Guest Essays, Letters to the Editor, Opinion

Guest essay: The right to bear arms on campus? Founding Fathers addressed it in 1824

by Barbara Evans Fleischauer

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

That is the text of the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment, proposed by our fourth president, James Madison, and adopted as part of the Bill of Rights in 1791. But what did our Founding Fathers mean by those words? When it comes to the issue of guns on campus, we don’t have to guess. They left us a written record.

In 1819, Thomas Jefferson, our second president, founded the University of Virginia. Like WVU, which was founded just 45 years later, UVA was a bold experiment — a public university designed to advance human knowledge, educate leaders and cultivate an informed citizenry.

On Oct. 4, 1824, UVA’s board of directors met. Jefferson, the university’s rector, signed the meeting’s minutes. Board member Madison was also present. Both former presidents voted in favor of the resolutions passed by the board.

One of those resolutions addressed the issue of weapons on campus. Pages 71-72 of the meeting minutes state: the board resolves  “No Student shall, within the precincts of the University, introduce, keep or use … weapons or arms of any kind …” Further, the board resolved  “fighting with weapons, which may inflict death … shall be punishable by instant expulsion from the University, not remissible by the Faculty.”

These minutes are the clearest possible indication campus weapons bans do not violate the “original intent” of the Second Amendment, since the person who wrote the Second Amendment voted in favor of a campus gun ban 33 years after the Second Amendment was adopted.

This year, the West Virginia Senate passed Senate Bill 10 (SB 10), which would eliminate the authority of state colleges and universities to restrict concealed weapons in most areas on campuses.

All three Senate Democrats voted no, and all Senate Republicans voted yes, except for Sen. Mike Maroney, the Health and Human Resources chair. Legislators supporting SB 10 argued campus gun bans violated the Second Amendment. Obviously not, given the evidence of the Second Amendment drafter’s intent   contained in the 1824 minutes.

When we allow our children to leave home and invest in their higher education, we trust and expect those institutions will make every effort   to keep them safe.

As we know from our own experiences, when young people enter college, they have to learn to balance greater freedoms with changes in hormonal levels, easier availability of alcohol and drugs and the post-puberty onset of several types of mental illnesses. Adding weapons to this mix magnifies the risk of injuries and deaths on our campuses.

A study cited in the July 15, 2019, edition of Campus Safety magazine found a 153% increase in shootings on campus between 2001 and 2016, with the most profound increase at colleges in states with increased access to guns. In 2020, the CDC reported gun violence is now the leading cause of death for our children.

In addition, passage of a 2016 concealed carry law made our state more dangerous. Before the law, 51% of murders in West Virginia were committed with guns; after the law, that number jumped to 64%, and homicides rose by 30%. Every news article about campus shootings, like the recent one at Michigan State, brings home the possibility it could happen here.

I support our federal Constitution, including the Second Amendment. But if the Second Amendment is not an issue, why would we want to make it easier for a campus shooting to happen in our state? Moreover, lifting campus gun bans would have the effect of reversing the relatively recent law giving state colleges and universities greater authority to manage their campuses.

Presumably when Jefferson and Madison passed a campus weapons ban in Virginia in 1824, they had the same safety concerns that West Virginia college administrators who oppose SB 10 do now. For all these reasons, the House should not pass SB 10, and the governor should not sign it.

Barbara Evans Fleischauer served in the West Virginia House of Delegates for 26 years and is a graduate of the WVU College of Law.