The debate over guns on campus has been intensifying in recent years as more state legislatures debate and pass what are commonly called “campus carry” laws. These laws allow anyone over the age of 21 with a concealed carry license to bring their weapon to a college campus [Utah now allows anyone under 18 to get a license]. Yet these debates have often included dubious (unethical and vague) claims.
At present, nine states mandate by law campus carry and 23 states give their state-run universities the power to allow it. States such as North Carolina and Florida have similar bills currently under consideration in their statehouses. Kansas begins “campus carry” on July 1 after a bill passed in 2013 included a four-year exemption for universities.
In March a “campus carry” bill passed my state House of Representatives overwhelmingly. This kind of bill has been introduced for many years in Georgia. Last year, for the first time, it passed both houses despite strong opposition from the university system, its faculty and students, and the majority of the state, according to polls. To the surprise of many, Governor Nathan Deal vetoed the bill.
Advocates for campus carry have misused evidence to support their claims of a rise in campus violence. In a speech to the Georgia House on March 3 (speech begins about 1:45 in “House AM”) before her bill was passed, Georgia state Rep. Mandi Ballinger (R-Canton) claimed a “145 percent increase in rapes reported on [the University of Georgia] campus” from “this year” to “last year” and a “126 percent increase” in rapes reported to UGA police happening in “an unknown location.” She had similar numbers for the other major university in the state, Georgia Tech. She said there was a 200 percent “rise in rapes,” “robberies went up 12.5 percent” and aggravated assaults went up 25 percent.
While Rep. Ballinger did not name her source of information, it most likely is publicly available information from UGA. First, using crimes reported to campus police committed in “unknown locations” is dubious in justifying a rise of crime on campus. UGA police label a crime in an “unknown location” when no information verifying location was provided by the reporter. The crime could have happened on or off campus; it was only reported initially to campus police. UGA police note in its crime report “that providing data related to these (unknown location) incidents is very important, as they impact the communities and lives of students, faculty and staff of the University of Georgia.” Yet the other major university in the state, Georgia Tech, does not collect or release this particular information, according to its annual report. Moreover, if these crimes are happening off campus, where concealed carry is already protected by law, then this evidence is moot as the permission to carry a gun onto campus is irrelevant to crime happening off campus.
Then there are the numbers themselves. Rep. Ballinger presents these statistics in a way that makes them sound much more significant than they actually are. In 2015, UGA police received 34 reports of rape in “unknown locations.” In 2016, there were 47 reports. Forty-seven is 138 percent of 34. But the problem here is with the term “increase.” These crimes can be 138 percent of what they were a year ago, but they did not increase by 138 percent. They increased by 38 percent, 13 over 34.
The other important element is context. In 2014 there was 49 rapes reported to UGA police that happened in “unknown locations.” A “rise” – no matter how one frames it with percentages – is hard to justify over a three-year period. [UGA did not start collecting information on such crimes before 2014.]
As for the 200 percent increase in rape at Georgia Tech? Ga. Tech reported in its 2016 annual crime report, as mandated by law, three years’ worth of rapes reported to people on campus. In 2013 there were 18 cases; 2014 there was 19; and in 2015 there was 10.
Yet also on its website is a chart for 2016 labeled “UCR Crime Statistics.” This seems to be source of Rep. Ballinger’s claim. The label UCR or Uniform Crime Report means this chart only includes crimes reported to Georgia Tech campus police. That chart notes 1 rape in 2015 and 3 in 2016 and therefore a 200-percent increase. But the annual crime report as mandated by the Clery Act includes crimes reported to “campus security authorities” including many that do not get reported to police. That report notes a drop in rape from 2014 to 2015, from 19 to 10.
To merely point out a “200 percent increase” without noting the number of crimes is misleading at best and ideologically manipulative at worst. Overall Rep. Ballinger’s lack of sources is a problem. She appears to have used Clery Act numbers from UGA, but ignored those same numbers in her statement on Ga. Tech. Also troubling, when Rep. Ballinger cited credible sources providing national data on gun violence earlier in her testimony to colleagues in the Georgia capitol, she offered her colleagues printed copies of the studies, but when it came to these campus-specific statistics, she suddenly became much less forthcoming with her evidence.
Another claim that has been called into question is there has never been a homicide or suicide “resulting” from “campus carry.” The claim can be traced back to a group called Students for Concealed Carry. Here is an op-ed by an official of that group.
At no time has this been a particularly trustworthy claim. The Students for Concealed Carry do not a cite a source as evidence for it. But more troubling is that for them and their allied advocates, this argument excludes any crime involving a gun on campus that happened before “campus carry” has gone into effect from consideration. This includes licensed concealed carry weapons. For example, there is a case in Texas of a concealed weapons permit holder shooting a faculty colleague on campus in 2010. This is ignored by advocates because Texas did not begin “campus carry” until 2016.
Second, the lack of link between a gun owned by a concealed permit holder and its use in a crime or suicide on campus is simply not verified. The claim suggests knowledge about every homicide and suicide that occurred on a college campus in a state that has “campus carry.” This is highly suspect because campuses don’t track suicides. Not even the CDC does. Statistics about campus suicides rely on self-reporting or small sample surveys. Like campus rape, the incidents are probably underreported. And while campus suicides are rare (about 1,000 per year), in general the number of suicides nationwide is rising. A gun is used in more than 80 percent of suicides. Additionally, it is nearly impossible to know whether a gun owner who commits suicide is a conceal weapons permit holder as those are not public record.
In the end, the ethical use of statistics and strong, consistent definitions of central terms is missing from these arguments. There are principled arguments made on both sides of this issue, but many that seem to be accurate turn out to be no good. In those cases, it is in everyone’s interest to call a bad argument a bad argument and clear the public record. After all, even if “campus carry” does not come to Georgia in 2017, history has shown that it will probably be proposed again soon, and the state ought to make its policy decisions based on sound arguments, not outdated or inaccurate ones.