By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 15, 2009
HARRISONBURG, Va., Feb. 14 -- Kyle Smith agreed to play the bad guy.
In a scenario eerily designed to imitate the Virginia Tech massacre, when a lone gunman shot and killed 32 people in the nine minutes it took for campus police to respond, Smith burst into a classroom here Saturday, his right index finger pointed as if it were a gun drawn, and immediately "shot" the teacher between the eyes.
"You people treated me wrong," the freshman yelled, a little sheepishly. "I just can't take it anymore."
As the four students in the room screamed, hit the floor and crouched under desks, he methodically fired five more shots with his finger and "killed" them all. In 23 seconds, it was over.
"You're all dead," Shawn Deehan, a gun rights advocate from GunRightsWeek.org, told the jeans-clad James Madison University students crumpled on the floor and waiting for his cue that the reenactment was over. "A great rate of response from law enforcement is six minutes. Six minutes. If you don't care if you live or die, that's a suitable response. But if you're concerned about living another day, another minute, then that's too long."
Then Deehan reran the scenario the way he and other gun rights advocates would prefer: with the teacher and two students carrying concealed weapons.
Only Utah allows students and teachers to carry weapons on college campuses. Most other states leave it to the discretion of university administrators. And nearly all -- save Blue Ridge Community College in Virginia and Colorado State University -- have decreed that weapons on campus are a bad idea.
The Virginia Tech massacre gave rise to two opposing and equally passionate movements. Many of the victims' friends and families founded Students for Gun Free Schools. They say guns are the last thing that college campuses, already hotbeds of hormones, alcohol and heated emotions, need. Yesterday's demonstration came courtesy of Students for Concealed Carry on Campus's JMU chapter, which was chartered in January.
Both groups agree that the pro-gun group is winning the numbers game. Students for Gun Free Schools has about 12,000 members on Facebook. The Concealed Carry group, with members in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, has more than 36,000.
Efforts by gun rights advocates to allow students and teachers to carry concealed weapons on campus have never gotten out of committee in the gun-friendly Virginia legislature the past four years. And a spate of attempts to introduce similar bills in a number of states since the Virginia Tech shooting have failed. But gun rights advocates say the battle is just beginning. And the battleground now, they say, is the hearts and minds and trigger fingers of students themselves.
What better way to create converts and advocates, they say, than to put them in the shoes of Virginia Tech victims and let them feel the difference between being defenseless and having the power to take action.
For the second scenario, bad guy Smith again barged into the classroom and again whacked the teacher between the eyes. But this time, Kelly Clouston and Leah Sargent, students at James Madison, bounced up out of their seats, assumed a wide-legged stance and pointed their "gun" fingers at Smith, not forgetting to pull their hands back slightly to imitate a pistol's recoil after they fired. Smith fell to the floor four seconds after he'd entered.
"See? One person, maybe two, got shot and it's over," Deehan said proudly. "This is the reality with concealed carry. It's over." Clouston and Sargent high-fived each other.
He counseled the students on their classroom shooting technique: "It would be better to drop to the floor on your belly and shoot up."
But Omar Samaha, one of the organizers of the opposing Students for Gun Free Schools whose sister was killed in the massacre, said that these reenactments, in addition to being "disrespectful," prove nothing.
"The way they're setting it up, these students are aware of what's about to happen. It's not like that in a crisis," he said. "When you talk to survivors, they say there's no time to react. There's complete chaos. They say that if there were guns in the classroom, it just would have been so much worse. A lot of students are missing the point here, which is prevention, not reaction."
Samaha's group recently posted videos on YouTube of very different scenarios with guns on campus. In a short film titled "The Bully," a classroom tussle turns deadly when three students whip out handguns and point them at fellow students' heads.
Yesterday's demonstration, in a classroom at the Top Gun Shooting Range in Harrisonburg, was just one of a number of Virginia Tech classroom shooting scenarios that gun rights advocates had been staging all week at JMU, using Nerf guns, plastic toy rifles and fingers. Organizers said more than 100 students and community members came to hear lectures about gun rights, watch the two Virginia Tech scenarios and spend a sunny day shooting actual pistols at the firing range.
"We want people to understand that guns can be safe and guns can be fun," Katie Cannon said. The College Republicans' event coordinator helped organize the gun rights week.
Sargent, a senior music education major, donned thick plastic glasses and screwed bright orange earplugs into her ears. "The line is hot!" organizers called out. "Fire away!" She picked up a Glock 19 9mm and stared down its sights. Pa CHA. The gun discharged. Bull's-eye.
"This is really fun. I loved it," Sargent said after her target shooting session. "I'm really proud of this." She unfurled her target, with a cluster of holes directly in the center of the bull's-eye. "She's a natural," one of the instructors said admiringly. She tucked her long blond hair behind one ear and smiled. A spent bullet casing dropped to the floor.