The Age of Guns on Campus

Life in America before the Gun-Free Zone

Age of Guns on Campus

When it comes to school campuses today, the expression “Gun-Free Zone” says it all. From the violence brought on schools like Columbine and Sandy Hook, to the protests against military recruiters at some public colleges, the prevailing viewpoint is that the campus is not an appropriate environment for guns of any kind. This zero-tolerance perspective has even led to ludicrous decisions by school administrators to suspend elementary school students who make gun shapes out of Pop Tarts. A Maryland judge last year approved a local school’s policy against “brandishing partially consumed pastries.”

It wasn’t always like this. I recall my own elementary school experience, where parents routinely dropped their kids off in the morning in pickup trucks decked out with gun racks, weapons in tow. A friend told me that his rural college, as recently as fifteen years ago, allowed students to check their hunting rifles into a secure room in the school’s main office, allowing them to go after small game when a final exam wasn’t looming. And there was once a time in America when schools not only allowed guns, but made weapons and ammunition available to students.

I discovered this while reading an article on how World War I impacted one college in Southern California. The story appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Occidental, the alumni magazine from Occidental College, a small liberal arts school located near Pasadena, California, recently famous as one of the schools attended by a young Barack Obama. In “Life During Wartime,” author Paul Robert Walker describes a time when gun access on campuses was not only a reality, but mundane. Granted, it was wartime, and the students on campus were not just thinking about guns, but also about cannons and bombs and military ranks, and anything else having to do with America’s entry into the European conflict.

Even before Woodrow Wilson—a former college president—brought the nation into The Great War, guns were apparently already a thing at the small California school. Chemistry professor Elbert E. Chandler had been working on a “pet project” of adding an indoor rifle range to the campus, one that “could accommodate seven shooters and was 25 yards long with a regulation steel-plate bulkhead.” The firing range opened in early 1918, just in time for the arrival of Maj. E. D. Neff as the school’s chief military training officer, “considered one of the best marksmen in the entire country.”

An on-campus shooting range meant access to guns. “Although heavy Ross rifles were available, the men,” that is, the male students, “had to buy ammunition at the bookstore, where it was sold at close to cost. Women were allowed to use the range and could obtain lighter .22 caliber rifles at the bookstore.” Think about that: guns and bullets were sold to students, some just out of high school, by school officials at the campus bookstore. Next to copies of Webster’s Dictionary, no doubt. Nobody seemed to fear violence from a wayward student. And while I am sure there were some safety protocols in place, the separation of the gun range from the place where gun supplies were sold means that, at least at some point, students were wandering the campus with rifles and ammo in their possession, and storing them in their dorm rooms.

Small private colleges weren’t the only schools open to military training. The University of California at Berkeley hosted a “College for Ordnance Training School” during that same timeframe, something its students today would certainly find abhorrent. Those were different times; although American didn’t enter the war until its final year, university students would have been fully aware of the ongoing threat on the European continent. But even in the post-war peace, guns were not cast out of schools completely, and a few high schools around the country continued to host rifle clubs long beyond passage of federal gun-free-zone legislation in 1990.

Do I want the kids in my life hanging around schools were guns are prevalent? To be honest, I’m not sure. But what I am sure about is that the level of hysteria we apply to guns on school grounds today was not always the norm.

[Image Credits: University of Connecticut History Archives]


  1. Not sure where you’re going with this. If you are simply saying that suspending a kid solely for brandishing a pop tart shaped like a gun is ridiculous, ok. That’s easy. We can all agree with that (although in clicking on your hyperlinked article, I also learned that the NRA made the pop tart bandito a hero and gave him a lifetime membership to its organization. Equally ridiculous.) If you are saying that we had guns on some campuses in 1918 but generally don’t now, ok. I would agree with that historical fact, too. Agreed that we weren’t always “hysterical” about guns on campuses. I’ll grant you that, too (but see below). Gun violence on school campuses wasn’t nearly as significant a problem in the early 20th Century as it is now. You do footnote Sandy Hook and Columbine (and there are many, many more, including Red Lake High, Umpqua Comm. Coll., Virginia Tech, etc., etc., etc.), which are a sufficient justification for alarm? But it all begs the question: are policies allowing guns on campus a good or bad idea? You only conclude with the comment that you’re not sure about whether guns and kids on campus are a good combo. Riding the fence on that issue?

    I won’t. It’s a horrible idea. Gun violence on school campuses was relatively limited from the beginning of the founding of our country through about the 1950s. Then in 1960, school gun violence increased exponentially. It has steadily increased at a frightening rate since, perhaps in part because gun manufacturers have delivered increasingly effective killing machines to the public. Maybe because of changes in society and culture, too. My point is that it is now a very serious American problem. In the Wikipedia article on U.S. School Shootings the author cites authorities for the proposition that “School shootings are an ‘overwhelmingly American’ phenomenon,[1] and have become common place as much to be considered as part of ‘American culture.’ ” That is beyond sad. It’s profoundly tragic. I don’t know how other countries prevent school shootings, but you absolutely do not solve the problem by allowing more guns on campus or relaxing concealed carry policies at school, or arming elementary school children.

    And finally, do we allow pop tarts on campus at all? That’s another discussion for another day.

  2. Thanks for the follow-up, FMR. I wasn’t trying to draw any conclusion about whether we should allow guns on college campuses. This was purely a bit of interesting history. You should know that Occidental College, whose magazine published the underlying article, leans liberal politically, and I wouldn’t expect students there to be NRA members. That being said, the article was extremely evenhanded, and did not attempt to impose modern viewpoints on weapons onto an early twentieth century experience. My focus was on the hysteria that modern Americans attach to so many things, not just guns, but healthcare, saturated fats, vaccines, 100-watt light bulbs, and anything else that is able to make it to a CNN news broadcast. The article covers a period of American history when there was an active war, and I’m sure that fear played a part of how people experienced everyday life. And yet, I doubt that that public fear compares to the level of angst found in so many news reports today, even when the news is covering something so much less dangerous.

    As for Pop Tarts on campus: Pop Tarts are one of the greatest inventions in American history, and they should not only be accepted on campuses, in whatever shape students can build with them, but should be a mandatory part of the school lunch program.

  3. Thanks for the article. However, I don’t think allowing kids to carry gun to school is a good thing. Well! If we allow kids to be carrying guns to high school or colleges, a day will come when a kid will shoot a teacher or instructor for teaching mathematics.

    • Thanks for reading the article. I once had a really poor math teacher, so I understand what you’re saying. In our current environment, guns on campus probably wouldn’t work out to well. But that’s kind of the point: It’s not the guns that have changed, but society.


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