Is the answer to mass shootings on college campuses to arm students and staff? Eight states are considering legislation that would allow people to carry a concealed handgun into the lecture hall, the library or the dorm. Ground zero for the debate is Texas, where a proposed law would remove "premises of higher education" as gun-free zones.
"Right now, so-called gun-free zones, I think, ought to be renamed Victims Zones," says state Sen. Jeff Wentworth, a San Antonio Republican who is sponsoring a bill that would allow handguns on campuses. "I just don't want to see a repeat in Texas of what happened at Virginia Tech."
Wentworth was referring to the massacre at Virginia Tech in 2007, when a student killed 32 people on campus and injured many others before turning the gun on himself.
Last September, the University of Texas at Austin had its own scare. Colton Tooley, a 19-year-old math major wearing a dark suit and ski mask, started shooting an AK-47 assault weapon in the air, then ran into a library and committed suicide. No one else was shot. Campus police were praised for their quick response.
Wentworth and other supporters of the proposed law say a citizen with a handgun can possibly take out a campus shooter before police arrive "because when seconds count, the police are only minutes away."
Since the April 2007 Virgina Tech shooting, gun advocates have raised concerns about student safety. They say students and teachers should have the right to defend themselves. But it hasn't been easy and their attempts are often rejected.
- In 2009, Louisiana legislators voted down a law that would allow licensed handguns on college campuses.
- Last month, a Nebraska state senator proposed allowing school districts to authorize teachers to carry concealed guns to deter school shootings.
- In the wake of the Tucson, Ariz., shootings, pro-gun groups plan to lobby politicians about expanding the right to carry concealed weapons on the state's college campuses.
- A pro-gun rights group in Arkansas sent a letter asking the state's Department of Higher Education to allow concealed-carry license holders to bring their guns onto college and university campuses.
Two years ago, Texas lawmakers rejected a bill allowing concealed-carry on campus. Since then, Republicans have gained a supermajority in the Legislature, and the controversial law has come back stronger than ever.
With 50,000 students, the UT-Austin is one of the biggest schools in the country. Two years ago, the student government, faculty council and President Bill Powers came out against the bill to permit hidden pistols in university buildings; it's legal for license holders to carry on the campus grounds. Powers says his position has not changed.
"Friday night comes on our campus once a week," he says. "Mixing youth, handguns and partying is, in my view, a mix for serious concerns about safety on campus."
On a recent morning, Corey Zipperer, a 21-year-old psychology major, heads to the state Capitol to lobby officials to pass the bill. A spokesman for the Longhorn chapter of Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, he discreetly straps on a .38 Special.
"We get the mature thing a lot — that college students aren't mature enough. And the alcohol thing — that we're all just boozed up all the time," Zipperer says.
In Texas, he points out, to get a concealed handgun license, a person must be 21 years old, have a clean record and no psychiatric disorders, and take a 10-hour instruction course that includes time at a firing range.
"If people think that 21-year-olds are too immature to get a license, it sounds like they have a problem with the whole concept," he says.
When John Woods moved on from Virginia Tech to graduate school in Austin, he thought he had left behind the rampage that killed two of his friends. When the Texas Legislature took up guns on campus, the 26-year-old biology student stepped forward to become a leading voice opposing the bill.
"People think of colleges as just being classrooms, but there's a lot more going on here," Woods says. "We have hospitals on campus. In some cases there are preschools, sensitive labs where there are hazardous materials.
"And this is also something where the Legislature is taking away higher education institution's abilities to make any policy on the issue."
At the student union, math major Logan Healey responds with sarcasm when asked about the proposed conceal-carry law: "So, our suggestion to stop people from bringing guns to campus is to allow other students to bring guns to campus so we can have gunfights."
His friend, Bethany Ellerbrook, chimes in: "That's an awful idea. I hate it."
The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence reports that 22 states have rejected similar legislation. One that did not is Utah, where the University of Utah in Salt Lake City has had a concealed-weapon carry law for five years.
"I'd say the vast majority of our student body doesn't even know about that law, or if somebody does have a handgun in class, I bet you 95 percent of the people would never know about it," says Chase Jardine, president of the student body.
Asked what his own opinion is, he says he's indifferent: "It's just not a topic people talk about."