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Guns on Campus: Keeping College Students Safe from Gun Violence

The research is clear—allowing guns on campus increases suicides and homicides while exacerbating sexual assault.

As the summer comes to a close, students across the country are moving into colleges and universities, with many stepping foot on campus for the first time since the onset of the pandemic.

While colleges are navigating mask and vaccine mandates, the beginning of the academic year brings another public health and safety issue to the forefront: firearms on campus.

The fatal shooting at Virginia Tech sparked action on both sides 

School shootings on the rise across America

School shootings have become an all-too-common facet of growing up in America. In 2018, a student’s risk of dying in a school shooting reached its highest level in at least 25 years.


Kristin M. Holland, et al., “Characteristics of School-Associated Youth Homicides — United States, 1994–2018,” CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 68, no. 3 (2019): 53–60.

On April 16, 2007, a student at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University killed 32 people, most of whom were other students. At the time, it was the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history.

Following the shooting, observers asked: how did this happen? Reports pointed to several factors, not the least of which was that the shooter was still able to purchase guns even with a mental health record that should have prohibited him from purchasing or possessing firearms. 

In response, Congress passed legislation to improve reporting to the background check system. At the same time, the increasingly extremist NRA leadership called for arming students and teachers. and a new group called Students for Concealed Carry on Campus was formed. In the 14 years since the Virginia Tech shooting, the gun lobby has continued to advocate for arming students, despite the known risks. 

Inconsistent laws and policies protect some students while leaving others vulnerable

No federal law restricts guns on college or university campuses. However, thanks to laws in some states that require a person to be 21 to carry a gun in public, it is illegal for many college students to possess guns on campus. Several states have laws in place that restrict gun possession on public campuses, and some private universities and colleges have enacted firearm bans. These state laws and institutional policies work to ensure that campus life is a safe haven from gun violence.

Unfortunately, many students do not benefit from these safety policies. Currently, 10 states have campus carry policies mandating that concealed firearms be allowed on campus. These laws target public colleges and universities, putting students seeking a more affordable higher education at greater risk of experiencing gun violence.

To gain more insight into this issue, we spoke with Andy Pelosi, executive director and co-founder of the Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus. Since 2008, the campaign has worked to oppose campus carry legislation at the state and local levels. For Pelosi, the issue comes down to this: “If you’re a parent, grandparent, student, or faculty member, do you really want people carrying loaded, concealed weapons on campus?” 

College CAMPUSES and guns are a deadly combination

Research on the impact of  guns in schools makes it clear—guns do not belong on campus. Allowing guns on campus likely increases rates of both suicide and homicide. 

Young adults experience the highest rates of mental illness of any age. In 2019, between 9% and 11% of college students seriously considered suicide, and, tragically, each year about 1,100 college students die by suicide. Allowing guns in an environment with such high rates of mental illness is especially dangerous given that 85% of suicide attempts with a gun are fatal.

Guns on campus can also lead to increased rates of crime and homicide. Research has consistently shown that parts of the human brain responsible for impulse control continue to develop until age 26. As a result, young adults are more likely to engage in risky behavior: although 18 to 20-year-olds comprise just 4% of the US population, they account for 17% of known homicide offenders. 

Guns on campus exacerbate issues of sexual assault

According to RAINN, 26% of undergraduate females, 23% of transgender or genderqueer undergraduates, and 7% of undergraduate males experience rape or sexual assault. Groups like Students for Concealed Carry argue students who are vulnerable to sexual assault are safer with a gun, but the data proves otherwise—after campus carry policies were implemented in Utah and Colorado, cases of rape on or near college campuses in those states increased, even as national rates of sexual assaults decreased.

Survivors of sexual assault and groups like National Coalition Against Domestic Violence assert that allowing guns on campus won’t make students safer. Rather, armed perpetrators make victims of sexual violence much more vulnerable to attack and abuse.

This alarming data on how guns interact with high rates of mental illness, risky behavior, and sexual assault among students both affirms the need for strong laws that prevent the purchase of firearms by individuals under 21 and underscores the need to  fight campus carry bills at the state level.

What Can We Do?

Emerging debates within institutions of higher education about campus carry and proposed legislation in state legislatures may seem like isolated incidents. But as Pelosi explains, there is a bigger campaign in the works: “For many years the gun lobby would disavow that they had anything to do with the proliferation of campus carry legislation. But make no mistake, the gun lobby was very much behind this effort.” 


The Gun Lobby

The gun lobby’s campaign of fear and division puts gun manufacturer profits over public safety. We have them on the defensive—and we’re not letting up.

Campus carry legislation is part of the gun lobby’s broader mission to increase gun ownership everywhere at all costs, including college campuses, despite the known risks. This means that keeping guns off campus requires a multi-faceted approach.

By working with groups like the Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus, we can block campus carry legislation. This past year, Giffords was part of a coalition that successfully stopped a campus carry bill from passing in New Hampshire, but as Pelosi warns about such legislation, “It will be back.”  

In addition to fighting campus carry legislation, we can continue to advocate for laws that raise the minimum age to purchase guns. And this year, Pelosi says that the Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus will go on the offensive. Rather than primarily focusing on opposing gun lobby legislation, the group will be prioritizing efforts to push states to pass laws prohibiting the possession of firearms in all colleges and universities.

When parents drop their students off at school, they entrust their child’s safety and well-being in the hands of the institution. Schools have a moral obligation to those parents and students to keep them safe—and that means keeping guns off campus. 


The gun safety movement is on the march: Americans from different background are united in standing up for safer schools and communities. Join us to make your voice heard and power our next wave of victories.