President Obama has made his emotional plea to the nation, asking Congress Monday night whether it cares more about "our children or an A grade from the gun lobby." Joe Biden and Eric Holder have plans to continue their push for "common-sense measures" at the White House Tuesday. The National Rifle Association has updated its faulty and expensive report on "school safety." And even Michael Bloomberg is going to start handing out grades for gun control. But as Washington runs to-and-fro, away from filibusters and toward a potential Senate vote on firearm legislation, student gun enthusiasts at actual schools from
university campuses across the country four colleges are taking matters into their own hands — or at least their empty holsters — by giving an A+ to more guns in the classroom.
Students for Concealed Carry's "Empty Holster Protest" is supposed to be a shocking — shocking! — week-long "movement," apparently "in support of decriminalizing self-defense on college campuses." After a recent court decision, it's now legal to carry a concealed weapon in every state in America, but not on college campuses in 22 states — including Florida, South Carolina, and Georgia, where tepid protests are being met with eye rolls and controversy this week. But some of the loudest voices among students who want to carry weapons on campus are in Pennsylvania, a state which leaves the decision to ban or allow concealed weapons on campus to its universities. At Penn State University, there is currently a ban in place. And that's where the student gun lobby wants to set an example, so they're carrying empty holsters into the classroom in revolt. "I've gotten some strange looks, but no one's asked me about it yet," Alex Dawes, a Penn State transfer student and leader of PSU's "Holster Up" efforts, told the campus news outlets Onward State. "Tuesday will be better," he said.
Launched after the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, Students for Concealed Carry (SSC) says it has grown into an organization of "43,000 college students, professors, college employees, parents of college students, and concerned citizens who believe that holders of state-issued concealed handgun licenses should be allowed the same measure of personal protection on college campuses." SSC's Facebook page has almost 30,000 fans.
But despite those numbers, the actual impact of the organization — and its holster campaign this week — doesn't reflect those numbers. Like Dawes's Penn State protest, students at Georgia Tech, the University of South Florida, and the University of South Carolina have begun their empty holster protests too. USC's Facebook page for the effort has 64 students pledged to participate in the event, while Florida's WTSP-TV described the USF protest as "quiet," adding that "if you look mighty hard" you could see it — and that most students on campus hadn't heard of the protest. The Empty Holster Project at Georgia Tech is more visible, with some local television coverage — but that's in part because Georgia's General Assembly recently denied a bill that would have allowed guns on campuses. (The 50 state laws allowing the concealed possession of weapons vary, but so do the 22 state bans on concealing them at colleges, both state-run and private.)
Carrying an empty gun holster on a college campus is no doubt shocking — maybe even poetic given the country's ongoing discussion on gun legislation. But the gun debate happening at schools themselves takes on a layer of immediacy. While quotes like this — from a student organizing the protest in Florida, where concealed carry is more prevalent than almost any state — might sound like it's from the NRA playbook, it's closer to the very real potential danger that even the NRA claims to be fighting against:
I know we got our blue lights and our police department there, but if a criminal comes on campus … they aren’t going to rob me or rape me next to a blue light .. I would like to have some measure of self-defense, and whether I chose to have a gun, or mace, or a crowbar in my purse, I should have that choice.
Perhaps Students for Concealed Carry, with its quiet protests and it lack of real attention, has got its messaging wrong — like the "nice gun guys" or the "increasingly potent" but still struggling NRA backup lobbyists at Gun Owners for America. Perhaps the debate about guns in schools — the debate happening at the schools — should be a real vocal debate, and not just more symbolism of the NRA scare-tactic variety. "In the recent aftermath of mass atrocities such as the shootings at Sandy Hook, Aurora and the suicide at UCF in which plans for mass killings were found, fear of gun violence is at its peak," writes the editorial board at USF's student newspaper, The Oracle, which wasn't afraid to give the student lobbyists at SSC pointers about its next protest: "Instead of using fear-mongering tactics, the group may have been better off in promoting its cause through use of other symbolic methods that do not pose a threat to public safety."