When Ryan James Martin walks around the Virginia Tech campus, he wears an empty handgun holster at his side as a silent reminder to his fellow students that he is not allowed to bear arms there.
“It just calls attention to the fact that we are unarmed and have no self defense, essentially, except for our fists,” Martin said.
The administration in Blacksburg has viewed Martin’s advocacy with concern, and some of his peers have displayed vehement disdain, in large part because the campus experienced a searing mass murder on April 16, 2007. Within the span of 11 minutes that spring morning, Seung Hui Cho fired 174 gunshots in Norris Hall, and in total he killed 32 students and faculty members and wounded 17 others. Though nearly a decade ago, the memory remains fresh.
Now Martin is fasting as part of a hunger strike aimed at bringing attention to his efforts to allow students who are 21 or older — and appropriately permitted by the state — to carry concealed weapons, which would mean keeping a firearm on their person or within a backpack so that it is not readily visible. Martin’s protest began early Monday morning and will continue until at least Friday, when Virginia Tech President Timothy Sands is scheduled to give an address on the state of the university. Martin said that he’s willing to end his fast if he’s given an audience with Sands; he wants to make the case for allowing concealed carry on campus.
“It’s not a Republican or Democratic issue, or an Independent issue,” Martin said. “It’s about the right for self defense for Virginia Tech students and faculty members on this campus. It’s an issue that I simply want to talk about.”
Michael Stowe, a Virginia Tech spokesman, said the university “certainly respects any student’s right to civil protest, provided that person abides by our Principles of Community and incurs no harm to self or others.”
Martin, a native of Fredericksburg, Va., fondly remembers the day in middle school when he received his first gun as a gift, a .22 caliber plinker. Now he owns five others, including a 12-gauge shotgun, a .243 rifle, an AR-15 assault-style rifle, a Smith and Wesson .40 caliber pistol and a Glock 19, the same kind of handgun Cho used in the 2007 mass shooting.
Now in his fifth year on campus, Martin is majoring in both English and Biology and has aspirations to become a high school teacher or perhaps pursue a career in law enforcement. He often takes friends who are curious about his hobby to a nearby shooting range. Martin said that many of his classmates don’t know much about firearms and that he enjoys exposing them to sport shooting.
“I come from a place where guns are everywhere — pretty much everybody has one,” Martin said. “A lot of my peers are from places where that doesn’t ring true. … If you don’t know about something, it’s going to be scary from the outset.”
Two hours east of Blacksburg, at Liberty University, students at the conservative Christian school are encouraged to arm themselves, and the school’s president has given speeches with a pistol in his back pocket. Liberty allowed people with permits to carry concealed weapons on campus in 2011, a move school officials described as being in response to the 2007 mass shooting at Va. Tech. In December, Liberty announced plans to let qualified students store guns in residence halls for the first time, and many members of the community have said they planned to take free classes from Liberty police on gun safety, a step toward obtaining a state permit to carry a concealed weapon.
At Va. Tech, Martin has faced insults from opponents and anonymous sniping online from detractors since he began his hunger strike. But he’s also received support from faculty members who are concerned for his health in light of his hunger strike, and he has had numerous peaceful discussions with students about the possibility of carrying handguns on campus.
It’s also unclear exactly how much support Martin has at Virginia Tech. A group he started on Facebook, Students for Campus Concealed Carry, has just 43 likes. He admits that attendance at his rallies are sparse. But that’s not the point, Martin said, noting that many of his supporters don’t want to attract attention to themselves on a campus that is especially sensitive about the possibility of guns in classrooms.
“All in all, I think I’ve already brought success by bringing this to thousands of Virginia Tech students and alumni,” Martin said.