Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, has introduced Senate Bill 174 that could allow concealed weapons on all University of Alaska campuses. His motive, according to testimony described by Associated Press writer Rashah McChesney, is to counter the increase in national college and university shootings by allowing the student body and faculty to arm themselves. Moreover, Kelly feels that the University Board of Regents' prohibition of guns on campus is a violation of Second Amendment rights.
The issue, however, is not constitutional; the broader issue is the power of the gun versus alternatives to gun violence.
Kelly feels that "gun-free zones" such as universities (the Legislature would also be a gun-free zone) attract the mentally ill to carry out acts of violence because there is no deterrent. The implication is campus shooters are crazy and just looking for somewhere and someone to randomly shoot. Since campus shootings usually end in suicide, it is difficult to know if this is true. There is evidence that it's not so simple.
In 2010 sociologists Rachel Kalish and Michael Kimmel analyzed three school shootings, two at colleges, Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois, the same college shootings cited by Sen. Kelly in his testimony. They also looked at the Columbine High School shooting perpetrated by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Kalish and Kimmel found the shootings had consistent patterns.
Prior to 1999, school shootings were largely committed by younger minority males, did not involve a large number killed (because of the weaponry involved) and did not necessarily result in death by suicide of the shooter. An example in Alaska is the 1997 Bethel High School shooting in which the principal and another student were killed at close range with a shotgun by then-16-year-old Evan Ramsey. He is currently serving dual life sentences at Spring Creek Correctional Center.
The shootings Kalish and Kimmel analyzed indicate a different pattern. The shooters were college or high-school senior age, white middle-class males and involve what they call "suicide by mass murder." The older shooters lived in suburban or medium-sized towns not known for cultural diversity and were the subject of harassment, hazing and bullying for their taste in music, dress and other nonmainstream, but not illegal, behavior. They were frequently gay-baited although none were openly gay. They were teased and rejected by women. The shooters were quiet, introspective, studious and increasingly viewed themselves as outsiders scorned by the cool and seemingly perfect students.
At some point they snapped, brought assault weapons to campus, shot up classrooms and killed themselves.
What makes these campus shootings different from minority shootings, or terrorist attacks, Kalish and Kimmel argue, is a sense of cultural entitlement among American males. Women don't shoot up campuses, men do. Humiliation is emasculation, and an aggrieved man feels entitled to right the wrong by enacting the American heritage of violence. In Old West mythology the cowboy had a six-shooter on his hip and a carbine in a saddle holster. Injustice was dealt with by individuals acting alone. Unlike a six-shooter or a carbine, an assault rifle makes it possible to do a lot more damage in a short time. Campus shooters feel they have the right to kill and then to kill themselves.
An armed faculty and student body may make a temporary difference in campus suicide shootings. That assumes the faculty and students practice regularly (hours a week) and are police-trained (hundreds of hours) to make the virtually instantaneous decisions about whether or not to shoot. Most won't do this. If a campus is armed, my guess is suicide shooters will simply switch to suicide bombing to make their warped points.
What SB 174 will likely do is create a new kind of campus shooting — impulse shooting. Colleges are not idyllic ivory towers where students and faculty think high thoughts and then have tea. Colleges are tense places where sleep-deprived students often work a 40-hour week, take care of kids and go to school full-time. Substance abuse is common, anger is frequently just under the surface. Younger tenure-track faculty are under immense pressure to meet expectations or be fired. A loaded gun in a backpack will easily become the means for an exploding psyche to end it all.
We have created a false mythology that the gun is the answer. In the midst of an epidemic of intolerance, we will be better off trying to understand the causes and alternatives to violence rather than perpetuating the means to enact it.
Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College.
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