Student with gunI suspect Kevin Yuill and I would agree most of the time. He writes for Spiked, a broadly “libertarian” internet magazine based in the UK: more often than not, I agree with its authors enthusiastically on all manner of topics, from freedom of speech to environmental issues to the European Union (and most of my responses to Spiked articles have been in agreement; see here for a good example).

Even on this topic, Yuill and I share the same basic belief that people should be allowed to protect themselves, and to own guns for self-defense. So I was keen to read his arguments against those of the SCCC:

Students for Concealed Carry on Campus (SCCC) [is] an organisation that claims 30,000 members and has staged ‘empty holster protests’ on campuses across the country to highlight the ‘impotence’ of students unable to defend themselves.

I first heard of the SCCC last year, wrote about it here and interviewed Stephen Feltoon (one of the organizers) a few days later on my radio show (listen here). Their basic argument runs something like this:

1) Laws permitting citizens to carry concealed firearms for their protection has reduced crime in every place they’ve been enacted.

2) University campuses are among the few places such laws are not enacted.

3) Shootings on university campuses have taken a bigger toll because of this loophole in the ability of students to defend themselves (Virginia Tech is an example).

4) Therefore, allowing students to defend themselves will redress this problem and save lives.

I’ll be honest: I think the argument is watertight. I think they’re right, and had only one other individual been armed in that room at Virginia Tech, many many lives could have been saved. I also believe that students should be allowed to carry as a matter of principle, in addition to the matter of practical self-defense. But Kevin Yuill doesn’t think so. Let’s look at his arguments.

He starts by saying that proponents of concealed carry on campus are responding “emotionally (and irrationally)” rather than basing their responses on facts:

Are American students and schoolchildren under siege from an army of madmen? Not really. Less than one per cent of all homicides of children aged five to 19 occur in or around school grounds or on the way to school. According to the US Department of Education, the criminal homicide rate on campus was 0.07 per 100,000 students in 2004 compared to an overall rate of 5.7 per 100,000 persons and a rate of 14.1 per 100,000 persons in the 17 to 29 age group nationally (these latter rates are lower now). Even the tragedies at Virginia Tech and Columbine must be measured against the 72million Americans currently attending an educational institution. The present danger of madmen shooting up schools and universities exists largely in the imagination.

So, people imagine that there’s a greater danger for students than exists in reality. I agree. I’ve often said as much about homicide rates in general, putting it in perspective for the purpose of disagreeing with those who would characterize America in general as an especially ‘violent’ place. And that’s exactly the point: Americans do not expect to encounter violent aggressors as they go about their daily lives, but they do prepare for it. Even a statistically favorable risk is still a risk, and students are not exempt from it. In the same way people prepare for fires by keeping fire extinguishers and prepare for theft by installing burglar alarms, they prepare for attack by carrying firearms. This is not a paranoid thing in the United States, and it’s not unusual in the slightest. He goes on:

Second, if we irrationally fear our fellow human beings so much that we feel we need to be armed to feel safe, the logical solution is clearly to remove all guns from society (except, of course, the authorities, who should be heavily armed in order to protect us from the army of madmen that threaten us). Gun control fanatics need only point to Europe, where few people own guns and few people feel threatened by guns. But, as the statistics show, only a tiny fraction of the gun-owners of the United States have ever used or are ever likely to use their weapons for self-defence. If we go down the ‘feel safe’ route, those that would eliminate all guns will surely win.

I really don’t know how Yuill got here. He’s being illogical. I won’t attempt to deal with the gun control arguments he presents since I’ve done it so many times before and I don’t think he believes them anyway. Yuill disagrees with gun control advocates, yet he’s also saying that they’ll win if we “go down the ‘feel safe’ route”. It’s still not clear why he wishes to distinguish between students on campus and citizens elsewhere. In any case, it isn’t the “feel safe” route; it’s the “self-defense” route, and the arguments of gun control advocates can be answered as readily and confidently in support of students’ rights as they already are in support of the rights of other citizens. His final point:

Third, it takes away from the real reason for resisting gun controls. Freedom, which has been stripped effortlessly from Britons over the past 10 years, is worth preserving in the United States. The real issue about the right to bear arms, as Thomas Jefferson reminds us, is not so much about guns as about protection of individual rights from the tyranny of the state.

Certainly that’s a reason to resist anti-gun legislation. But what makes Yuill think this is an either-or thing? I realize freedom is sparse in the United Kingdom, but nobody in America needs to make a choice between, on the one hand, upholding gun rights for opposing tyranny, and on the other, extending carry rights to campuses. As he mentions earlier, the Supreme Court has spoken recently – definitively – on the rights of citizens to possess firearms generally in the United States. That isn’t at stake anymore (certainly a whole lot less than it has been in living memory). And I’m not sure resisting tyranny is “the real reason” to oppose gun controls: it’s certainly one reason. But I’d say self-defense is a pretty damned important reason too.

Thus, as people in the UK have glanced nervously at their fellow men and women, not only have guns been banned, but there is also a serious discussion about banning the sale of pointed kitchen knives (carrying a knife now can result in a five-year prison sentence in the UK). Do Americans really want to go down this route?

Well of course they don’t, and that’s precisely why they’re fighting to extend their rights to carry, and why students are urging authorities to allow them to do so also. With his closing argument here, you’d think he’d agree! With respect, I want to know what Yuill was smoking as he was writing this piece. He wishes people in Britain had not given up so many of their rights, and at the same time is trying to say that Americans should not push for any more?

I don’t get it, Kevin.


RSEPONSE by Kevin Yuill:

“Hi John,

Thanks for taking the trouble to read and respond to my article. I’m sorry I didn’t respond earlier but, hey, I needed that holiday!

Just to clarify a few things, I think we agree on the basic proposition. I am completely opposed to gun controls; this article was a questioning of the response of some who ostensibly share my views to shootings.


“I also believe that students should be allowed to carry as a matter of principle, in addition to the matter of practical self-defense. But Kevin Yuill doesn’t think so.” Yes, I do! I made the point that to restrict the rights of adults to carry weapons on campuses implies that they leave their adulthood at the gate (I occasionally have to stop myself from thinking this, teaching at a university as I do!). I do think adult students should be FREE to carry weapons.

My position is that I want a world where all are free to carry weapons but no one feels the need to. I object to the SCCC’s tactics for a couple of reasons that perhaps I didn’t make clear enough in the article.

1. We cannot win arguments based on emotional responses and must resist them wherever they come from. The usual response to school shootings is entirely emotional – our response is to insist on cold, hard facts. Reacting in the same way can only take away from the insistence that we respond on the basis of real statistics rather than emotional responses.

2. “Even a statistically favorable risk is still a risk, and students are not exempt from it.” This is the argument used to justify metal detectors in schools.

3. This is a freedom issue. There is nothing magical (or frightening) about guns and we should not accord them special powers. Who knows whether any of the students with a gun at Virginia Tech would have saved lives?

All the best,