The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

Speech, guns and searches


The Salt Lake Tribune reports:

A nationally known feminist media critic [Anita Sarkeesian] … said she canceled [a lecture at Utah State University] not because of three death threats—one of which promised "the deadliest school shooting in American history"—but because firearms would be allowed in spite of the threats …

Utah law generally lets people with concealed weapon licenses carry on campus, so USU apparently concluded that it couldn't exclude people who had such licenses and were carrying weapons. Sarkeesian also "said she asked whether police could screen the audience for guns and let them in if they had permits, but Vitale said campus law enforcement officers believed that would have been needlessly invasive for the audience." USU's position was that,

  1. "USU police consulted with the FBI's cyberterrorism task force and behavioral analysis unit and determined that the threats against Sarkeesian would not prevent a safe lecture, even with firearms allowed" (apparently because past such threats against Sarkeesian had not materialized), and
  2. given this, the "metal detectors or pat-downs" that Sarkeesian had asked for (and beyond "backpack check[s]," which the police would have endorsed) "would have been needlessly invasive for the audience."

The Tribune quoted a USU spokesman as saying: "If we felt it was necessary to do [implement more comprehensive searches] to protect Miss Sarkeesian, we absolutely would have done that…. We felt the level of security presence we were putting into this was completely adequate to provide a safe environment."

Naturally, I think that attempts to use the threat of violence against speakers are appalling; I hope USU is right that the threats amounted to nothing, but I wouldn't fault a speaker for declining to speak in light of such threats.

At the same time, I'm pretty skeptical that exclusion of gun carriers, or the use of metal detectors and patdowns to find either all gun carriers or illegal unlicensed carriers, would do much to stop someone bent on a school massacre. And while such searches could possibly protect against someone who is focused on trying to murder just the speaker—if the speaker enters and leaves in a clandestine way—even that seems pretty unlikely. For such a procedure to work, it would require someone (1) who is planning a murder, (2) who doesn't mind getting killed on the spot by police or getting arrested and locked up for life (or executed), and (3) who wouldn't find a way to commit the murder in a way that's safer for him and more likely to succeed. Given this, and given the FBI's judgment that the threats wasn't likely to materialize, it seems reasonable for USU not to pat down all attendees and make them go through metal detectors.

In some situations, screening everyone coming into a place (and barring them from carrying weapons in that place) might be helpful. Airport searches may be justified by the peculiar risks of hijacking present with air travel. Searches of people entering stadiums might help prevent shootings or stabbings stemming from arguments among fans (especially drunken arguments). But even if such screening is sensible in those contexts, I don't think it's going to do much against a would-be mass shooter, or (at least in this particular context) even against someone who is planning to kill just the speaker.

Some, of course, have argued that the presence of people with concealed weapons can decrease the risk of a mass shooting. As I discussed in detail in this post, there have been incidents in which gun-carrying civilians have stopped mass shooters (though in some cases it's hard to tell whether the shooting spree was already over at that point). But the degree to which such citizen concealed carrying can either deter or stop mass shootings is very hard to figure out, and I certainly can't claim to have figured it out.

Thanks to Bill Poser for the pointer.