… because they’re liable to get shot through and through!*

Seem a bit dramatic? How about if our intrepid GOP lawmakers institute concealed carry on UM campuses? Frat-house shoot-outs after all night drinking binges anyone? Escalating classroom arguments? Escalating boyfriend-girlfriend angst ? Resentful students unhappy with grades? All of this dumped on that unstable, still-developing adolescent brain? I’ve taught college students my friends, and let me tell you, it can get intense. Does anyone think that putting guns into this mix is a recipe for an attractive campus that can perform well in an increasingly competitive market place?  Which we are told is a growing concern for MU – and ought to be a concern for the legislature.

But first maybe a little background will help to put the enrollment problem into better perspective.

Last Thursday’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the University of Missouri is facing declining enrollment. There is general agreement that fewer applications are due in part to demographic factors – fewer high school graduates, for instance – but there is also  speculation that the recent racial unrest, along with general administrative malaise, aggravated by legislative meddling, isn’t doing much to help. The Post-Dispatch‘s Tony Messenger summarized the  situation  succinctly:

The university system lacks a president. Its main campus lacks a chancellor. Many of its deans and other administrators hold interim titles. Black students and faculty feel disenfranchised. White donors are angry. Lawmakers are meddling with the curators. The curators are meddling with the now nearly nonexistent administration. The governor lacks a strong enough relationship with lawmakers in either party to do much about the dysfunction.

The situation has led Standard & Poor to consider lowering the University’s credit rating. Out of state Missouri conservatives don’t want to send their children to a school where, in the words of some Mssouri legislators, the “animals [are] running the zoo, or the inmates running the asylum.” Less biased folks or, maybe, just less authoritarian folks, on the other hand, might have qualms about sending their children to a school where students, specifically African-American students, are characterized as either animals or insane by the lawmakers who (a bit too ostentatiously) wield power over the institution.

Now add to this picture the looming prospect of guns everywhere on campus. What mother would want to send her  kids off to a shootout at a spectacularly disorganized Okay Corral – which could well result from Senate Bill 589 , which simply proposes to do away with concealed-carry restrictions on Missouri public campuses, and the less draconian  Senate Bill 731 , which would allow campuses to opt out of permitting concealed carry as long as they are willing to guarantee increased security, including metal detectors at all buildings and more campus police presence – not an insignificant expense for institutions that have had to beg a meddling, right-wing legislature for a pitiful sufficiency to carry out their strictly educational projects.

Of course we get the usual blah-de-blah about hpow letting folks carry guns will actually increase their safety. Here’s what supporter Senator David Schatz (R- ) has to say about the the perceived virtues of the two bills:

During testimony about this legislation, it was pointed out repeatedly that mass shooters can kill many people in the time it takes for police to arrive. Some statistics show, on average, it takes just over 12 minutes for law enforcement to respond to an active shooter situation. Statistics from mass shootings show a person is killed nearly every 17 seconds. To me, it makes sense that law-abiding citizens with proper training can save lives in an emergency situation like this.

Years ago, when staff members would present arguments against proposed changes with numbers and measurements, I used to be really pleased because it showed that they  were trying hard and not resorting to tantrums – even when the numbers and measurements were lousy and only presented part of the picture. I expect more of my lawmakers, however. Do you really  think it would improve things if a “mass shooting” became a shooting free-for all? What happens when the police do arrive? How do they tell the “good guy” with guns from the initial shooters? In situations of this sort, folks trying to help are just as apt to miss or shoot victims. Civilians are not trained to deal with mass shooters – and studies show that even highly trained police officers frequently miss when shooting at persons.

A little careful thought shows that the deterrence argument, as has been frequently noted, is nothing more than a myth. College campuses are largely gun-free and though several, highly publicized mass-shooting incidents have occurred over the years, there are few gun-related homicides on campuses when considered in relation to other locales; colleges and universities are very safe places. A Department of Justice study a few years ago found that 93% of the violent crimes (pdf) that afflicted college students happened off campus.

The prospect of guns on campus has alarmed police departments and professional educational organizations. If appropriate response is the problem, there are plausible alternatives:

In calling for a repeal of campus carry laws already on the books and blockage of future campus carry legislation, they did offer up ways to protect faculty and students when school is in session. “We encourage colleges and universities to embrace critical incident planning that includes faculty and staff and to advise all faculty and staff of these plans,” said the groups in a statement.  “We further call on these institutions to rely on trained and equipped professional law-enforcement personnel to respond to emergency incidents. State legislative bodies must refrain from interfering with decisions that are properly the responsibility of the academic community.”

So if they are not needed to deter crime or for self-defense what happens with all these guns on campus? I think I touched on some of the possibilities in my first paragraph. One issue that I didn’t mention, however, was the risk of adding easily available guns pell-mell into a population where suicide is already epidemic (didn’t we say something up-front about adolescent instability coupled with the stresses of college?). A study at the Harvard School of Public Health found that gun related suicides in concealed carry states far outnumbered gun-suicides in low gun ownership states – and, yes, the study was limited to six states in each category with similar overall populations. Non-gun suicide rates in the two groups of states were similar.  What could this mean for MU? Draw your own conclusions:

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for college age young adults, exceeded only by accidental death (mostly from motor vehicle accidents). On average, about 1,000 college students commit suicide each year while another 24,000 attempt suicide. Whereas suicide attempts by overdosing on drugs (the most common method) are fatal only about 3% of the time, suicide attempts with firearms are fatal more than 90% of the time. It goes without saying that making firearms more available to college students will make it more likely that more of these 24,000 unsuccessful attempts each year will be fatal.

Professional educational groups are also alarmed about the implications for free speech within a safe learning environment:

Meanwhile, AAC&U said in a statement that higher education institutions should be safe places where students can freely express their own views, but that the presence of concealed weapons in college classrooms can silence students and professors. “There have been unprecedented attacks from many sectors in recent years on higher education institutions and on their authority to create and shape healthy and diverse learning environments, but none is as dangerously destructive as the recent calls to allow concealed firearms on college campuses,” says AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider.

And, finally, for the potential effect on future  enrollment. There isn’t much evidence out there about the effect of guns on campus on enrollment since the issue is relatively new. However, a recent study by the  The Campaign to Keep Guns off Campus (yes, a partisan group, but their methodology seems fairly rigorous given data constraints)  compared ten years of data from Utah and Colorado. They found that not only did violent crime on campus increase after guns on campus became legal, but, in addition:

… the student population decreased. As the population of the United States rises at a steady rate of about .7% yearly, the student population of Utah campuses has fluctuated over a ten-year span (2004-2013) with the last two years (2012-2013) consisting of a 1.7% and 2.3% drop in enrollment. The fluctuation for Colorado is similar with the last two years consisting of a .6% and 1.3% decrease.

So maybe if we’re really worried about enrollment in Missouri’s universities and colleges – not to mention student well-being – we might stop fixating on campus protests, and give a little thought about what message it will send if our legislature imposes the shootout at high noon as a viable response to student safety concerns.

*With apologies to Willie Nelson and his lovely and rather metrically complex song. Sorry to mangle it here.

**Second sentence edited slightly for style.