public safety issue.

"In light of violence on [college] campuses, a change needs to be made to allow students to protect themselves," Bostwick said. Michael Neiduski, head of the Marquette SCCC chapter, said students who carry concealed weapons would follow the law and would not contribute to more vio lence on campuses.

"I support students who go through the legal channels to carry a concealed weapon on campus because they will be responsible students who should have the right to protect themselves," Neiduski said.

Are Concealed Weapons Necessary?

But do more guns help create a safer environment? According to The Firearm & Injury Center at the University of Pennsylvania (FICAP), the answer is not really.

FICAP analyzed 13 national data systems that monitor and study firearm injuries in the United States and found that while there are some studies that suggest guns can protect individuals, "the bulk of evidence suggests that gun availability increases the likelihood for individuals to be killed, or to kill another person."

FICAP also found that while school shootings are rare, "there have been more deaths per event" and that "from 1994-99, 75% of all violent deaths at schools involved a firearm."

So are Wisconsin campuses awash in crime because students aren't allowed to carry concealed weapons? Marquette reported four aggravated assaults in 2004 and none in 2005 and 2006; two forcible sex offenses between 2004 and 2006; and one arrest for an illegal weapon in 2004-a BB handgun that was found inside a vehicle. Marquette has a far bigger problem with burglaries and drug and alcohol offenses than violent crime.

The same is true of UW-Milwaukee, which has 28,000 students, more than 22,000 of which attend full-time. In fact, the gun-free zone provided at UWM looks like a safe oasis in a city that struggles with gun violence. Between 2004 and 2006, there were no criminal homicides on UWM's main campus, residence halls or property.

Yet the City of Milwaukee had 88 criminal homicides in 2004 and 122 in 2005. During those same years, 89 people were arrested for weapons possession on cam pus and 13 for weapons possession in residence halls. And just like Marquette, there were far more arrests between 2004 and 2006 for liquor law violations (973) and drug law violations (742) than for manslaughter (none), robberies (seven), burglaries (137), forcible sex offenses (16), non-forcible sex offenses (zero) or aggravated assaults (16). "This is an extraordinarily safe campus," UWM's Luljak said.

A Dangerous Mix

But perhaps the bigger question is whether college campuses, with a mix of students, hormones, anxiety and large amounts of alcohol, are appropriate places for guns. According to a study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, 40% of full-time college students binge on alcohol at least once a month and 23% of students reported binging at least three times with in a two-week span, with binging defined as drinking five drinks (for a male) or four (for a female) in one sitting. Wisconsin high-school and college students consistently rank at or near the top of binge drinkers nationally.

As WAVE's Bonavia pointed out, there is a "tremendous amount" of drugs and alcohol on campuses. "To pretend otherwise is foolish," Bonavia said. While there have been no incidents on college campuses involving guns and alcohol, opponents of concealed carry on campus argue that putting guns in the hands of students who can't control their liquor just doesn't make sense. Right now, outbursts of violence among stu dents usually involve nothing more than a few punches. But if guns become readily available on college campuses, the potential for these outbursts to become deadly increases greatly.

Other Safety Measures

Universities and colleges have made safety a priority, since no nerv ous parent wants to send their vulnerable child off to a dangerous school that doesn't have a comprehensive safety plan. Luljak said UWM has recently reviewed its security plan and invested in upgrading its personnel and equipment. UWM employs armed state police officers and has added two dozen "security safe walkers"-students interested in law enforcement-to the area. Luljak said UWM found that these and other security measures would be more effective than allowing armed students onto campus.

"It was clear to the administration that our students and faculty would actually be safer relying upon the enhanced security we have in place than moving to allow anyone to carry concealed weapons," Luljak said. Dick Baker, the founder of the Wisconsin Concealed Carry Association, believes that adding more police officers and communi cation devices around college campuses is important. But Baker said that if someone-like Cho or Kazmierczak-wants to go on a shoot ing spree, no law or police presence is going to stop them. Therefore, students should be allowed to protect themselves.

"I am not going around paranoid," Baker said. "But anything could happen anywhere … and ultimately a person's most valuable posses sion is their life and it should be up to them whether to protect it or not." Advocates also argue that any gun control law contains loopholes that still allow those who shouldn't own guns to purchase or possess one. One such example of a law that didn't work is connected to the Virginia Tech shooting. In 2005, two years before his campus shooting spree, Cho was deemed dangerous by a court and ordered to under go outpatient mental health treatment. However, because his treat ment was outpatient and not inpatient, his name was never added to a federal list that gun sellers could access and he was thus able to pur chase a gun legally-from Thompson in Green Bay. This loophole has since been closed. But concealed carry supporters say that allowing legal weapons on campus could prevent such tragedies instead of allowing a rampage to spiral out of control before the police arrive.

That may make sense to gun advocates, but that argument is more worrisome to those who live or work on college campuses and could get caught in the crossfire.

"At the end of the day, we are talking about people's lives," said Molly Greenwood, a teaching assistant at Marquette. "It is not a light matter."

What's your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.

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