Over the past few weeks, both the Daily and the Michigan Student Assembly have come out in opposition to Michigan House Bill 5474, which would override a University ordinance that attempts to make the entire campus a firearm-free zone (Trigger happy, 10/26/2009). The bill seeks to clarify the position of institutions of higher education under state firearms laws, and make them equivalent to other local government units. Dorms, classrooms and other areas listed as “school property” under Michigan law would stay gun-free, but if the bill passes, concealed carry would be permitted on the rest of the campus in accordance with state and federal law.
Unfortunately, the Daily’s editorial is full of the reflexive anti-gun sentiments common among self-styled progressives. As a liberal, I can attest to the fact that opinions on gun rights and the Second Amendment are near the top of the list of issues about which left-leaning folks are content to unthinkingly follow. Otherwise sophisticated people frequently claim as self-evident the idea that guns are bad, more guns are worse, and that anybody who thinks otherwise is part of a moustache-twirling, shadowy cabal devoted to preserving individual freedoms at the expense of a peaceful society. At the risk of destroying your mahogany-scented fantasies about the evil gun lobby, I’m here to tell you that it’s not House Bill 5474 that’s “extreme and poorly thought out,” as the Daily would have you believe, but rather much of the opposition to the bill.
The Daily attacks a straw man when it claims that proponents of the bill argue that colleges should not be allowed to establish gun-free zones. It’s unclear whether this position is meant as a normative moral or legal claim, but both federal and state law — even after the passage of the bill — will respect the rights of universities to ban guns in certain places. In fact, as recently as the District of Columbia vs. Heller decision in 2008, the Supreme Court made it clear that nothing in the developing Second Amendment jurisprudence should be taken to constrain laws forbidding firearms on campus. The current debate is one about public policy, not constitutionality. The debate does not occur on the terms the Daily’s editorial asserts they do. Until the Second Amendment is repealed or the University moves into a secured complex that isn’t open to the public, the fantasyland gun-free school zone will never exist.
The editorial also uses the popular tactic of conjuring up doomsday scenarios and characterizing them as the inevitable result of allowing campus to carry guns. The only likely result from the passage of the bill, as the Daily asserts, “is that more danger will be created due to accidental shootings.” Once again, when we peel back the confident rhetoric we find a hollow core of false pronouncements grounded in a belief that more guns equals more violence.
In fact, more than a handful of states across the country already allow concealed campus carry by students and faculty — in Utah, this even includes dorm rooms. And yet, there is little evidence of illegal conduct by permit holders, let alone the trigger-happy Armageddon that some are predicting will come after the passage of Michigan’s comparatively more restrictive bill. As Second Amendment scholar Dave Kopel points out throughout his work on the subject, licensed gun owners are more law-abiding than the general population. This is not to say there can’t be a persuasive argument made for restrictions, but rather that the empirical data doesn’t support the scenario that the Daily outlines. In fact, there’s some evidence to suggest that violent criminals might even be deterred by the increased presence of armed citizens on campus.
The sooner we can have a debate about gun rights that isn’t pitched as a choice between fictional gun-free communities and noontime shootouts on the Diag, the sooner we’ll be able to talk honestly about the best ways to keep our community safe.
David Heal is a Law student.