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Guns on campus? Expect tragedy

By Amitai Etzioni, Special to CNN
  • Amitai Etzioni: About a dozen states considering bills to let students carry guns on campus
  • But students themselves were responsible for the worst campus shootings, Etzioni says
  • People miss targets, die in gun accidents, shoot and kill without thinking, he writes
  • Make guns less accessible, he says; nobody can kill 16 people from a clock tower with a knife

Editor's note: Amitai Etzioni is a sociologist and professor of international relations at George Washington University and the author of several books, including "Security First" and "New Common Ground." He was a senior adviser to the Carter administration and has taught at Columbia and Harvard universities and the University of California, Berkeley.

(CNN) -- Gun-friendly Arizona and Texas are among about a dozen states considering versions of bills to allow university professors and students to bring loaded guns into their classrooms to defend themselves against "gunmen."

Jack Harper, an Arizona state representative who introduced such a bill, argues, "When law-abiding, responsible adults are able to defend themselves, crime is deterred."

"It's strictly a matter of self-defense," said Texas state Sen. Jeff Wentworth, who is also promoting a bill to allow guns on campus. "I don't ever want to see repeated on a Texas college campus what happened at Virginia Tech, where some deranged, suicidal madman goes into a building and is able to pick off totally defenseless kids like sitting ducks."

The drafters of these bills seem to have an image of peaceful students, bent over their books, suddenly attacked by gunslingers who materialize from nowhere. They ignore that students can and do shoot people on campus.

[Bill drafters] seem to have an image of peaceful students, bent over their books, suddenly attacked by gunslingers.
--Amitai Etzioni

It was a student at Virginia Tech in 2007 who shot and killed 32 people. In 2008, a former student killed five people and wounded 17 when he opened fire in a crowded lecture hall at Northern Illinois University. And a professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville is accused of killing three of her colleagues in 2010 after she was denied tenure.

This is hardly surprising. Students and professors are not much different from the rest of the population. Among every 1,000 adult Americans, 60 suffer from a serious mental illness. Some of them will seek appropriate treatment, some will commit suicide, some will resort to drugs -- and some will vent their anger by shooting people.

One might say, "But surely we will not give guns to these guys." A test that allows one to reliably determine who can be trusted with a gun and who cannot, however, does not exist. And if it were ever created, I expect the National Rifle Association and various state legislatures would strenuously oppose submitting millions of students and professors, or anyone else, to such a test before they could purchase a firearm.

Not that I want "stable" students to carry guns. I have used firearms in close-range combat, but only after extensive training. And I still saw quite a few of my fellow combatants miss their targets and wind up with their bullets flying all over the place. This also happened with more of mine than I care to admit. If students are going to fire at intruders in their classroom, I'll bet my last dollar that they will bring down more of their friends than they will gunslingers. As for the professors, I have spent a lifetime among them. Trust me: Most of them come from the gang that can't shoot straight.

Worse, long before anyone storms into a classroom, some students will use their guns -- when their anger boils over, when they have one drink too many or their girlfriend makes out with someone else -- to shoot someone. And then there are those who die from an accidental firing of a gun -- on average, more than 700 Americans died each year from gun accidents between 1999 and 2007.

What should be done? Make guns less accessible, not more.

A well-known slogan of those who favor guns is, "Guns don't kill people. People kill people." But those nations that exercise much more control over access to guns have much lower levels of killing than those countries in which guns are freely available.

One study examined violence in 23 high-income countries and found that the firearm homicide rate was nearly 20 times higher in the U.S. than in the other countries, all of which have stricter gun control laws than the U.S. America has more firearms per capita than the other countries, more handguns per capita, and has the most permissive gun control laws of all the nations. Among the 23 countries, 80% of all firearm deaths happened in the United States; 86% of women killed by firearms were U.S. women; and 87% of all children up to 14 years old who were killed by guns were U.S. children.

The friends of guns argue that even if you took away all guns, people would still kill each other with knives and wrenches. However, attackers armed in this fashion can be much more readily subdued than those with guns. And no one can go to the top of the University of Texas clock tower and kill 16 people with a knife or wrench. Nor could Seung-Hui Cho have killed 32 people and injured 18 others at Virginia Tech with a knife instead of two handguns.

I have a hard enough time with students who bring their cell phones to their classes. If they bring guns, they better check them at the door, or I may be forced to arm myself and try to outdraw them when I see one of them reaching for his holster.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Amitai Etzioni.