Guns in College: Historical Context and the Dangers of Presentism

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Last school year, President Jerry Falwell Jr. of Liberty University made a series of controversial statements concerning concealed firearms on the college campus. The first was in December when he urged students to carry guns for self-defense against potential terrorist attacks. This came in the wake of the devastation in San Bernardino, CA. Falwell remarked, “If more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in and killed them.” Although poorly worded, Falwell’s point was clear. The Second Amendment, established by our nation’s Founding Fathers, permitted the use of guns for self defense. To Falwell and other staunch Republicans, this logically applies to college campuses as well. In suit, Falwell’s second controversial statement was his announcing that all Liberty Students twenty-one years and older were permitted to conceal firearms in their dorms. The rationale behind this new policy can be seen in Liberty’s new educational video below:

With such controversy surrounding concealed carry at Liberty University and various other schools, an interesting article caught my eye, titled “Thomas Jefferson and James Madison Didn’t Want Guns on their College Campus.” Here is an excerpt:

In October of 1824, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison attended a board meeting of the University of Virginia, which would open the following spring. Jefferson and Madison had spent not a little time thinking about individual liberties. But minutes from the meeting show that their new school would not extend the right to bear arms to its red-brick grounds.

“No student shall, within the precincts of the University, introduce, keep or use any spirituous or vinous liquors, keep or use weapons or arms of any kind …” the board declared. 

Many quotes about the relationship of private firearm ownership and freedom — often deployed online by gun rights proponents — have been misattributed to Jefferson, or misconstrued. Jefferson is widely credited with saying, “The beauty of the Second Amendment is that it will not be needed until they try to take it,” but archivists at Monticello have found no evidence he made this statement. He is on record has having written, “Let your gun therefore be your constant companion of your walks” in a letter to his nephew. But historian Saul Cornell thinks Jefferson was most likely contemplating slave rebellion, not the need for self defense from criminals.

I must admit that the arguments and evidence supported in this article are convincing. The history appears to be sound. Clearly Jefferson and Madison thought long and hard about what should and should not be allowed on a college campus. However, as a young historian, I am made to wonder what the context is surrounding this ban of guns. When examining the transcription of the Visitor’s Minutes, it becomes clear that the Board desired a strict institution of higher learning, devoid of all potential distractions. Just five paragraphs before the ban on weapons is another statement that prohibits firing guns due to their loud and “disturbing” noise (pg. 6). If this is any indication, it is possible that Jefferson and Madison’s gun ban is more due to their distracting nature than their dangerous potential (although the board clearly understood the aggressive nature of its young students, i.e. prohibiting fighting with weapons). More support for this idea is found in the direct context of the ban. Weapons are listed with “spiritous or vinous liquors,” servants, horses, dogs, smoking, and chewing, as all things that are not permitted on school grounds – each of them hardly life-threatening.

While my above proposition is mere conjecture (a deeper understanding of early American gun culture would be helpful here), the larger lesson to be learned is the importance of historical context and dangers of presentism. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison lived in a much different world than we currently do. Using Jefferson as an apologetic, either for or against concealed carry on college campuses is not only poor logic, but poor history. Given the modern threat of terrorism and mass shootings, who is to say whether or not Jefferson and Madison would see guns as a necessary tool for self-defense? After all, by historian Saul Cornell’s admission, Jefferson advocated carrying firearms for protection against slave rebellion – would terrorism be any different? We will never know the answer. While the actions and beliefs of the Founding Fathers make for interesting conversation and provide helpful background knowledge, in the end we are left to our own devices in determining the best policies for our institutions.

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