The president of Liberty University, a popular pilgrimage site for presidential candidates, urged students during the school’s convocation Friday to get their permits to carry concealed weapons.
In his remarks, President Jerry Falwell Jr., son of the late religious right leader Jerry Falwell Sr., pressed students at the Christian school in Lynchburg, Va., to carry weapons on campus following Wednesday’s mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif.
“It just blows my mind that the president of the United States [says] that the answer to circumstances like that is more gun control,” he said to applause.
“If some of those people in that community center had what I have in my back pocket right now …,” he said while being interrupted by louder cheers and clapping. “Is it illegal to pull it out? I don’t know,” he said, chuckling.
“I’ve always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in,” he says, the rest of his sentence drowned out by loud applause while he said, “and killed them.”
“I just wanted to take this opportunity to encourage all of you to get your permit. We offer a free course,” he said. “Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here.”
Falwell told The Washington Post on Saturday that he has had a concealed-carry permit for about a year, but decided for the first time Friday to carry a .25 pistol because of the attacks in San Bernardino on Wednesday. Falwell said he has had several shotguns, rifles and pistols on his farm for several years but is new to carrying a concealed weapon and needs to find a holster for his pistol.
Falwell said that when he referred to “those Muslims,” he was referring to Islamic terrorists, specifically those behind the attacks in Paris and in San Bernardino. “That’s the only thing I would clarify,” Falwell said. “If I had to say what I said again, I’d say exactly the same thing.”
A spokesman for Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) sent the following statement on Saturday:
“My administration is committed to making Virginia an open and welcoming Commonwealth, while also ensuring the safety of all of our citizens. Mr. Falwell’s rash and repugnant comments detract from both of those crucial goals,” McAuliffe said. “Those of us in leadership positions, whether in government or education, must take care to remember the tremendous harm that can result from reckless words.”
Liberty University’s convocation service, held three times a week in a 12,000-seat sports arena, is mandatory for the schools’ students who live on campus and is also watched by thousands of its 95,000 online students.
Falwell said his comments have generated the most positive comments he has ever received for remarks made during convocation. “The support here on campus is almost universal,” he said. Students of all faiths can attend Liberty, and Falwell estimated that about 15 to 20 students on campus are Muslim.
Some theologians believe that Jesus would call on Christians to put down their weapons in the face of violence. In response, Falwell referenced the story from the gospels of Jesus chasing money changers out of the temple with a whip.
“Jesus said ‘Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s,’ and part of that was to go to war, protecting whatever nation was under control of the king,” Falwell said. “I wouldn’t agree with any interpretation of Scripture that was used to say that a man or a woman shouldn’t protect their families.”
Virginia residents who are at least 21 years old may apply for a concealed weapons permit once they have completed training that satisfies state requirements. Residents must be at least 18 to purchase a shotgun or rifle and 21 to purchase a handgun.
Falwell noted the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman in U.S. history.
“I always wonder, what if one of those professors and students had a concealed weapon and could’ve ended what happened and saved countless lives?” Falwell said. “I don’t understand why it’s controversial for law-abiding citizens protecting themselves under the Second Amendment.”
Falwell said the overwhelming support he has received from students comes from the frustration that they don’t feel represented in the national conversation about gun violence.
“I think they’re so tired of being told they’re the problem because they have guns and because America is a country that has gun ownership,” he said. “They don’t hear anybody saying what they believe so when someone finally says something like I did yesterday, they were just hungry to hear it.”
Falwell retweeted several tweets praising his remarks, including one that said “SUCK IT, Muslim extremists,” with a link to the weapons course Liberty offers.
In April 2013, Liberty’s board of trustees approved a policy allowing students and faculty members with permits to carry concealed weapons on campus, except in residence halls. In November 2013, a 19-year-old Liberty student was shot and killed at an off-campus women’s dormitory when the student attacked a campus police officer with a hammer.
Falwell’s remarks to the students on Friday took place after former Republican Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.), president of the Heritage Foundation, spoke.
Liberty prides itself on being the largest private, nonprofit university in the country, the largest university in Virginia and the largest Christian university in the world. The school has become a pilgrimage destination for Republican candidates (and Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders) seeking to build bridges to conservative Christian voters.
Most of the university’s dramatic growth has come through distance education and also from an expansion in federal aid. Two decades ago, Liberty students received less than $20 million in federal aid, but its students now receive more than $800 million a year in such aid.
Most major religious groups favor stricter gun-control laws, including black Protestants (76 percent), Catholics (67 percent) and white mainline Protestants (57 percent), according to a 2013 Public Religion Research Institute survey. But white evangelicals are the religious group least likely to support stricter laws (38 percent favor them while 59 percent oppose them).
(This story has been updated to reflect a new interview with Falwell and the statement from McAuliffe.)