No rooms for guns on stress-filled campuses


David Crisp

Senate Bill 143 appears to be dead. Fortunately, the students it aimed to protect are still alive.

After passing the Montana Senate in February, the bill failed, 49-51, on second reading Monday in the House. SB 143, introduced by Sen. Cary Smith, R-Billings, would allow students at Montana’s public colleges and universities to carry concealed weapons on campus.

Some eight states already allow guns on campus, and some others leave it up to each university. The idea scares the hell out of me.

In addition to toiling away as a newspaper hack, I have taught college courses on a half-dozen campuses off and on for 25 years or so. I have yet to find myself in a situation that I thought would have been improved by the presence of a gun.

In fact, college seems a particularly poor place to have guns. According to College Degree Search, a website that actually aims to help kids go to college, the suicide rate among young adults ages 18 to 24 has tripled since the 1950s. About 1,100 students commit suicide at colleges each year.

The percentage of students who say their emotional health is above average is at its lowest level in 25 years. A quarter of college students are sleep-deprived. College counselors tell the American College Counseling Association that they are seeing more students in crisis, more students hurting themselves and more students with eating disorders.

Tight finances make it worse. According to the American Council on Education, Montana reduced its support for public higher education from $12.13 per $1,000 of state personal income in 1983 to $5.08 by fiscal year 2011. At that rate, the ACE says, Montana will hit zero by 2034.

College student debt is skyrocketing and now exceeds America’s credit card debt.
I see the results in my classrooms all the time: students who are working full-time jobs, or multiple part-time jobs, while taking heavy course loads in hopes of finishing school faster. In developmental writing classes at Montana State University Billings, I saw students fill personal essays with heartbreaking stories about trying to get their lives back on track after years of addiction, debilitating illness, lost jobs or financial or legal trouble.

Add to that an uncertain job market in which many students wind up in college who don’t really belong there, or want to be there. Some are trying to scrape by in hopes that a degree will help them land work. Some just want jobs that didn’t require a college degree until employers learned that they could demand one.

Technology may be making matters worse. Instant online gratification may lead to reduced attention spans and weak social skills, some analysts say.

College once seemed like a last vestige of childhood, a final retreat before facing the rigors of the working world. But even in the good old days, it had its stresses.

For some 25 years after college, I had recurring dreams in which I showed up on campus unable to remember what classes I was taking, what assignments were due or what room I was supposed to be in. I actually felt vaguely guilty for years, despite two degrees on the wall, that I somehow had failed to complete a critical course or assignment.

But by and large, college campuses remain oases of relative calm, where keeping students awake is a bigger challenge than keeping them from shooting each other.

Still, I think back to one class a few years ago when tension went from zero to 60 in three seconds flat, so fast that I never quite grasped exactly what went wrong.

I just remember that two students were challenging each other loudly to step outside, one of them a veteran with serious medical, perhaps service-related, problems. I hate to think what might have happened if either had been armed.

The National Rifle Association, no doubt, would offer a simple solution to such confrontations. If I had myself been armed, I could have restored order in an instant.

Yeah, right. It’s true that I am a veteran trained in firearms use (want to see my expert marksmanship medal?), but that was 45 years ago with an M-16 rifle. My skills may have rusted; my reaction time certainly has.

At any rate, while tenured professors might get away with shooting a student or two, it would be a dubious career move for a non-tenured instructor like me, especially in times of falling enrollment.

The rationale behind allowing guns in college is that they might help prevent massacres such as the one at Virginia Tech in 2007. But such incidents are so rare, even in this hyped media age, that it might be years before we have enough data to know whether armed students prevent more deaths from massacres than they cause from simple rage, inebriation, careless handling and the crime of being too young to use good judgment.

I would just as soon not find out. It may be more enlightening to see how quickly such a bill would increase grade inflation. Who will be the first professor to balk at handing an F to a student both angry and armed?

David Crisp has worked for newspapers since 1979. He has been editor and publisher of the Billings Outpost since 1997.

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