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More guns, less learning

Published January 22, 2011 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

If certain members of the Utah Legislature get their way, your children will have to spend more time worrying about their fellow students packing heat and less time worrying about the business of learning.

In fact, the only one standing up for your kids and higher education and learning is University of Utah President Michael Young.

Even in the wake of the Arizona slaughter, Rep. Carl Wimmer and others have sought to liberalize Utah's gun policy, all the while threatening to enact more legislation to stop Young's quest to protect higher learning.

The pro-gun argument espoused is not new. The logic sounds simple enough: The more concealed weapons around, the less likely it is that "deranged individuals" can wreak havoc.

But the argument is wrong. Dead wrong. No proof exists that concealed weapons deter crime in any setting. But in a university environment, the proliferation of weapons would risk facilitating crime, and would definitely have a chilling effect on academic freedom. And that means it would stifle the learning that takes place in the U's classrooms.

According to data from the University of Utah's own police department, the bulk of crimes at the U are property crimes or crimes related to alcohol. There are a few forcible sexual assaults, but it is unclear whether these are "date rapes," where a weapon would in fact not be used.

The rare instance of aggravated assault might be deterred by guns, or it could be exacerbated into murder or manslaughter. Regardless, more guns on campus would do little to reduce violent crime for a simple reason: These crimes are rare.

All college campuses involve some degree of excess — and it's not surprising that breaches of liquor and drug laws account for a hefty portion of campus crimes. In these contexts, it's easy to conclude that more guns would have a facilitating effect on crime.

But introducing guns into an arena where rabid students are debating the merits of various sports teams makes about as much sense as handing car keys to a drunk. Surveys of criminals indicate that roughly 40 percent of them committed their most recent offenses while intoxicated — sobering news to consider before changing public policy to allow more guns.

Apart from the safety risks, the most damaging effect is on academic freedom. These freedoms extend beyond students and their professor and literally embrace the future of our nation.

As the Supreme Court noted in 1967, this future "depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to that robust exchange of ideas which discovers truth 'out of a multitude of tongues [rather] than through any kind of authoritative selection."

In my grade book, revolvers and automatics on campus represent authoritative selection of the worst kind.

The Second Amendment doesn't exist in a vacuum. Provisions of the U.S. Constitution must be balanced and weighed. In this instance, the consideration of whether to allow guns on campus needs to be balanced with the needs of the university and its customers, the students.

Will Utah universities be able to recruit top talent when students (and the legislative keepers of the U's budget) are known more for guns than intellectual curiosity?

Will discourse in the classroom, the stuff of real learning, be as free flowing if students see that the person with whom they are disagreeing is packing heat?

Will professors be more inclined to wrongly change a grade because the student has his hand rested on his weapon?

Will calmer heads prevail in a contentious campus parking dispute if students are armed?

The answers to these questions aren't clear, and education is too valuable a commodity for Utah to make the U. a Wild West theme park.

Weigh that against the benefits of packing firearms on a college campus. While most of the people with concealed-weapons permits are law abiding and peaceful, the reality is that Utah has fairly lax concealed weapons laws (potentially made even more lax by the bills introduced this legislative session) that do not provide much in the way of the serious training necessary to end heated disputes, training that law enforcement officials possess.

Michael Young is right: Placing guns on college campuses, particularly out in the open, runs the risk of eroding the benefits of academic freedom for no reason apart from the romantic notion that a relatively inexperienced and untrained holder of a concealed weapon would be able to play hero and save lives.

But instead of Shane or Gary Cooper, we're more likely to witness the heated use of handguns in a drunken brawl, a parking dispute, or a grade challenge. In those instances, it is our children and their education that suffer.

Darren Bush is an associate professor of law at the University of Houston and a former Justice Department trial attorney. He received his doctorate in economics and law degree from the University of Utah. He can be reached at dbush@central.uh.edu.