Why this KU student now carries a gun to class: ‘I have a way to defend myself’

7 things to know about guns on Kansas campuses

The Kansas Personal and Family Protection Act, which took effect July 1, allows concealed handguns to be carried on more than 30 two-year and four-year colleges in the state. Here's what you need to know.
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The Kansas Personal and Family Protection Act, which took effect July 1, allows concealed handguns to be carried on more than 30 two-year and four-year colleges in the state. Here's what you need to know.

He has his books.

He has his class schedule.

Concealed inside his backpack, this 21-year-old business major at the University of Kansas now totes, as of the beginning of classes on Monday, a Glock 19 semi-automatic handgun, with a 15-round magazine locked into position.

His Johnson County mom is opposed to it, his dad less so.

“My mother and sister do not like guns,” he said.

His professors are unaware. And only a handful of his closest of friends even know he carries it.

But to Tom — a college senior who didn’t want his last named revealed because, first, he knows that Kansas’ new law that allows him to carry concealed handguns on campus is charged with controversy and, second, because he doesn’t want others viewing him negatively or trying to steal his gun — having a handgun at the ready just makes him feel less vulnerable, more prepared.

“I mean, I’m just a normal student who cares about their safety and the safety of people around them,” he said. “You see all this stuff on the news about people getting killed and having no way to protect themselves. That is why I choose to carry.”

Meantime, KU film and media professor Kevin Willmott made a statement of his own, strapping on a bulletproof vest, which he plans to wear to class all school year.

“Try to forget I’m wearing a bulletproof vest and I’ll try to forget that you could be packing a .44 Magnum,” the professor told students Tuesday morning.

Kevin Willmott, University of Kansas professor of film and media studies, wore a bulletproof vest to class this week in protest of a Kansas law that allows concealed handguns on campus. Savanna Smith The University Daily Kansan

Ever since the Kansas Legislature in 2013 passed the Kansas Personal and Family Protection Act — which allows concealed handguns to be carried on the campuses of KU, Kansas State University, Johnson County Community College as well as the state’s 30-plus other two-year and four-year colleges — emotions have only intensified over the four years colleges were given to implement the law.

Kansas, whose law went into effect on July 1, is the eighth state in a group that includes Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Idaho and Colorado to allow concealed carry of handguns on public college campuses. Criticism of the Kansas law has been especially fierce among those who cast it among the most lenient, requiring no permit or training for those who opt to carry.

Missouri is one of 16 states to ban concealed weapons on college campuses, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. A 2015 survey showed that the significant majority of faculty and staff in Kansas’ four-year universities — from 60 percent at Fort Hays State University to 82 percent at KU — do not want guns in any form of concealment on campus.

“This law will impact thousands of lives across the state and it’s built on a lie that the more people carrying guns, the safer we are,” said Brendan Kelly, spokesman for the Brady Campaign and Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “It’s a myth that was designed to do one thing, sell more guns — not inform public safety policy. Every single day, Americans buy into this myth, purchasing a gun because they believed it would keep them safe. Yet every day, lives are shattered because many of those same guns are involved in suicides, accidental shootings and crimes of passion.”

But Tom, a graduate of Shawnee Mission South High School, has a truth of his own.

He was 16 years old, he said, when on Dec. 14, 2012, a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

“I think the first thing that got me to start paying attention was probably Sandy Hook,” he said. “That was not a college campus, but it got me thinking of violence at public schools in general.”

Although enamored by guns as a child, Tom said he did not grow up in a gun culture. A suburban kid rather than a rural kid, he remembered liking to shoot BB and Airsoft guns or rifles at targets at a farm of a relative in Iowa. But no one in his family was into hunting.

In high school, he began thinking of a career as a police officer. “Before I was 18, I would go to a shooting range in Olathe and would practice just for fun,” he said.

Although he currently majors in business and finance, he still thinks about applying to the FBI as a financial analyst post-graduation. Tom said he was well aware of the Kansas law to allow handguns on college campuses, but he frankly never thought it would pass or, once it did pass, that it would remain in effect.

“I thought they would overturn it before it actually got here,” he said.

Tom turned 21 around the beginning of the year. He bought his handgun soon after. By then, he had already taken a firearms class and felt capable.

“I wasn’t buying it for the law change,” he said of the handgun. “I wanted to buy one anyway just to have around, just for my protection. I would have bought it with or without the campus carry law. It just would not have been carried on campus.”

Now that he can bring his gun to class he has no real fear that the campus will be inundated with concealed guns. The concealed carry law, some have argued, only makes legal what some students might already have been doing covertly on their own, carrying in secret for protection.

“Being in a blue county in Kansas, there are not many gun-friendly people here,” Tom said. “So I wasn’t worried about there being 10,000 students on campus carrying guns. I knew it would be fairly limited. I didn’t think it would be a bad thing — as long as people know what they’re doing and aren’t going to do something crazy.”

He continued, “The way I look at it personally is, if I can (carry a concealed handgun) and I already have the gun, why not? Take it with me just in case something were to happen. I mean, you never know what is going to happen with all the violent incidents that have been happening over the past few years at colleges and other schools.”

Tom keeps his firearm in his backpack. The law requires that it be kept in a holster that covers the trigger. The 15-round magazine is in the gun, but as the university requires, there is no round in the chamber ready to fire.

Numerous other rules determine who can have guns and where they can be used.

Guns won’t be allowed at large athletic events, such as basketball and football games, where added security such as metal detectors will be in place. They’re not allowed at the University of Kansas Medical Center campus at 39th and Rainbow in Kansas City, Kan. And open carry is prohibited everywhere.

“Students and faculty will not notice any difference in day-to-day life on campus this fall,” Catherine Mortensen, a spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association, said in a written statement. “The whole point of concealed carry is to be discreet. Concealed carry is exactly what it sounds like. Concealed. There will be absolutely no change on campus, other than students being able to provide for their own safety.”

But if students are now carrying concealed handguns, said Willmott, the film professor who is also the director of noted films that include “C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America,” he says that wearing a bulletproof vest on campus all year offers a powerful visual protest.

“I remember a time when discovery of a gun in a building of higher learning would have meant an immediate evacuation of everyone on the premises by the police to protect public safety,” he wrote in a lengthy statement explaining his action.

But now: “This is not the Kansas I grew up knowing and loving.”

He said one element he finds disturbing: “No one can know who has a weapon. Thus in the classroom we don’t know who has a gun — perhaps no one does or maybe several people have weapons. We cannot ask and they cannot tell …

“This new Kansas policy tries to make handguns a normal part of everyday campus life: book bag, cellphone, laptop, handgun and ammunition. This is a dangerous and reckless policy.”

Willmott said he ultimately decided to wear the vest during an open meeting about the law. He was sitting next to a colleague, a Muslim professor who feared that the guns would stifle the free expression of possibly challenging and unpopular ideas.

“She knew how it will affect free speech in her class and on campus,” Willmott wrote. “This policy is an obvious threat to all who employ free speech and will destroy the trust-based interaction between students and instructors. In the end, it threatens to wreck the very fabric of campus life.”

Some colleges across the state are responding to the law with safety vidoes and websites answering concerns. At KU last week the Office of the Provost and its Office of Public Safety held campus forums on how to de-escalate potential violence. On Sept. 5 and 8, the university will hold “Active Shooter Response Sessions.”

In the spring semester, Tom encountered many protesters asking for guns to be banned and for the law to be overturned. More than protecting himself, he thinks having a gun handy makes everyone safer.

“I don’t think they should be against it,” he said, “as long as the right people carry. … Because if something were to happen, the people who are against it would be protected by the people who are carrying. So I’m not sure what their reasons are (for objecting to the law) other than the fact that there could be crazy people who decide to carry and use it in situations that it’s not meant to be used.”

To his thinking, a law banning guns on campus is not going to stop an irrational person from committing an irrational act.

“With this new law here I feel safer,” Tom said, “not just because I carry. … I also think that it creates some sort of deterrent for people who could be planning to do something. They could be thinking, ‘Well, these people have guns. So if I go in there and do something, I might get killed in the process.’ 

Tom said he doesn’t have a sense of the world as overly frightening or violent. He’s never been the victim of a violent crime. Nor, he said, have family members. But having a handgun gives him greater peace of mind.

“Now I would have a way to defend myself,” he said. “I can walk around with less worry about what might happen.”

One concern he does have: letting too many people know he has a gun.

“It’s concealed for a reason,” Tom said. “Letting everybody know would just lead to more problems, especially in Lawrence —backlash from people in the community. …

“I think everyone would just view you differently at school if they knew you had it.”

Eric Adler: 816-234-4431, @eadler

Some restrictions

Among the rules of Kansas’ new gun law:

▪ Here’s who cannot carry a gun: people under 21, undocumented residents, those addicted to or under the influence of drugs or using alcohol, those convicted of a felony or were incarcerated for a year, those who have a mental illness, were dishonorably discharged from the U.S. Armed Forces or were convicted of even misdemeanor domestic violence.

▪ Guns are not allowed at large athletic events, such as basketball and football games, where added security such as metal detectors will be in place. They’re not allowed at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan.

▪ Open carry is prohibited everywhere.

▪ Semiautomatic handguns must be carried without a chambered round of ammunition. For all guns, any safety mechanism must be engaged.

▪ Long guns, such as rifles and shotguns, are not allowed anywhere on campus, whether concealed or openly carried.

▪ When not being carried, a concealed handgun must be stored in a secure storage device, such as a gun safe.