Guns on Grounds — where did Jefferson stand?

How U.Va.'s founder's stance lines up with current policy

The question of whether students and faculty should be able to carry guns on college campuses has been asked across the nation in the past year. In February 2015, lawmakers in 10 states proposed bills allowing students to carry firearms for protection purposes. In December 2015, two Republicans in the Virginia General Assembly proposed House Bill 79, which would allow concealed carry by full-time faculty at institutes of higher education. This bill was referred to the House’s Committee on Education, and it is still under review.

The only college or university in Virginia that currently allows students to carry firearms is Liberty University. However, as a result of recent shootings on the Corner and around Charlottesville, the topic of guns on college campuses has gotten more attention on Grounds.

Jefferson’s stance on guns

Thomas Jefferson was a strong advocate for the right to bear arms, and he owned his own shotgun along with several other weapons. In a draft of the Virginia Constitution, Jefferson wrote, “No freeman shall be debarred the use of arms [within his own lands or tenements].”

In addition, Jefferson believed carrying a gun was a form of exercise for the body and mind. In a letter to his nephew, which has been archived on Monticello’s website, Jefferson wrote, “As to the species of exercise, I advise the gun. While this gives a moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprize and independance to the mind. Let your gun therefore be the constant companion of your walks.”

Despite Jefferson’s use of guns in his personal life, he did not believe students and faculty should use them on Grounds. Before classes started at the University in 1825, the Visitors of the University — later called the Board of Visitors — met to discuss several issues. Minutes from Encyclopedia Virginia show that those present at the meeting — including Jefferson and James Madison — decided no student shall “keep or use weapons or arms of any kind.” The Visitors of the University also decided to make “challenge or combat with arms” a reason for expulsion.

In his writings, Jefferson expressed how he envisioned the University as a place of learning, not as a place for firearms. In a letter to Louis Xaupi, Jefferson said the Rotunda should be used for the instruction of liberal arts, not for “the art of stabbing and pistolling our friends, or dexterity in the practice of an instrument exclusively used for killing our fellow-citizens only and never gainst the public enemy.”

The University’s firearm regulations

Under section 30 of the University of Virginia’s protective policy, the University strives to promote a safe environment for all students, faculty, staff and visitors. This means the University reserves the right to regulate weapons, fireworks and explosives.

History Prof. Alan Taylor, the University’s Thomas Jefferson Foundation chair, said he supports the current gun regulations.

“I support such a regulation as essential to a sense of security for everyone on Grounds and for promoting the free exchange of ideas without the fear of angering someone with a firearm,” Taylor said in an email statement. “By contrast, in Texas and other states that forbid such regulation, faculty and many students are more fearful, and it has a chilling effect on faculty-student interactions.”

Taylor said Jefferson’s stance on guns at the University was warranted because of the prevalence of duels between students.

“In [Jefferson’s] day, duels with firearms between students was a major problem at southern universities,” he said. “He and the other visitors were quite strict about no weapons — including swords and pistols — on Grounds to prevent this problem at U.Va.”

Of course, there are exceptions to this strict no firearm policy. The chief of the University Police Department may give consent for individuals to have a weapon on Grounds if the weapon is for an educational purpose. Unloaded firearms are also acceptable in a parade or ceremony hosted by the University. Other exceptions to the policy range from ROTC activities to University-contracted security.

In the most recent consideration of gun policies on Grounds in 2011, all 16 members of the Board of Visitors voted in favor of the prohibited weapon regulation. However, this firearm policy has angered some Second Amendment activists and has made some students and faculty feel unprotected.

Student perspectives

Students at the University have mixed feelings about the no firearm regulation on Grounds. Some believe the regulation is the only way to ensure safety, while others see it as a clear infringement on Second Amendment rights.

Second-year College student Michael Atalla, a member of the College Republicans, said citizens should have the right to carry arms, though regulation is necessary to ensure protection.

“I personally believe that the [Second] Amendment right is a fundamental right granted to the citizens of this country under the United States Constitution,” Atalla said in an email statement. “I do believe that proper vetting is needed to ensure guns only end up in the hands of law abiding citizens, citizens that pose no imminent threat to society. I believe gun law reform is needed — but it is needed in such a way where the government doesn't step in and abridge a citizen's rights.”

Regarding guns at the University, Atalla said professors should be able to carry guns for protective purposes.

“I do not believe students should be able to have guns on Grounds, but I believe professors should be able to carry a concealed weapon,” Atalla said “[I think] this would deter potential mass shootings that have occurred in schools before. Also, those specific students within the ROTC programs should be able to use real firearms to train, because at the end of the day, in battle, they will not only be using real weapons, but they will be fired at with real weapons.”

University Democrats President Sam Tobin, a fourth-year College student, said the University’s current gun regulations are exactly what they should be.

“I feel very good about the current gun policy,” Tobin said. “Allowing guns on Grounds would be unsafe, ridiculous and a hazard to all students. I highly encourage [the University] to maintain the current regulation.”

Currently, there’s no indication the University will review its existing policy in the near future.

related stories