Former FBI Agent Clint Van Zandt: Should Students take their Guns to College?

Clinton R. Van Zandt is the Founder and President of Van Zandt Associates Inc. During his 25-year career in the FBI, Mr. Van Zandt was a Supervisor in the FBI’s internationally renowned Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. He was also the FBI’s Chief Hostage Negotiator and in his current position, was the leader of the analytical team recognized with identifying the “Unabomber.” Mr. Van Zandt accurately profiled Oklahoma City Federal Building Bomber Timothy McVeigh on the day of that fateful bombing. He is a recognized expert on many topics including the review of written and oral communications, workplace violence issues, hostage and kidnap negotiations and survival techniques, international and domestic terrorism, personality assessments and behavioral profiling, and authorship identification techniques.

Should Students take their Guns to College?

As I crossed the darkened basement floor, one step at a time; I strained in the dim light to see if the escaped killer was there and hiding, ready to attack when I came into his sights. Leaning up against the far wall of the dank basement was an old cardboard fireplace, something left over from Christmases long ago. As I grabbed the faded red cutout chimney on top and flipped it back, he came at me from behind the moldy cardboard that quietly crumbled in my hand. He seemed to fill the room in front of me as I stepped back, pointing my .357 at the middle of his chest and yelled, “FBI, Freeze,” and he did. Later, when driving him to jail, he asked another FBI Agent, “Who was that guy in the basement; the one that was going to kill me?” I’m glad he understood that I would, and I am also glad that I didn’t have to. I may have been justified in shooting him under the circumstances, but I didn’t have to, so I didn’t. A tour of duty in Vietnam, years of “Shoot / Don’t Shoot” courses, and two and one-half decades as an FBI Agent went into my decision not to shoot, one that I had to make in a fraction of a second and one that I would make other times in my career.

Shootings involving FBI Agents are somewhat rare, and shootings are even rarer on college campuses, especially like the one committed by 23-year-old Virginia Tech senior Cho Seung-Hui on April 17, 2007. On that morning Cho, armed with two semiautomatic pistols, killed 33 and wounded 29 in an act of rage that still defies explanation. Although rare, we have witnessed a number of shootings on college campuses across America since August 1, 1966. This was when 25-year-old Charles Whitman climbed to the top of the clock tower at the University of Texas, Austin. Here, some 27 stories above the main campus, he began firing indiscriminately at members of the college community as they walked across the main campus. Whitman, who had murdered his wife and mother the day before, killed 13 and wounded 31 before he was killed by police officers. Many other campus shootings would take place on college, high school, middle school and even grade school campuses during the ensuing four plus decades.

It was, however, the heartless, wanton, murderous actions of VA Tech student Cho that captured the attention of the world that cold April week in the rolling hills and green valleys of western Virginia. A major university and a nation somehow stood still together in an attempt to understand the devastation that was levied on that campus in a few minutes by one angry man with two guns. If only someone could have stopped him sooner many have said.

Some believe the answer to stopping a gunman like Cho is to allow guns on campus; guns legally carried by students, faculty and staff. Others think our colleges and universities should be islands of learning in the sea of violence that seems to grip our nation on a weekly basis. Some have suggested that had just one student or faculty member had a gun, Cho could have been stopped before his total number of victims reached 62, thus saving perhaps dozens of lives. But others believe that the ensuing cross fire between Cho and armed students could have cost even more lives. Almost everyone agrees, however, that Cho, with his mental health record, should never have been able to legally purchase two handguns, although these same people will sadly admit that if someone wants a gun bad enough in America, they can get their hands on at least one of the 280 million known firearms in this country.

Within the last decade the Harvard School of Public Health conducted a random sample of over 15,000 undergraduate students from 130 different 4-year colleges. At that time 3.5 percent of the student respondents indicated they had a firearm at college. This same study concluded that students with guns on campus were more likely to engage in binge drinking, to have DUI offenses, and were more likely than other students to be injured severely enough to require medical attention while in college. Overall the study found that students with guns on campus were more likely than those without guns to engage in activities that put them and others at risk. Statistics like these, however, do not easily dissuade someone like the 25-year-old former US Marine who is now studying criminal justice at an east coast college. He believes that if a student can qualify for a state concealed weapon permit, that he should be allowed to carry a gun on campus, something, he believes, that would have given the dead and wounded students at VA Tech at least a fighting chance.

Most believe that Cho would have known that other than campus police, no one would be able to defend themselves against his two pistols. Cho, therefore, knew that he had the advantage over the entire 30,000 campus population that day, one he used with devastating effect. A 24-year-old University of Utah student, while indicating that he felt safe on campus, nonetheless carries a loaded 9 mm pistol to class every day. “If something happens to me,” said the gun toting business major, “I want to be prepared.” Many in the State of Utah are proud that their state is one of the few in the nation that allows the carrying of concealed weapons on campus. As one state representative stated, “If government can’t protect you, you should have the right to protect yourself.” Another Utah lawmaker references a 1997 shooting on a high school campus in Mississippi when the assistant principal, armed with a pistol he kept in his truck, used the weapon to hold a student at bay after the youthful gunman shot and killed two students on that campus.

Here’s my point. I don’t see this as a second amendment, right to bear arms issue. I see it as a need and a safety issue. Let’s start with the student body members who elect to carry a 9mm pistol loaded with 16 semi-jacketed hollow point rounds, perhaps a gun identical to one of the two carried by Cho at VA Tech. Do students really need to carry a gun on campus for personal protection? Notwithstanding the slaughter at Tech, the murder rate on college campuses is 0.28 per 100,000 people, far less than the overall U.S. murder rate of 5.5 per 100,000. This means that a non-student is at least 20 times more likely to be a murder victim than a student at college. That is the way it should be. Our institutions of higher education should be places where people of all backgrounds come together to debate and discuss different ideas, and, if they’ve not learned otherwise, a place where they can be taught to disagree without using violence to make their point and get their way. Students need to fight for their ideas and beliefs, ones honed over the blazing fires of verbal discourse and debate, but their fight should be with words; not bullets.

* * *

Graveyard Shift readers can visit Agent Van Zandt’s website to obtain free security related information and a free copy of his DVD “Protecting Children from Predators.” While you’re there you can also order a copy of his book “Facing Down Evil.”

* * *

Clint Van Zandt and Lee Lofland on NPR’s Talk of the Nation

Last Friday, legendary FBI criminal profiler, Clint Van Zandt, and I appeared as guests on the NPR radio show Talk Of The Nation. Our discussion was about the aggressive tactics used by police when questioning criminal suspects and witnesses.

Click the link below to listen to the show.

11 replies
  1. Clint Van Zandt
    Clint Van Zandt says:

    Martinez and McCoy, armed respectively with a .38 revolver and a shotgun, went out on the observation deck, proceeded to the NE corner of the deck, and spotted Whitman seated on the floor of the NW corner.

    “As Officer Martinez rapidly fired six rounds from his revolver after jumping onto the middle of the deck in a split position on the deck, Officer McCoy jumped to the right of Martinez and fired two shotgun blasts, hitting Whitman between the eyes and left side. Whitman’s body slid down the wall he was sitting against. Martinez got up and grabbed the shotgun from McCoy and ran to the body of Whitman, firing point blank into Whitman’s upper left arm. Martinez then took the green towel that Whitman had brought with him, and waved it to those below, trying to stop the ground fire that was still coming from the citizens below…”

    In this case, it appears that a number of local citizens monitoring the situation came from their homes with revolvers, shotguns and rifles and began firing at the tower some 27 stories above ground level. It must have been equally scary with Whitman’s bullets coming down along with the hundreds of rounds going up that eventually had to come down.

  2. straightchuter
    straightchuter says:

    Mr. Van Zandt is somewhat innacurate about the police being the only ones who had a hand in stopping Charles Whitman during his UT-Austin shooting rampage. Most sources say that the police give civilian shooters credit for shooting at Whitman when he tried to aim through the drains and keeping him from hitting more victims. Also, the man who busted down the barricaded door to the observation deck was not a policeman but a civilian.

    Armed civilians played a huge part in stopping Whitman. That is in the public record and should be acknowledged. -SC

    “Massacres happen in gun-free zones for the same reason they don’t happen at shooting ranges”

  3. JanW
    JanW says:

    As an American living no longer in America, but a country where guns aren’t part of the ‘normal’ culture, it’s so sad to continue to read about the reaction to gun violence to increase the number of guns. This was a very refreshing alternate point of view on the matter from someone who backs up his position with statistics. 14 years ago there were more murders in Arizona [my former state] than in the entire country of four times more people where I live now. Fewer guns = less violence. Sorry for getting on my soap box. But it’s nice not to worry about getting shot for just driving down the highway.

  4. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Hi Guys. I’ve been away for a few days. My thanks to Agent Van Zandt for the wonderful topic today. He won’t be able to stop by each time he posts an article, but we’ll see if we can twist his arm to stop in once in a while.

  5. Joyce Tremel
    Joyce Tremel says:

    Great post!

    Students carrying guns would be a tough call. I like Dave’s idea of only certain students being permitted to carry. Many college students are not mature enough to walk around with a loaded firearm. While everyone has a right to bear arms, not everyone should.

    If I was an administrator, I wouldn’t want to have to make the decision of who could carry and who couldn’t. Can you imagine the uproar if he made the wrong choice?

  6. D. Swords
    D. Swords says:

    Addendum to my previous comments.

    Of course, I realize that a student must be 21 to own a firearm, per Federal law, but I thought that restricting my quasi-security force to Jrs. & Srs. would restrict this to students who had been on campus for some time and would have a hopefully “clean” record with the school.

    Too much thought to squeeze into a couple hundred words.

  7. SZ
    SZ says:

    Wow. Wow wow kapow !

    My dear Mr. Van Zandt,

    You are a most instantly engaging writer. Thank you for your time.

    And oh the right to bear arms ! America clings to its history, as it should. There is a point where one must stop and think. We are there and have been for far too long.

    Please accept upfront apologies, I am coming down from a few last weeks of overworked and visitors. Jokingly of the human kind.

    And step in as well Lee, the first question that came to me current brainless mind, is while writing about the luck of not shooting the man in the basement, at what point, in that nano second of time, does your training so go, shout or shoot … ? Ok, you see a gun, or a lunge, how much time in you trained mind do you get to succeed in trying to equate height between you and the person ? Can they be disarmed without death ? Do you really just sometimes have to shoot first ? What you people do is amazing.

    Elena states that she has held guns from students till after class. One was homemade. Isn’t this the point where Elena holds the gun, and makes contact with authorities ? State to state law ? Elena ?

    Sadly, it seems like the Unabomber puts some of the effort to stop wanton killing to rest. While Cho Seung-Hui had his right to bear arms, he was so crazy that had he not been given it, he might just have found a way to destruct what or where he wanted. It is a sad state of affairs. Would it have been better if all the students, or as Timber Beast said about teachers in Texas, had guns ? Or would have many more been killed, if he was refused the guns he owned and blew up a building at its busiest time killing many more ?

    America is so pro gun, anti gun, pro choice, pro assisted suicide … Or not. All the pros and cons create valid points and questions.

    As a most expert profiler, and others like you who profile in specific fields of psychoanalysis, how much say do you get in decisions of law or amendment ? How much are your findings, opinions and suggestions being taken into account ?

    Oh the brain freeze ! Must stop. This was a great blog. Thank you. The NPR was so great it is saved and waiting to listen to again. More questions.

    Yet another golden find this man is Lee !

  8. D. Swords
    D. Swords says:

    Hi, Cliff.

    First, let me say how pleased I am to see you blogging here and how much I have enjoyed listening to you on TV. Whenever I am channel surfing and spot you on the tube, I always stop and listen for what I know will be a very interesting topic.

    I am a retired police officer and also a believer in licensed concealed carry for citizens. I, like many officers, never liked the idea, until I began to see case after case of innocent persons minding their own business and being preyed upon by seemingly conscienceless criminals.

    In any event, I came to believe that law abiding citizens would not be a problem if allowed to carry a concealed weapon. (I believe that, with rare exceptions, this has proven to be the case.)

    I have mixed feelings though, with allowing guns in schools and on campuses. I’m not sure about allowing college aged students (18 to 22) to carry. High levels of testosterone coupled with inexperience could spell trouble.

    I would be much more willing to entertain the idea of certain students, perhaps juniors and seniors, being permitted to carry weapos if they were to receive added training in self defense and defense of others. Perhaps some students would be willing to take on this responsibilty if they received a break on books or tuition. Sort of a quasi-security force.

    It is, perhaps, a compromise that recognizes the need for added security without opening the campus to anyone with a permit.

    Two questions. The Harvard study to which you referred – what identifies a permit carrier more likely “to engage in activities that put them and others at risk.”
    Also, you indicated that a few states do allow carry permits on campus. Any problems with any of these campuses that you are aware of?


  9. SZ
    SZ says:

    Hey Lee, glad you posted the link to the NPR broadcast !

    Folks if you get a chance to listen, it is approx half an hour. I was able to once, Lee comes in around 15 minutes into it and he and Mr. Van Zandt had great questions and answers. It was interesting, and will have to listen a second time. Too busy, but it brought good questions to ask about many proceedure and writing. (for me anyway)

    I still need to read Yvonnes blog ! (and this one) But finally got a chance to get online. Hope you all like the broadcast.

  10. Elena
    Elena says:

    I am appalled at the idea of that 25 year old Marine studying criminal justice – he sounds angry and dangerous – I’ve met cops like him – they are not part of the solution, rather, they exacerbate the problem.

    I’ve taught in three schools where I was aware of armed students – the first a high school where I collected my student’s weapons in the morning and passed them back out at the end of the day so they could get home safely. The only time I ever said anything about them were the times I was handling a homemade gun that was more likely to blow up than shoot.
    The second was a community college where one of my students, a Nam vet, had a nasty looking longish gun he had brought home with him along with his PTSD. Fortunately, he limited his classroom shooting to using his finger and going “bang”. I was unable to get anyone interested in prevention. Before the end of the semester he killed his mother, his sister and then himself.
    The third was an engineering college where the guns were mostly hunting guns, but there was the one memorable occasion when a student asked me to keep his handgun for the weekend because he intended to get wasted that weekend. I did, he did, and he died driving drunk.
    More specifically the title of your essay is really scary – Should students take THEIR guns to college? My question is How can we change our violent culture to a more peaceful one?

Comments are closed.