Are Dorms Really the Best Place for Guns?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Not so much, says reader Jared LeBrun:

You asked what gun control advocates should propose to lower rates of suicides by firearms nationally, and for that I don’t have a clear answer. But perhaps a sensible start would be to ensure firearms are not allowed on campus, especially in dorms.

I’m a college student here at the University of Texas at Austin. The school has been the center of Texas’ recent firearm’s law that will allow concealed carry in most buildings across campus, with numerous planned protests and counter-protests. Our attorney general, Ken Paxton, among others, has called for guns to be allowed into college dormitories.

However, the topic of suicide seems to be entirely missing from this debate.

In an era where suicide prevention is such an important goal for universities, I fail to understand why the Texas legislature would allow one of the most successful and prevalent methods of suicide to be allowed on campus. At UT, therapy dogs are brought into dorms to de-stress during finals; care packages are delivered for free to study groups in the library, and suicide prevention hotlines are posted in nearly every hallway billboard. I fear that allowing guns will undo all this work.

It is too easy to envision a scenario where a stressed-out college student is tired of relentless studying, or has received a poor grade on his final, and decides to take his life with the ease of reaching into his drawer.

Firearms are a uniquely dangerous method of committing suicide for college students. Besides their far higher rate of efficacy than most methods of suicide, guns can be accessed by others as well. A gun owner can and should put his firearm in a safe, but that is not a part of the legislation. Thus the risk of suicide can expand from the owner to those in the dorms around him or her, especially the owner’s roommate. Guns also present a much quicker method of suicide that requires less deliberation, which is particularly dangerous in an environment where suicides happen most around finals—a short-term but high-stress event.

Gun massacres do seem to happen relatively frequently on college campuses, but I cannot recall one that has actually happened inside of a dorm itself, especially considering that most are locked to non-residents, each door can be locked individually, and the proximity of police officers. The incredibly small risk of dying in a mass shooting surely outweighs the far higher risk of suicides on campus.

Update from a reader in a different state:

Your reader in Austin stated, “I fail to understand why the legislature would allow one of the most successful and and prevalent methods of suicide to be available on campus.”  I could be wrong, but I think the explanation is simple: Those legislators are beholden to one of the most powerful lobbies in the U.S., the NRA. 

In my state of Kansas, we also have a concealed carry law, which for now allows college campuses to ban guns. That exemption expires in about a year and then guns will be on campus. University leaders oppose this. Just about every leadership group of campus faculty is opposed to this and has petitioned the legislature to that effect. And as near as I can tell, it doesn’t matter.