Most research on campus carry uses a quantitative approach to measure attitudes towards campus carry policies, existing or pending. Using focus group data, this paper examines self-reported impacts on behavior and emotional responses to a three-year-old campus carry law at one university in the rural west. We explore whether guns on campus impacted student-reported behavior in the classroom or on campus. Student responses were entered into qualitative analysis software, where data was categorized according to themes. The two most prominent themes were that students reported no impact on their behavior on campus while also expressing anxiety over the lack of training for concealed carry users, mental health issues among members of the campus community, and accidental shootings. The student’s responses reveal contradictions and nuances to their reported lack of behavioral change regarding latent anxieties while on campus. This research builds upon existing research on the impact of campus carry laws by going beyond quantification and adding a more in-depth look into the lived experiences of students on campuses that allow concealed firearms.
Keywords: Guns on campus, campus carry, concealed carry, firearms, college campuses, state gun policy
Recently, many states have made it legal for students and other campus stakeholders to carry a concealed firearm on their college campus in some capacity. Students, staff, and faculty have been affected as a result; these decisions are criticized by some and strongly encouraged by others. In 2004, Utah became the first state to lift concealed carry restrictions on college campuses. Since then, campus carry policies have emerged in many states. Currently, 13 states require states to allow some form of concealed carry on the campuses of public colleges and universities. Another 21 allow colleges and universities to establish campus-specific rules about campus carry (McMahon-Howard et al., 2022). Two landmark Supreme Court cases paved the way for the proliferation of campus carry policies across the United States. In 2008, the Supreme Court’s decision in Heller v. District of Columbia expanded the right to bear arms beyond the home, except for sensitive places like schools. This decision was soon followed by McDonald v. the City of Chicago (2010), in which the Supreme Court determined that under the Fourteenth Amendment, the Second Amendment was also applicable to the states, leaving state and local governments in control of making their firearm regulation. The result of these decisions is that states now have the unequivocal right to decide whether or not to allow concealed firearms on state-run college and university campuses.
The focus of this study is on campus carry policy as it has played out at one university in the rural West. In March 2014, the state legislature passed a law allowing college students, faculty, and staff to carry concealed weapons on their campuses as long as they were over 21 years of age and had an enhanced concealed carry permit (S.B. 1254, 2014). Included in the new law were a handful of restrictions campuses could implement, such as which buildings could be declared gun-free based on occupancy limits (for more specific restrictions by state, see McMahon et al., 2022). Faculty and staff were also restricted by campus administration from asking students and other community stakeholders if they were carrying, and faculty could not declare their classrooms gun-free. While more scholarly attention has been paid in recent years to the effects this type of legislation has on the campus community, few studies examine the impact of the law years after its passage.
In this study, data is drawn from five student focus groups collected three years after the law's implementation to understand the student response to this policy change more fully. This university-based qualitative research seeks to answer two questions: What impact does campus carry have on student behavior, and what are students' concerns about concealed firearms on campus? Student focus group discussions of these topics suggest that while most students reported no impact on their behavior as a result of the campus carry policy, students had several pressing concerns when it came to concealed carry on campus. These findings indicate that the response from students to campus carry is quite nuanced and sometimes contradictory.
The question of concealed carry on college campuses has long been framed as all or nothing, with advocates arguing that the Second Amendment should be extended to campus stakeholders. Meanwhile, the fundamental concern of opponents is the preservation of a safe learning environment. In this controversy, the concepts of exercising personal liberty and academic freedom have been pitted against one another. The media's coverage of mass shootings also contributes to a sense of moral panic, further polarizing the debate. One of the most compelling arguments for allowing guns on college campuses is the prevention of campus shootings. The argument against more firearms on campus is that it will result in more shootings, suicides, and violent crimes. Unfortunately, little research has been done to support either side of this debate. What we do know more about is which campus stakeholders are more likely to support or oppose campus carry laws, existing or pending.
Whereas little research has been done on how existing campus carry laws impact stakeholder experiences at an emotional and behavioral level, considerable attention has been paid to predicting support or opposition to these policies. Much of this research has indicated that, more often than not, students, faculty, and staff tend to oppose campus carry (Arrigo & Acheson, 2016; Eaves, Shoemaker, & Giblin, 2016; Hassett, Kim, & Seo, 2020; Hassett & Kim, 2021; Kyle et al., 2017; McMahon-Howard, Scherer, & McCafferty, 2020; McMahon-Howard, Scherer, & McCafferty, 2021; Price & Khubchandani, 2022; Nodeland & Saber, 2019; Patten, Thomas, & Wada, 2013; Price et al., 2014; Schafer et al., 2018; Shepperd et al., 2018; Thompson et al., 2013a; Thompson et al., 2013b; Verrecchia, & Hendrix, 2017; Watson, Guzman, & Scheel, 2018). However, while a majority of the research shows low support for campus carry across all campus stakeholder groups, students seem to support campus carry at higher levels than university employees, especially if they are gun owners themselves (Bouffard et al., 2012a; Hassett, Kim, & Seo, 2020; Jang, Dierenfeldt, & Lee, 2014; Kruis et al., 2022; McMahon-Howard, Scherer & McCafferty, 2020; Nodeland & Saber, 2019; Schildkraut, Carr, & Terranova 2018a; Schildkraut, Jennings, Carr, & Terranova, 2018b; Thompson et al. 2013a; Verrechia & Hendrix, 2018). Among campus stakeholders, faculty consistently report the strongest opposition to campus carry policies (see Price & Khubchandani, 2022; Drew, 2017; Somers, Fry, Jones, & Newton, 2020; Somers, Gao, & Taylor, 2021; Bennett, Kraft & Grubb, 2012; Thompson et al., 2013b).
There are several variables that are consistently predictive of support for campus carry: conservative political ideology (Bouffard et al., 2012a; DeAngelis, Benz, & Gilham, 2017; Hassett & Kim, 2020; Hayes, Powers, & O'Neal, 2020; Jang et al., 2014; Kruis et al., 2020; Nodeland & Saber, 2019; Price & Khubchandani, 2022; Schildkraut et al., 2018a; Schildkraut et al., 2018b; Thompson et al. 2013a; Verrecchia & Hendrix, 2018), personal experience with firearms, especially gun ownership (Bouffard et al., 2012a; Hassett, Kim, & Seo, 2020; Jang, Dierenfeldt, & Lee, 2014;McMahon-Howard, Scherer & McCafferty, 2020; Nodeland & Saber, 2019; Price & Khubchandani, 2022; Schildkraut, Carr, & Terranova 2018a; Schildkraut, Jennings, Carr, & Terranova, 2018b; Thompson et al. 2013a; Verrechia & Hendrix, 2018 ) and gender, with male students expressing higher levels of support for campus carry than their female counterparts (Hassett & Kim, 2020; Hayes, Powers, & O’Neal, 2020; Jang et al., 2014; Price & Khubchandani, 2022; Schildkraut et al., 2018a; Thompson et al., 2013a; Verrecchia & Hendrix, 2018). So, while the literature provides rich insight into support and opposition to campus carry, less is known about the concrete changes that may be caused by campus carry laws.
In attempting to measure the impact campus carry has on a campus community, the literature can be divided into studies looking at perceived impacts and studies measuring changes years after the enactment of a campus carry policy. Most studies that measure the perceived impact of campus carry laws on campus communities use survey data to quantify the results. While these findings are useful, they are not able to explore the nuances of the experience of going to school with guns (see Dahl, Bonham, & Reddington, 2016; Noga-Styron & Britto, 2022a&b; Patten, Thomas, & Wada, 2013; Price et al., 2014; Shepperd et al., 2018; Verrecchia & Hendrix, 2017). Even so, the existing research on campus carry does suggest that the implementation of campus carry can harm stakeholder attitudes. In a recent systematic review of the campus carry literature, Price and Khubchandani (2022) found that the existing research consistently shows that creating a policy that allows for concealed carry “…create(s) a negative perception among college populations regarding campus safety, academic freedom, and potential for crime” (p. 69). For example, Noga-Styron and Britto (2022) surveyed faculty, students, staff, and administrators at two universities in the Pacific Northwest, measuring the perceived impact of a campus carry policy. They found both students and faculty believed that implementing such a policy would be detrimental to campus life and that faculty would change how they interacted with students. In another study, Schildkraut et al. (2018) found that nearly a quarter of students surveyed would consider changing schools if campus carry legislation was implemented. While these studies provide some insight, they are limited in measuring perceived impacts rather than lived experience.
The research on the actual impacts of campus carry is growing but still very limited. After systematically reviewing the literature on campus carry, Price and Khubchandani (2022) argue that there is still no definitive evidence that demonstrates whether campus carry has either a positive or negative impact on rates of actual campus crime or victimization (p. 69). Some studies have found that campus carry can impact perceptions but not actual experiences with crime or victimization. For example, a study by McMahon-Howard, Scherer & McCafferty (2021) looked at the impact of a campus carry law in Georgia on perceptions of safety before and after the law was passed. Using longitudinal data, they found that campus stakeholders reported measurable increases in perceptions of campus as unsafe and fear of crime after campus carry was legalized. However, they also reported no significant increase in reported violent victimizations. Other studies have suggested that there might be actual negative impacts accompanying campus carry, particularly concerning academic and campus life. For example, Scherer, Mahon-Howard, and McCafferty (2022) examined, using survey data, the negative impacts of campus carry a year after its passage. They found that 49% of faculty reported one or more negative impacts from the policy, such as avoiding controversial class material, night classes, or one-on-one meetings. Similarly, 35% of students indicated that they experienced at least one negative impact after the campus carry law was passed, including avoiding classes at night, social events on campus, and/or expressing their views during class (p. 140).
While the quantitative data on the actual impacts of campus carry is still limited, interesting and perhaps more revealing work on the subject has been done using qualitative approaches. In a study by Jones and Horan (2019), the researchers examined the impact of a nearly 3-year-old campus carry law in Texas. The authors interviewed faculty to understand how and if the law changed their relationships with students. Participants reported having to “reframe, refocus, or resign with their communication” (p. 424). Unfortunately, these shifts in communication were found to result in some faculty becoming more lenient with grading, restricting out-of-office interactions with students, or altering the ways faculty communicated generally with their students. In another study, also in Texas, the researchers using qualitative interviews with faculty members, found that faculty changed their behavior in response to the law, such as holding office hours in public spaces rather than their private offices (Somers et al., 2017; Somers and Phelps, 2018). Some faculty reported attempts to move more of their courses online to increase safety, and faculty who are sexual minorities reported feeling considerably less safe (Somers et al., 2017). Somers, Gao, and Taylor (2023) combined survey and qualitative interview data of 226 faculty and staff members at a university in Texas to explore attitudes toward an existing campus carry policy. They found strong gender differences regarding faculty feelings of safety and position on the policy, with women faculty feeling less safe and more marginalized on campus.
While research on the actual impacts of campus carry is still developing, little attention has been given to students. An exception to this is a unique study by Lehtonen and Seppala (2021), who use student art and creative writing to explore the impact of a two-and-a-half-year-old campus carry law in Texas. They found that students held contradictory and even ambivalent attitudes toward the policy. Students reported that dealing with the policy resulted in a complex negotiation of risks and benefits that one described as a “double-edged sword.”
Given the limited research on the perceived and actual impacts of concealed carry, we seek to move beyond the issue of whether students either support or oppose concealed carry. Instead, we use qualitative data to develop a more nuanced understanding of how the implementation of a campus carry policy impacts the lives of students. More specifically, this research explores two key research questions. First, how have students' lives and behavior been impacted by a campus carry policy? Second, what are students’ concerns about concealed firearms on campus?
The data used in this study comes from five focus groups consisting of 2-5 students each. In total, nineteen students participated, with ten being female presenting and nine being male presenting. They ranged from freshmen-level to Ph.D. students and came from various disciplines, with only one being a criminology major. Participants had attended the university anywhere between one semester and five years, with a majority reporting attending the university for two or more years. All focus groups were held in a conference room on campus. Participation was voluntary. The solicitation to participate was included at the end of a larger campus-wide survey examining the impacts of campus carry from a quantitative perspective. So, while the initial invitation was sent to a random sample, participants had to opt into the focus group pool. Those who opted in were then emailed to see if they were still interested and to indicate availability. We sorted participants into focus groups based on availability with an eye on keeping the male-to-female ratio as balanced as possible. To encourage participation, an incentive of a gift card was provided. Of the 25 students selected to attend, 19 showed up. Consent forms were distributed and needed to be signed for them to participate. Each session lasted about an hour and was audio-recorded. Names and other identifying information were removed from the data during transcription to ensure confidentiality.
Our goal was to generate discussion among the participants to understand better the nuances of their experience of attending a concealed carry campus, and focus groups were deemed the best way to facilitate this type of discussion. The faculty moderator opened with introductions, followed by guided questions, allowing the students to answer. An additional faculty member from the research team sat in on each session and served the role of note-taker. The progression of questions moved from a general question asking participants to tell the moderator about a time they thought about guns on campus to more specific questions about how and if the law had impacted their behavior or the relationships they make or have on campus (see Appendix A), such as “please tell us about how and if your willingness to express your viewpoint in class or on campus has changed knowing that there may be guns in the classroom?” We then asked about feelings of safety, such as “Do you feel more or less safe when you are in a gun-free zone on campus?” The moderator allowed the focus group discussion to guide the questioning as well. The participants had the opportunity to have conversations with other members of the group respectfully. Being a qualitative study, it focused on students’ reported behavior, thoughts, and feelings about the allowance of concealed firearms on campus.
The data collected was put into the qualitative data analysis software Dedoose, which allowed the data to be coded according to key concepts identified by the existing literature (Gibbs, 2017). The primary researcher created the initial codebook. Two undergraduate students were hired as research assistants and trained in coding. Interrater reliability was checked twice during the coding process by having the two research assistants code the same data sections and comparing the results. These checks were done during the initial training and once during the coding process. After completing the first round of coding, a second round of coding was done using emergent themes generated by the data. These emergent themes are identified here as subthemes. The research project was reviewed and approved by the university's Institutional Review Board.
The most prominent themes regarding student attitudes were identified and then broken down into subthemes generated by the student responses. One of the key themes was related to student behavior. The outcomes of this study demonstrate that most students did not report acting differently due to the concealed carry policy on their campus. Gun violence was seen as a rare occurrence among students, although most remained aware of their surroundings. The second major theme was student concerns. Most student concerns revolved around lack of training among concealed carriers, mental health issues, and shooting accidents.
Table 1: Dominant Themes
Impact on student behavior
No impact on behavior
Campus gun violence as a rare occurrence
Awareness of surroundings
Lack of training
During the focus groups, all participants were asked whether or not having guns on campus impacted their lives as students, both on and off campus. Interviewers were interested in finding out if there were any differences in how students interacted with each other, staff, and faculty due to the campus carry policy. Additionally, interviewers wanted to determine if there was any impact on students’ day-to-day activities. Some of the students interviewed were working on campus, living on campus, and/or participating in school clubs and attending classes. Interestingly, most students reported no impact on their lives due to the presence of guns on campus: “It hasn't changed a thing, not the way I do things,” said student 1 from focus group 5. Similarly, several students from focus group 2 unanimously answered, “it hasn’t affected me in any way,” when asked this question.
Further, participants also stated that the policy did not stop them from having difficult conversations with their peers or interrupting their everyday activities. Student 1 from focus group 1 explained it this way:
I am semi involved with a bunch of the clubs around campus. I'm personally not religious, but I visit religious clubs on a rather frequent basis. Being an agnostic, atheist, whatever, in those groups and trying to have a normal conversation with them and questioning—having them question and me questioning their beliefs is a very delicate situation. Knowing that someone in that group could potentially be carrying, I'm aware of that, but I wouldn't say that it particularly affects the way that I talk because they have a gun. I have one too.
This student showed a great amount of confidence in expressing conflicting viewpoints while also making it clear to the other participants that he regularly carried a concealed firearm. It is important to note that while the change in carrying behavior among students would have been an interesting line of inquiry, the research team was not allowed to ask about carrying behavior during the focus groups. Students could voluntarily disclose as students 1 and 4 from focus group 1 did, but the university specifically restricted the researchers from pursuing this line of inquiry.
Student 5, focus group 1, expressed similar thoughts; even if there were vocalized political differences between people they interacted with, the student did not think that there would be an emotional reaction that would lead to a shooting, “It's pretty extreme. You have to be dealing with a very mentally ill person in order for that to happen, so I don't really think that's a big deal.” Student 2 in group 1 supported this, saying, “They're not gonna go randomly pull a gun and shoot you just for saying something that offends them. I think they should have been grown up more than that by now.” The students viewed instances of someone pulling a gun in a disagreement as rare, so they did not have a particular fear of escalation. A few participants noted that in their experiences, the conversation about guns did not come up. In most cases, it was not a topic that they discussed with other people. Students did report being aware of the university’s policy and that people around them may be carrying concealed firearms. Still, they reported that it was not the focal point of their campus life.
Although most students noted no impact on their activities and interactions, that did not mean there were no individual concerns. For example, student 3 of focus group 1 explained that she was a lesbian, and although the allowance of guns on campus did not change the way she voiced her opinions, she felt less safe on campus and that she could be threatened.
I know that in a red state in a place that has a large rural community, that for me is always a safety issue. Knowing that people have guns even though I'm not necessarily worried they're gonna shoot me, but knowing that I could be a victim of a hate crime because some of the largest shootings have been hate crimes. That doesn't make me feel reassured.
So, while this student reported that the policy had not impacted her behavior, it had left her feeling more vulnerable. While this fear of becoming a victim of a hate crime was the only such response in the study, this was likely due to a sampling bias rather than being anomalous. This particular student’s fears seemed to be tied to location and political agenda. Rural areas tend to lean conservative politically, which means people in those areas are more likely to own guns. Conservatives are also more likely to believe in more traditional marriage, which isolates the LGBTQ+ community, leading some members to believe they are unwelcome in those areas and could become targeted. The university in this study is located in a rural community, which explains this student’s concern. The student recognized that just because someone had a gun did not mean she would be shot, but attending a school where she did, with a concealed carry policy, made her think about possibly becoming a victim of a hate crime.
However, this perspective on location varied between participants. Student 5 from focus group 1, explained that because the rural area where the university was located was less heavily populated than other areas, such as Los Angeles, it was "a lot less of a target." So, while students claimed that their lives had not changed due to their campus's concealed carry policy, they had opposing views on whether the rural west was a safe or dangerous location for them. Acknowledging that campus carry had no impact on their day-to-day life as a student did not mean they were not concerned or aware of concealed firearms on campus. In other words, expressing no impact on their lives did not equate to feeling more or less safe on campus.
In general, students in our study seemed to understand that campus gun violence was a relatively rare occurrence, which could help explain why most students reported no impact on their behavior. Students also indicated their confidence in the notion that, because the campus is located in a conservative state, many individuals are familiar with firearms. Student 3 focus group 2 stated they don’t think about guns on campus due to the university's location, “Being [in]a conservative state, a lot of the people who come here are familiar with firearms.” In addition, several students stated that they grew up with guns because their fathers were hunters or that they had previous experience shooting guns. Student 1 from focus group 4 stated, “I go shooting with my dad and things like that,” and emphasized that his father taught him gun safety from a young age. Student 4 from focus group 3 said, “My dad and myself and my grandpa have hunted our whole lives.” These students were familiar with firearms from growing up around them. These students associated guns with positive interactions, not as a threat. Students saw the university's location as indicative that everyday citizens were more likely to carry guns, which gives credence to the existing literature that shows location can significantly impact expressed support for campus carry policies.
Although most participants were not uncomfortable with the university’s campus carry policy, some of them also indicated that they were always aware of their surroundings. Proponents of the concealed carry policy on campus were not unaware of the fact that there could be possible instances of gun violence. Student 2 from focus group 1, who reported having been military police before becoming a student, said, “I think about active shooter scenarios and those type of things quite often 'cause that used to be my job, so it's something I go around, and I'm trying to always be aware.” Student 1 from student group 1, who reported carrying a concealed firearm regularly, mentioned constantly planning potential escape routes wherever they are. “I'm a bit hyper-aware of these things… It's something that's always in the back of my mind… I try to be aware of as many people as possible that are carrying around me... if we're in a situation together, I know that somebody else has got my back.” Such statements are in line with pro-gun safety rhetoric, which emphasizes that people develop “situational awareness” to protect them from potential violence. These two students are reiterating this pro-gun rhetoric in these statements. Students familiar with guns and a pro-gun narrative express this situational awareness as a mindfulness of their surroundings and those around them.
Although the majority of students did not report an impact on their behavior as a result of the campus carry policy, they still had certain concerns. The three most common concerns expressed by participants across the five focus groups were a lack of training for people who carry, mental health issues, and shooting accidents. Competency is one of the obvious discussion points regarding concealed carry policies. Under the policy at this university, those who are allowed to carry on campus have to be 21 years of age or older and have an enhanced concealed carry permit. The enhanced permit requires 8 hours of in-class training and the firing of 98 rounds at the range. Being able to shoot accurately is not a requirement of the training. A mental health assessment is not a requirement of the permit either. As a result, the training aspect concerned many of the student participants. Student 3 of focus group 1 stated:
Someone who, although they might be trained in how to properly shoot a gun, et cetera, it's really hard to train for situations of high panic and adrenaline. If you're not used to that, I wouldn't feel comfortable having someone new to that sort of situation trying to de-escalate when they could potentially hurt other people around them.
This student explained that there was a distinction between being trained to shoot and being trained to shoot in an emergency. Student 4, group 3 stated they would prefer for there to be an annual training requirement “just so that you’re practicing using your weapon in a stressful environment.” This student explained seeing videos where a person with a concealed carry license tries to stop an active shooter, but their adrenaline causes them to misuse their firearm. In case of an emergency, students expressed the desire to be able to rely on someone with experience who was trained to eliminate the threat safely. While some of these students were concerned about people being unable to handle their firearms in tense situations properly, others were concerned about a lack of training in general. Student 1 from focus group 5 explained that they would not feel safe in the presence of someone carrying a firearm without the proper training, “just because of the level of maturity and the amount of training that I believe they don't have with weapons.” A few students recognized that carrying a firearm carries significant responsibility and that persons who conceal carry on campus must have the necessary experience. “I feel like it’s bold for anyone to assume that just because you own a gun, you know how to use it,” student 2 from focus group 2 remarked. This comment emphasized the significance of training to carry a firearm on campus. Through these reflections, students expressed their concerns about the lack of training that people who carry on campus may have and that there may be consequences.
Mental health was another concern that students had about those who conceal carry on campus. Students were concerned that individuals who have easy access to their weapons might not only harm themselves but also harm those around them. Student 4 of focus group 1, stated, “I'm not worried about most concealed carry who should have it who are of sound mind, but I'm more worried about the two percent or whatever who have a bad day or are unsafe.” Student 4 of focus group 2 stated they had a talk in one of their classes concerning owning a firearm and having a mental illness. One of the student’s classmates admitted to carrying a firearm in their backpack on occasion. The respondent expressed their concern about the student's mental health because they were a veteran, “He's ex-military, and he's got PTSD, and I know that he definitely has a lot more training than most people, but also what if he gets an episode of PTSD at some point and thinks that something's happening when it's not?” Student 1 from focus group 1 also noted they were close friends and classmates with a veteran with mental health issues and that individual no longer had access to their firearms, deeming it to be “very irresponsible for him” to continue to do so. In circumstances like their friend’s, who, according to the student was likely suffering from schizophrenia or PTSD, they thought it would be “very irresponsible” to provide them with access to firearms. Student 2 from focus group 5 expressed concern about mental health on a concealed carry campus and suggested that theft of firearms by mentally ill individuals from law-abiding students on campus could pose a threat and that requiring a psychological screening for those who choose to conceal carry a weapon on campus would be beneficial in creating a safe environment. This student also stated:
Yeah. It [campus carry] probably hasn't changed my day-to-day activities very much. It's made me consider how I interact with other students a bit. One example, I had a student in the lab that I work in tell me that they were having thoughts of harming themselves and others. Knowing that this student has an enhanced concealed carry permit made me think about it a little differently.
In this somewhat contradictory response, the student stated that the policy did not impact her campus life but then admitted it changed how she interacted with her peers. Student 2 from focus group 2, opened up about their struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts, admitting that if they had owned a gun, it would have been easier for them to commit suicide. In all these responses, the students are expressing significant concerns and anxieties that do impact their daily lives despite statements to the contrary.
Students also mentioned shooting accidents as a concern. When the interviewer asked focus group 5 whether knowing how much training the enhanced permit entails changed how students felt about people walking around with guns on campus, student 1 answered, “I guess I would see there might be an added degree of risk for accidents.” Student 2 in the group labeled the typical college student aged 18 to 22 as "stupid sometimes," noting that hot-headedness and the use of alcohol and drugs caused students to make poor judgments and linked those factors to accidental gun discharge. Student 3, focus group 1 responded, “I'd be a lot more worried about negligent discharge than anything, knowing that there's a lot of stupid people. There's a lot of kids here, really, is the actuality. I've seen 18-year-olds act like 14-year-olds and adults do the same…” Student 2 from focus group 2 had a personal family tragedy that influenced their outlook on this topic. The student’s aunt had “a freak gun accident and shot—somehow managed to, with a gun that was almost as long as she was, shoot herself alone in her home.” The trauma of this event and having personal experience with a shooting accident shaped the student’s concerns about guns on campus.
This study explores student ideas and beliefs regarding concealed carry of firearms on their campus. The focus group data provides insight into how the concealed carry law impacts the academic environment and the relational aspect of student life. The responses here indicate a dialectical tension between the comfort of the regular daily life of a student and the risk of gun violence on campus (Chory & Horan, 2022). For most students, firearms were not the focal point of their daily interactions. Students indicated they had no hesitation about discussing contentious issues such as religion and politics. Many students expressed feeling safe as a result of growing up with firearms in their households. In addition, the university's location, in a conservative rural area, influenced perceptions of the everyday person’s ability to use a gun responsibly. Still, there is an interesting dynamic in the student responses; although students' lives were “unaffected” by the concealed carry policy, many students expressed apprehension about concealed firearms on campus. Firearm training, student mental health, and shooting accidents were the most pressing concerns. Students were aware of the responsibility that came with possessing a firearm, and the majority of them desired that those with enhanced licenses undergo additional training, particularly for cases of emergency. Participants also identified several people within their student population who they knew of having a mental illness. They explained their fears associated with those students carrying concealed firearms. Finally, students expressed that the young adult group they are part of may be negligent with firearms, causing shooting accidents. The anxieties expressed by students here reflect the often-overlooked nuances of the gun debate and reveal the inconsistencies in student-reported responses. These students, most of whom reported being pro-gun or apathetic to guns, expressed significant concerns and anxieties regarding guns on campus. So, while most students reported little to no impact on their daily lives due to the presence of guns on campus, they all expressed some anxiety related to those same guns.
Because of the qualitative nature of the study, students were able to share personal experiences with firearms, which influenced their perspectives on the college’s campus carry policy. Regarding policies that directly affect students, this study emphasizes the importance of student discussion. Through this open discussion, students could share their personal experiences and concerns about the concealed carry policy on their campus. Although not every student shared the same viewpoint, students in the focus groups could have a civil conversation about a controversial policy that impacted their campus and their lives. The findings here are worthy of note for two reasons. First, students overwhelmingly reported no significant impact on their daily lives and their relationships on campus. This is significant as prior research focused on faculty has found campus carry policy to produce concrete changes in the behavior of these stakeholders (see Jones & Horan, 2019; Somers et al., 2017; Somers and Phelps, 2018; Somers, Gao, & Taylor, 2023). Second, the anxieties students expressed here regarding guns on campus in many ways existed in tension with the same students’ reports that there was no impact on their behavior. This ambivalence toward campus carry, in general, is a finding that is partially supported by other research (Lehtonen & Seppala, 2021).
It is important to note some limitations of this study. First and foremost, because this research relied on a small, non-random sample, the views expressed by the research participants are not necessarily representative of students in general. Second, the role of selection bias cannot be ignored. Due to the nature of the campus carry policy, the researchers could not make the focus groups “gun-free.” As a result, this may have led to an opting-out effect by those students who were most frightened by the reality of concealed firearms on campus. Conversely, it also may have contributed to an opting-in effect for those vociferous supporters of the policy. The third major limitation was the location of the study in the rural West, which likely had a significant impact on how most students think and feel about firearms. As a rural public university in a conservative state, the student body, drawn locally, is more likely to reflect the state’s conservative political outlook. As already noted, conservatives are more supportive of concealed carry and liberalized gun laws. Previous research has revealed that political affiliation is one of the most important elements influencing student perceptions about such policies (Bouffard, Nobles, & Wells, 2012; Hassett et al., 2019; Hayes, Powers, & O'Neal, 2021; Jang, Dierenfeldt & Lee, 2014; Kruis et al., 2020; Nodeland & Saber, 2019; Price & Khubchandani, 2022; Thompson et al. 2013a; Schildkraut, Carr, & Terranova 2018; Schildkraut et al., 2018; Verrecchia & Hendrix, 2017). Lastly, it is important to consider the role of self-censorship during group discussions, which can be a common problem in focus groups examining controversial topics like guns on campus (Kitzinger, 1995). These limitations may have skewed the results.
Due to its qualitative nature, this study makes unique and significant contributions to the literature. This research adopted a different approach than prior quantitative studies and instead used more thickly descriptive qualitative research to explore how the policy impacted students' lives. Not only did the findings show how students felt about the policy, but they also revealed the intricacies of what caused them to feel that way. In addition, most of the data collected in other studies primarily focuses on faculty and staff. However, students are also important stakeholders in the campus carry arena, and their views must be considered.
Due to the limitations of this study, the findings should be used to inform future research and policy. For example, further inquiry needs to be made into the relationship between students’ feelings of safety and actual changes in behavior. For example, if students experience anxiety about concealed firearms on campus, do they alter their behavior and adopt new strategies for self-protection (e.g., begin carrying firearms or other types of weapons)? Further, it will be important for future research to systematically explore how student attitudes change over time and whether those attitudes can be influenced by sentinel events on campus. For example, do student attitudes toward campus carry shift after high-profile crimes on their campus? In the current study, no students reported seeing a firearm misused on campus. Yet, students on other campuses who have experienced high-profile acts of gun-related violence may report a very different experience. Thus, additional research in a wider range of settings will help strengthen the understanding of how students adapt their behavior to different campus environments.
These findings imply that various factors should be considered when establishing college concealed carry policies. On college campuses, concealed carry policies should not be a one-size-fits-all approach. The concerns students have regarding training, mental health, and accidental shootings can and should be considered by campus administrators when figuring out how to implement a concealed carry policy on their campus. Based on these reported concerns, colleges and universities could target resources to help alleviate these sources of feeling unsafe. As many states and college campuses contemplate permitting concealed firearms on campus, more research needs to be done to understand the impact of these laws fully.
Focus Group Guided Questions Outline: Campus Carry
Think back, can you tell us about a time in the last 6 months were you found yourself thinking about guns on campus? If you haven’t please let us know that as well.
In this memory how did you feel knowing someone or yourself was armed or potentially armed with a firearm?
Probe: Has it made you more or less safe while on campus?
Please tell us about whether having guns on campus has impacted your life as a student? If it hasn’t affected your experience, tell us why?
Probe: Does having guns on campus make you feel more or less safe while on campus?
Please tell us about how and if your willingness to express your viewpoint in class or on campus has changed knowing that there may be guns in the classroom?
Does anyone have a specific instance when they knew someone was carrying a firearm in class or on campus? Can you tell us about that and how you felt.
How has campus carry changed the way you develop relationships with other students or faculty/staff?
How likely are you to develop a relationship with a student/faculty/staff you know carries a firearm on campus?
Alternatively, does knowing a person opposes campus carry affect how you interact with them?
Have you encountered a student or faculty that carried concealed on campus? How did you feel about that?
Beyond what we have talked about so far, do you see any potential benefits or drawbacks to having concealed firearms on campus?
Any other thoughts or comments?
Overall Reflection (if there is time)
Considering our discussion here today, if you had 1 minute to speak with the state governor, what would you say about campus carry?
Have we missed anything? Is there anything we should have asked about, or that you think it is important for use to talk about in relation to firearms?
Any last remarks?
Do you have any questions for us?
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Inara Ramazanova graduated from the Honors College at Oakland University, Magna Cum Laude. She majored in Criminal Justice with a double minor in French and Sociology. She currently works at a law firm in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Terressa A. Benz is an associate professor of Criminal Justice at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. She was formerly an assistant professor at the University of Idaho. Terressa is an urban ethnographer whose work lies at the intersection of law and society, urban sociology, and criminology. Her research explores self-protection strategies and the decision to carry or own a firearm. Her research has appeared in numerous journals, including Critical Sociology, Criminal Justice Review, and Sociological Perspectives. She recently co-edited the volume Urban Emergency (Mis) Management and the Crisis of Neoliberalism.
Joseph De Angelis is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Idaho. His research explores issues relating to legitimacy and criminal justice, public attitudes toward law enforcement, and civilian oversight of police. His research has appeared in various scholarly and policy-focused journals, including the Journal of Criminal Justice, Criminal Justice Studies, Police Quarterly, Criminal Justice Policy Review, The Qualitative Report, and Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies and Management.
The authors would like to thank the ASA Special Fund: Sociological Research on the Effects of Concealed Carry on College Campuses for funding this study.