A few weeks ago, a Democratic Colorado state representative, Joe Salazar, worked his way into trouble during a debate over gun laws. The specific issue is one that has preoccupied Colorado for some time: Should people with permits to carry concealed firearms be allowed to bring guns into university buildings?
Arguing against those who think that women should be able to carry guns to protect themselves from rapists, Salazar said that campuses have call boxes and “safe zones,” and that women are free to carry rape whistles. What worried Salazar was that a woman who feared she was being followed by a rapist might overreact dangerously: “If you feel like you’re going to be raped, or if you feel like someone’s been following you around, or you feel like you’re in trouble when you may actually not be,” he said, a woman might “pop a round at somebody.”
Salazar’s record betrays no animus toward women. What he dislikes is the idea that concealed guns represent one possible answer to the problem of violent crime. And in his distaste for individual armed self-defense, he is completely within his party’s mainstream.
Several Republican state legislators challenged Salazar’s views. One, Lori Saine, said, “My daughter’s going to be going off to college in about 10 years. I can’t imagine her only option is going to be to outrun her attacker to a call box. I think she’s going to be responsible enough to handle a gun.”
Many liberals see Saine’s formula as madness. But there is no proof that allowing licensed gun owners to carry concealed weapons on campuses leads to trouble. At Colorado State University, in Fort Collins, the crime rate actually declined after concealed-carry permit holders were allowed to bring firearms onto campus. (Permit holders, who are typically granted their licenses after being screened by state or local law-enforcement agencies, by some estimates commit crimes at a lower rate than the general population.)
Many schools that don’t allow concealed weapons issue guidelines about how to confront “active shooters.” Some of them border on the comical: West Virginia University recommends that students should “act with physical aggression and throw items at the active shooter.” The university provides a list of “items” that includes shoes, belts, mobile phones and iPods. Wichita State University recommends that “if the person(s) is causing death or serious physical injury to others and you are unable to run or hide, you may choose to be compliant, play dead, or fight for your life.” In offering such guidelines, universities are admitting the obvious: They can’t guarantee the safety of their students and faculty. And yet most refuse to allow for the possibility that licensed and trained civilians can play a role in their own protection.
James Alderden, the former sheriff of Larimer County, which includes Fort Collins, told me recently that “No one could show me any study that concealed-carry leads to more crimes and more violence. My idea of self-defense is not those red rape phones on campus, where you get on the phone and tell someone you’re getting raped.” Alderden supported concealed-carry while he was sheriff because, he said, “I’m not going to violate a citizen’s right to self-defense because someone else has an emotional feeling about guns.”
Alderden touches on something important: The role of emotion in the debate over guns. Many conservatives and Second Amendment absolutists see licensing and background checks as stalking horses for a government-mandated gun seizure and the eventual imposition of tyranny. This kind of thinking is hysterical. But many liberals see advocates of individual self-defense as radical libertarians who care not at all for the greater good, and therefore seek the forcible disarmament of others, even those who use firearms responsibly. This represents a profound misreading, and mistrust, of the public.
One expert on the irrationality of the gun debate is Dan Baum. A self-described liberal, Baum is also a “gun guy” -- the name of his most recent book. In “Gun Guys,” Baum explains why so many Americans feel compelled to arm themselves. Like me, Baum is an advocate of universal background checks, and stringent training and licensing. But he is also a critic of his liberal friends who would deny others the right to self-defense, simply because they’re uncomfortable around firearms.
“People on the left get the heebie-jeebies at the thought of individuals being vigorous and empowered and capable enough to use a gun,” he told me. After the mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, last July, “There was this sneering on the left about the idea that things could have been better in the theater if someone had shot back at the killer. Why wouldn’t you want to have a gunfight in that theater? How could it have been worse? These mass shooters don’t want a fight, they want to kill. Someone firing back at him might have disrupted his rhythm, it might have caused him to run away.”
I happen to agree with Baum -- I’d rather be caught in a gunfight than in a massacre. This doesn’t mean I like the National Rifle Association. It simply means I think many civilians can defend themselves. Alderden put it best when he said: “Your position on concealed-carry permits has a lot to do with your position on the reliability and sanity of your fellow man.”
The recent debate in the U.S. over how to prevent mass killings has obscured three facts. One, our country is hopelessly saturated with guns. Two, new gun laws will only have a marginal effect on the ability of violent people to arm themselves. And three, most people who own guns are actually quite careful, and quite sane.
(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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