Dwight Springthorpe learned how to shoot out of necessity. Growing up in rural North Carolina, his parents’ farm was plagued with coyotes. Springthorpe learned gun safety and marksmanship from his father. And, he says, he was pretty effective in keeping the coyotes off his family’s land.
Now a senior at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Springthorpe continues to shoot for sport as president of the Tar Heel Rifle and Pistol Club (THRPC). For college students to participate in a gun club – or even work on their own to start one – seems almost an anachronism, antithetical to the political correctness of the academic world.
But, as HUMAN EVENTS found, it’s a lot more common than most of the academic world would have us believe for one reason: students value their Second Amendment rights and are willing to work to protect them.
Although he enjoys taking the Mauser 98 rifle he custom built with his dad to the local range for a good time with friends, Springthorpe takes more pride in defending the principles of the Second Amendment every time he takes aim.
“Just as college students learn about the importance of free expression and the right to a fair trial, I believe they should have equal access to an education concerning the right to self-defense,” said Springthorpe, a physics major. “Though the use of force is always unfortunate and, I feel, should be avoided if at all possible, the Second Amendment ensures that the last and, perhaps most vital, line of defense remains.”
The THRPC began three years ago when a student active in UNC’s Student Congress sought to develop a firearms sports and Second Amendment organization.
The club has since experienced significant growth, with 180 students now listed as members on the mailing list.
The campus student government recognizes THRPC as a legitimate student organization, entitling the group to annual funding. Such support has allowed the club to host major events at no cost to the participants. Large events at the beginning and end of the school year are designed to teach new shooters about gun safety and basic shooting techniques
“Each event starts with a discussion about gun safety and safe operation of the firearms that will be used that day,” Springthorpe explained. “This is followed by an opportunity to participate in various live fire exercises under the auspices of an instructor.”
Since weapons of any kind are prohibited from the UNC campus, as is the case at most colleges and universities, all events occur off campus. Several local ranges provide access to facilities and certified instructors.
Among the national organizations aiming to help college students defend the Second Amendment is the Leadership Institute’s Campus Leadership Program. Based in Arlington, Va., LI affiliates itself with conservative organizations like Gun Owners of America and sends field representatives across the country to help students start independent conservative organizations, including those that seek to preserve gun rights.
According to Ed King, an LI campus services coordinator, there has been a steady increase over the past two years. LI currently works with 136 gun groups. Of those, 84 were created in the past calendar year. California, often touted as a blue state, surprisingly shares the highest number of groups with Pennsylvania, as eight groups are scattered across both the Golden and Keystone states.
Several factors have led to the increase, but above all, a stronger focus on self-defense has emerged in the wake of campus shootings, according to King.
“Recent events, such as the shooting at Virginia Tech, have reinforced an entrenched narrative in mainstream media: There must be stricter gun control,” King said. “Officials respond to that pressure with stricter gun control legislation that fails to decrease gun violence.”
Conservatives, according to King, understand that to effectively counter gun violence, there must be a responsible armed citizenry.
“Conservative students are organizing to fight the unconstitutional and ineffective ban on the 2nd Amendment on most college campuses,” King said.
Over 200 other collegiate shooting programs across the country provide students with the opportunity to show off their skills and shoot competitively.
According to Victoria Croft, National Manager of the NRA Collegiate and School Programs, no outward trend is apparent with the number of competitive clubs increasing or declining.
“I can say that the clubs remain a stable number from year to year,” said Croft, who plans the NRA’s collegiate pistol championship. “Some may be disbanded for a variety of reasons, but we have new ones being developed routinely. It seems to equal out comfortably.”
Students are also beginning to recognize the tremendous amount of scholarship money that is available to collegiate shooters, according to Damaso Torres, co-founder and now national executive director of Students for the Second Amendment, a nonpartisan student organization whose primary missions are to educate and stimulate debate on campuses about the Second Amendment.
“Many local SF2A chapters and similar groups frequently host ‘day at the range’ events to introduce their classmates to the safe enjoyment of the shooting sports,” said Torres, a graduate student at St. Mary’s University studying international relations.
SF2A was founded in 2000 by two university students in Texas who wanted a vehicle by which they could organize and host bi-annual skeet and trap shoots for college students. The organization has since grown from two South Texas chapters to chapters in 22 states. In 2002 SF2A introduced its Collegiate Firearms Instructor Program, which certifies college students as NRA instructors. To date, the program has introduced over 6,800 youth to the safe enjoyment of shooting sports and traditions, according to Torres.
“It was realized that the greatest need for this training was in youth serving organizations,” Torres said. “It seems we have lost one generation of sport shooters, perhaps two. We see it as our mission to help pass on our shooting, hunting and outdoor traditions.”
The University of Vermont Shooting Sports Club began in 2003 as a way for student gun enthusiasts to meet and shoot together. Sixty members are currently on the mailing list, and around 15 active participants show up for the frequent trap and 5-stand shooting events, as well as service rifle clinics and firearm safety classes. The group hosted its first collegiate trap and 5-stand shoot last fall with Yale University and the University of Connecticut, and about three dozen student shooters participated.
According to Jay Tuttle, club president, the group possesses no specific agenda to defend the Second Amendment, although their ability to enjoy the sport of shooting depends on the amendment’s preservation.
“We have everyone from every end of the political spectrum,” Tuttle said. “We do let members know about what bills are going through, and we inform our membership of what’s going on that could affect our Second Amendment rights. If there was something that was going to be affecting our club activities, then yes, our club would have an official response to it.”
With no political conflicts on campus, the club’s primary problem is storage because students cannot keep firearms on campus property. Currently Tuttle and the other club officers keep their guns in safes in off-campus apartments.
Student shooters at Hillsdale College in southern Michigan will not have a problem storing their firearms in a few years. The college purchased 72 acres of land three miles south of campus for a shooting range, set to be completed this fall. Long-term plans include a storage locker for student weapons. The land purchase was funded in part by the Roland Ebersole endowment, which promotes Second Amendment rights.
Next spring Michigan State University is set to open a 23,000-square-foot shooting sports facility with indoor archery and small-bore rifle ranges and three outdoor archery ranges. The MSU archery team and Air Rifle club will primarily utilize the center.
Of course, college students have not only formed shooting clubs to spark awareness for gun rights. On campuses across the country students have utilized their First Amendment freedoms to stimulate discussion about the amendment closest to their hearts. Several student protests and demonstrations over the last few years have garnered nation-wide media attention.
Nearly all colleges and universities nationwide ban firearms on campus. Students for Concealed Carry on Campus (SCCC) would like to change that, contending that concealed-carry permit holders should be able to bring legal weapons to campus to defend themselves.
In just one year, SCCC has recruited over 30,000 members, aided by the use of a Facebook group. College students make up 90 percent of the members, while the other 10 perecent consists of faculty, parents, and concerned citizens. Almost 350 chapters have been established across the country in 45 states and Canada. Virginia Tech even now has a chapter. To place the numbers into perspective, approximately one out of every 630 college students in the United States is now a member of SCCC.
To start a dialogue with fellow students and faculty members about the Second Amendment, the SCCC sponsored its second national collegiate empty holster protest in April.
University of Central Florida students wore empty gun holsters around on campus in protest of a state law that prohibits students and staff from carrying guns on campus. The university’s Knights Rifle Association, a group of students who educate peers about Second Amendment rights and other gun-related issues, hosted the protest.
"I think students should have the option to protect themselves on campus," said Peter Closi, KRA president. "We have seen too many tragedies occur because a crazed student got angry at life and decided to take it out other people by bringing weapons on campus. In my mind it makes absolutely no sense to ban students with the proper permits [with a 4 hour safety and training course and full background checks] to bring guns on campus."
The University of Colorado-Colorado Springs chapter of SCCC wore empty holsters around campus as well during the week-long campaign.
“The group was formed after the Virginia Tech shootings and in response to a newly created ban on guns at their university—a policy they consider unconstitutional and that leaves students unable to protect themselves,” said Nicole Gonzalez Knowlton, a LI campus services coordinator.
To make a point about the Second Amendment, a conservative student newspaper at Clemson University sponsored a drawing for an AK-47 rifle in 2006.
According to Amanda Carey, editor of the Tiger Town Observer, the raffle served as the publication’s way of celebrating the freedoms and rights granted to American citizens and students alike in the Second Amendment.
“It is so important for our generation to stand up for this right, especially as we see other individual freedoms come under attack every day,” the Clemson junior political science major said. “Gun control advocates use fear as a tool to regulate civil liberties, yet every American has the right to protect him or herself. To take that away is not only unconstitutional; it is removing our last defense in preserving our country, our freedom, and our lives.”
Female students have become more open to the idea of protecting themselves by carrying a handgun instead of waiting for police to respond to a crime scene.
“College students, including females, have the right to protect themselves and their loved ones, just as any other American should have that right,” said Marinelle Thompson, founder and president of Second Amendment Sisters, a women’s advocacy group dedicated to preserving the basic human right to self-defense. “College women are often targets of rapists and worse because they must walk across a dark campus at night to get to classes or to their dorm.”
At the University of North Dakota last year, Females for Firearms organized an on-campus protest when housing officials attempted to ban firearms from students’ campus apartments.
“[The ban] was especially trouble for women on campus who rely on their Second Amendment right for protection from possible break-ins and attackers,” said Craig Burgers, an LI Campus Services Coordinator.
The protest drew attention from a variety of media, including local television and radio, as well as the Associated Press.
“The support they generated from this protest was amazing,” Burgers said. “Not only did they get a positive response from the University of North Dakota community but even state representatives took note.”
For many students, the issue comes down to safety more than pushing a political agenda. According to the SCCC Web site, chapter organizers come from diverse political backgrounds: “Among SCCC’s organizers you’ll find at least one conservative Republican, at least one liberal Democrat, and at least one moderate Independent.”
Although THRPC exists to promote Second Amendment rights, firearms education and enjoyment of firearms-related sports, Springthorpe stresses that no conservative pre-requisite exists.
“Outside of Second Amendment issues, we strive to remain apolitical so people of any background feel comfortable and welcomed into the world of firearms and shooting sports,” he said.
The students’ actions reflect a possible change in the national attitude toward gun rights. Although groups like the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence boast large numbers of followers, a recent poll shows a decline in support for gun control laws.
In an online survey last month by The Harris Poll, a two to one plurality of Americans expressed beliefs that the Second Amendment supports an individual’s right to bear arms. Most strikingly, though, the results show that those in favor of stricter gun control are no longer the majority. Ten years ago, 69 percent favored stricter gun control; in the most recent poll, however, 49 percent now support stronger measures.
The trend among America’s future leaders – and the strength of the gun clubs proliferating around the country – may be a strong indicator that the days of draconian gun control measures are just about over.