It was a sunny, yet chilly Monday afternoon on West Virginia University’s campus. A handful of people stood in the tan brick plaza across from the Mountainlair, WVU’s student union. They carried signs with pointed messages — such as “Almost Heaven or Almost Hell?” — and prepared to speak against Senate Bill 10. The legislation would allow people with concealed carry permits to bring guns into most spaces on public universities, save for some exceptions, including campus daycares and dorm rooms.
Few students stopped to listen to them share emotional stories about personal experiences with gun violence. As they spoke, a man drove by, yelling “Protect the second amendment.” A woman walked by and raised her middle finger toward the group.
The scene was indicative of the complex views on guns held by young people across West Virginia. Some have lived through shootings or know someone who has. Others grew up with family members who carried guns to hunt or defend themselves. They say having additional responsible gun owners on campus would make them feel safer. But even those in favor acknowledged that it’s a complicated issue and said they understand why having more guns on campus might make their peers feel less safe.
Twenty miles down I-79 at Fairmont State University, student Matt Davis said their family carried guns, growing up. Even so, Davis said the passage of SB 10 would make them feel uneasy because it’s already too easy to legally obtain a gun in America.
“I also think there are people that get guns and aren’t ready for them or shouldn’t have a gun, but they go through the process legally and they get it,” Davis said. “And I feel like having people carrying weapons that they are not properly trained to use, they do not know how to use properly — they could get fearful and use their gun in the wrong situation.”
Miriam Lopez, another Fairmont State student, disagreed slightly.
“Changing gun laws isn’t going to stop a criminal from bringing the weapon in there,” Lopez said, as she stood with Davis in a mostly empty grass quad, circled by the campus’ tan brick buildings. “If I have something that could protect myself or others, then I’m going to do it.”
Further up the quad, Pittsburgh native Robert McMichael exited the university’s student center. Inside, people studied, chatted and exercised. Splashes of maroon and white, the university’s colors, were everywhere — alongside images of its mascot, the Falcons.
When asked for his thoughts on SB 10, McMichael said he, like many students interviewed for this story, hadn’t heard of the bill. But the college junior said he wouldn’t feel safer if more students could carry guns on campus.
“I think we do need safety because . . . there are bad parts of West Virginia. We do need to protect ourselves. But at the same time, what just happened with Michigan State last night, that’s unacceptable, right?” McMichael said, referencing a shooting last Sunday that resulted in three deaths.
An hour and a half away, in the Northern Panhandle, students at West Liberty University were celebrating Valentine’s Day. Campus was largely quiet, except during class changes. One girl ran toward her friends with a bouquet of flowers in her hands.
“He bought you flowers?” Her friends asked. “Look how cute he is!”
Outside the university’s student union, a sticker on the door signaled guns weren’t allowed inside the building. Joey Adams, an Ohio native who is pursuing his MBA at West Liberty, said he would be okay with that changing.
Adams grew up hunting, mainly white-tailed deer and sometimes squirrels and foxes. He concealed-carries his Glock 26 everywhere, except campus, and he said being able to bring it on university grounds would make him feel safer. However, he’d want West Liberty to have the power to impose additional requirements on top of those needed to obtain a concealed carry permit — such as requiring an extra psychological evaluation.
“I live in a part of town where I hate walking to my car without my gun,” Adams said. “Then there’s also the whole fact of, what if something does happen up here? Because college kids aren’t the most mentally stable sometimes. We’re under a lot of stress. . . Say there is one crazy person that does want to go do something terrible. It’s nice knowing that there would be other people here that could stop that person.”
Another West Liberty student, Olivia Gorby, disagreed wholeheartedly.
“I’d prefer if people didn’t have guns on campus. Jesus Christ,” Gorby said. “ Like if I’m walking in the union, and I see somebody packing. I’m going to leave. Even if they do have a permit, why do you think you need that on a college campus? It would make me feel extremely unsafe.”
Despite an hour-long public hearing where speakers overwhelmingly opposed SB 10, West Virginia lawmakers have advanced the bill. It will be up for passage before the full House next week; if it passes and Gov. Jim Justice signs it, the bill will become law.