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[Kevin Whipple for The Trace]

Commentary

A Missouri Student Imagines Life on an Armed Campus

Mining the experiences of other states for an educated guess at what may lie ahead.

It’s 2020, and spring has arrived at MU.

The glow of a 70-degree day whisks flip-flop-strutting students out of their dorms and onto the quad. Future engineers, actors and HR-reps alike toss frisbees and lie on the lush grass, notebooks open but smartphone scrolling instead; better to absorb Vitamin D than knowledge today.

Missouri Under The Gun

A collaboration between The Trace and students of the Missouri School of Journalism

In a blissful stroll down the sidewalk, you fire off an artful Snapchat of the idyllic lawn and look up to see a man out of place. He’s tall, maybe 6-foot-2, wearing combat boots and a denim jean jacket; blue jeans round out the “Canadian tuxedo.” His outfit sticks out — most of your other male classmates wear pastel polos and boat shoes — but that’s not what grabs your attention: From about 30 yards away, you notice a shadowy bulge just above his right hip.

Mirrored aviator shades hide his eyes (and intentions, you think), and when you pass him on the pavement, the fiber-optic rear sights of a holstered Glock peak out from underneath his jacket.

The gun is legal. It’s been this way since you arrived on campus as a freshman in August 2019, when a law went into effect that allowed citizens with concealed-carry permits to bring their guns onto campus and into university buildings. At the time, you were still in high school in the Kansas City suburbs. You remember reading on social media that an MU law professor had sued the school for banning guns in campus buildings, helping to propel the change.1

You also remember awkwardly watching a ”Daily Show” segment with your parents about the University of Texas, where students brandished dildos to protest campus carry at their school.You weren’t supposed to be old enough to think that was funny, so you pretended not to get the activists’ humor.

Playing Call of Duty was the extent of your own experience with firearms. Now, as you give an awkward nod to this True Religion commando, you realize you’ve just profiled a fellow student to figure out whether he might shoot you.

The freshman class and their families knew what they were getting into — Governor Eric Greitens had signed campus carry into law for all four-year public universities in April 2018, setting the following summer as the effective date to allow schools like MU to plan.3

The policy was implemented on August 1, 2019. Three weeks later, 30,000 students and faculty entered the equation.

The first demonstration started outside the Student Center. At least 100 strong, the students held signs that read “MO’ guns, mo’ problems,” and “This isn’t what we meant by safe space.” Some strapped sex toys to their backpacks, a nod to UT Austin’s “Cocks Not Glocks” protest (and, as in Texas, a direct violation of university rules).The raucous crowd drowned out a table of khaki-clad student government representatives trying to give out Tiger Stripe ice cream as a welcome-back-to-school gift.

Professors joined the crowd — some told local media they were concerned about students being afraid to discuss topics like race, gender, and sexuality in their classrooms for fear of armed retribution.5

You navigated the scene and arrived back at your dorm room to call your parents. Word of the protests had reached your hometown, and they wanted to know that you’re okay — they remember the death threats made during race-relations protests in 2015 that forced the chancellor and UM system president to resign.6 Guns aren’t allowed in the dorms, you assure mom and dad; you remind them — with more confidence than you feel — that there has never been a mass shooting at a college that allows concealed carry.7

Parents of college students already worry about a host of other collegiate issues, including sexual assault and binge drinking. Parents also do their homework: They’ve heard about the Northern Arizona University student who retrieved a pistol from his truck and killed a fellow student during a drunken altercation.8 And even if the gun-toting student isn’t the aggressor, what happens when a drunken student loses his or her weapon?9

Meanwhile, a stalwart counterprotest arises, led by Missouri Students for Concealed Carry, a once-sleepy chapter of the nationwide advocacy group Students for Concealed Carry. The faction drew supporters from across the Midwest to back the new campus order. Their message: Criminals target gun-free zones, and armed citizens can stop mass shootings.10, 11 They’re outnumbered compared to the anti-campus-carry activists, and some might give in to social pressure to drop the argument. But the ones who remain outlast the once-vocal, gunless majority.12 By October, most of the campus-carry opposition is celebrating Homecoming, forgiving and forgetting the enemy it can’t see.

Concealed carry on campus did have some obvious aesthetic effects. Most visible were the additions of metal detectors and barricades to Memorial Stadium, which represented a compromise between the SEC and NCAA (which won’t tolerate guns at games) and the state (which required additional security for schools choosing not to allow stadiums full of frenzied college football fans).13

Another change comes in the form of signage: posters raising awareness of suicide abound. You’ve known people who waited months for understaffed mental health services, and you’ve heard of students who died by suicide.14 Most used firearms.

The campus may have grown accustomed to concealed carry, but some outsiders can’t accept it. The singer-songwriter Ray LaMontagne cancels an on-campus concert over the policy.15 The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that academics from other institutions are cutting their ties with MU. Administrators tell local media that they’re struggling to recruit new talent, and faculty members abscond to universities where nobody’s allowed to bring guns to school.16  Exchange programs suffer.17 Rumors circulate that a recovering enrollment rate is about to plummet again.

PFFT! An errant frisbee grazes your ear at the exact moment your gun-toting classmate passes in the opposite direction. The combination of your heightened nerves and the brief sensation of an airborne object hurtling towards you induces an embarrassing full-body flinch. You look up to see the guy in the jean jacket spin around to see what’s happened — and at full gait, his abrupt turn exposes the angular black gun to the world.

“You alright?” he asks.

“Uh, yeah. Thanks,” you say, with a sheepish guilt. He is not your menace, not this time.