The national conversation about guns on college campuses has taken an extreme turn of late. Last week, right here at Harvard, representatives from the National Rifle Association University, a subsidiary of the NRA, made the case for responsible gun ownership. A few days later, Arizona lawmakers upped the ante by approving a bill that would permit guns on college campuses. In passing this bill, which now requires the consent of typically pro-gun Governor Jan Brewer, Arizona will follow Utah in legalizing firearms at universities. Texas legislators, in their infinite wisdom, are seeking to follow suit.
While this bill is clearly part of a local trend of escalating right-wing radicalism in Arizona, a state recently made infamous for its controversial immigration law and the Tucson shooting, it also belongs to a troubling national trend in which conservatives double-down on counter-intuitive proposals as a means of advancing their agenda.
On a superficial level, for instance, this particular bill has absurd practical implications. Although we generally support gun control, we cannot emphasize enough that the university atmosphere is particularly unfit for the unencumbered possession of firearms. After all, for students, universities are often high-stress environments dominated by a pervasive binge drinking culture and other social pressures that contribute to emotional instability. Why, then, would Arizona legislators strive to equip a typically irresponsible demographic of often-inebriated 18 to 22-year-olds with a Glock to go along with the handle of Rubinoff?
More illogical, however, is the idea that the bill in some way will allow students to defend themselves against another Virginia Tech-style massacre. As State representative and bill propenent David H. Gowan, Sr put it, “we’re allowing people to defend themselves.” In that sense, by allowing guns on campuses, Arizona seems to have extended the practical application of an ideological belief in firearms for self-defense to a new, unorthodox location.
Of course, Arizona in particular is all too familiar with the horror of lone gun rampages. Having witnessed the shooting of Gabrielle D. Giffords and 19 others in a shopping mall, it is not hard to draw connections between past atrocities that occurred at educational institutions, be it Virginia Tech or even Columbine. So when lawmakers speak of the need to allow students to defend themselves, it is reasonable to deduce that bills like this are designed to empower students to stop a repeat of Virginia Tech themselves.
Allowing students to carry guns, however, risks having the opposite effect. Those who have been responsible for campus shootings do not fit the profile of students who would be deterred by the promise of meeting armed resistance. Moreover, it is difficult to imagine that the average student going about his or her daily life will choose to carry a gun around campus, much less that current pro-gun lobbies at college will crystallize into a university militia. Instead, making it difficult to stop students from carrying guns at state colleges will make it more difficult for administrations and college police forces to keep campuses safe.
Also, the prospect itself of student militias helping to enforce the law or making guns a visible presence on campuses hardly seems conducive to the type of atmosphere that colleges seek to foster. In a mad dash for self-defense, students could easily heighten tension on their campuses and inhibit open debate if weapons are made a prominent feature of daily life. In this vein, it is useful to remember that faculty at Arizona state colleges—who know the minds of their students far better than state legislators ever could—have lobbied hard against this proposal, with the apparent support of many students.
In a broader sense, the effort to legalize guns on campuses (in our view at least) represents a more disturbing trend of recent attempts by conservative politicians to assume nonsensical positions for the sake of justifying their ideology, not because they actually happen to be good ideas. Most recently, Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan has proposed a budget that would seek to cut the deficit while cutting taxes for the wealthy. Another example is an earlier attempt by House Republicans to redefine the definition of rape itself in order to restrict access to abortion. On the same theme of gun restriction, yet another example is the push to legalize guns in bars in various states, including Virginia, Tennessee, and, of course, Arizona. In that sense, the real motivation behind this bill seems to be less about the safety of students than the defense against assaults on conservative dogma by doubling down on extremist ideas. This, more than anything, points to just how unnecessary, or even disastrous, this bill really is.