Every morning as I head to my office at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, I have to drive past two armored military vehicles aimed in my direction: an M60 tank and an M42 Duster anti-aircraft gun. The vehicles are on display in front of the National Guard Armory, which happens to sit beside my academic building, and the campus and the armory share an access road. While the armored vehicles may be an appropriate symbol for the armory, they create an unfortunate and unwelcoming entrance to campus. Each day students, faculty, and staff are greeted with an image of violence and aggression that is unsuitable for an academic setting.
In the same regard, I worry about the presence of weapons on campus. Last year, out of concern for legal challenges, Kutztown University and four other universities in our state system relaxed their gun policies. Initial reports about the policy change stated that any person who wished to carry a gun on campus must first obtain permission from campus police, but those reports were incorrect. University Relations and local police have confirmed that, as a result of the new policy, any person with a gun permit can now legally carry a concealed weapon onto campus without permission, provided he or she does not bring the weapon inside an academic building or to a campus “event.” Under the same policy, anyone who has “compelling personal safety concerns” can request permission from campus police to bring a gun onto “university property,” but the term “university property” refers to buildings (the university campus is considered state property). Therefore, any person who has obtained permission can legally bring a gun into a building, even the classroom.
Like many people, I feel this is a dangerous change in policy. The average gun owner, no matter how responsible, is not trained in law enforcement or on how to handle life-threatening situations, so in most cases, if a threat occurs, increasing the number of guns only creates a more volatile and dangerous situation. But obvious safety concerns aside, what has not been discussed is how the presence of guns in an academic setting changes the campus environment and greatly affects education.
A university campus is designed to create an atmosphere that is conducive to learning, complete with libraries, computer labs, lecture halls, and a considerable amount of common space so students, faculty, and staff can interact. It is an environment that is meant to encourage conversation and the exchange of ideas, without censorship, oppression, or intimidation, and that is precisely why guns have no place here.
Consider the classroom. As a writing professor, part of my job is to teach students how to make an effective argument. In several of my courses, we read essays, editorials, and news articles that discuss important and contentious issues, and students are expected to develop their own ideas and defend them through argument and by citing evidence. Therefore, I often play devil’s advocate. When students put forth an idea (regardless of whether I agree with that idea or not), I present an opposing argument. My goal is to get them to see the issue from every perspective, to work through contradictions, to recognize inconsistencies and flimsy arguments based on nothing more than ideology or emotion.
But introduce guns to this environment and debate is compromised, because allowing guns onto a college campus, even with restrictions, can diminish people’s sense of safety. During classroom debate, I find that students over all are respectful of one another, but some become defensive and frustrated when their ideas are challenged. They have yet to learn that debate is not always about winning or losing the argument, that debate can help us better understand the issue, recognize points of view we hadn’t considered, and work towards solutions.
I do my best to maintain a comfortable classroom atmosphere so the conversation can continue, but if guns become commonplace in the campus environment people will always be conscious of the threat of violence. Some students (not to mention faculty members) could be reluctant to participate in debate altogether for fear of angering someone, which in itself would constitute a dangerous form of oppression in a country where freedom of speech is so revered.
Equally concerning is the presence of guns outside the classroom. The university campus is often a place where public discourse begins, thrusting important issues—civil and women’s rights, affirmative action, war and government policies—into the public consciousness. In fact, Kutztown has had many campus demonstrations over the years, organized by students as well as groups not associated with the university, and on several occasions tensions have run high.
In one instance, an activist group came to campus unannounced and shouted at passing students with bullhorns, accusing them of being sinners and “fornicators.” I watched as the activists angrily chastised students for practicing any religion other than Christianity. They railed against homosexuality, interracial relationships, abortion rights, and listening to hip-hop. Students were not prepared for the verbal assault. Most handled it well, but a few people were arrested because they could not control their emotions and began acting aggressively. I shudder to think what could have happened if people were carrying guns at the time.
And if a violent altercation involving guns did occur as a result of this policy, how might the university respond? Might campus demonstrations be banned in the name of student safety, or might people simply stop organizing and participating in nonviolent protest because the risk of a violent confrontation is too high?
Other colleges across the country are considering similar changes to their gun policies, and if the pro-gun movement continues inexorably toward this end education will suffer. Colleges and universities must recognize the inherent danger that comes with allowing guns in an academic setting, not only to students and faculty members but to education itself.
Jeffrey Voccola teaches creative and professional writing at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania and is director of the professional-writing program.