“I don’t feel the need to carry a gun to class,” he says, two weeks before he’s scheduled to head back to the range. “I’m not big on the whole personal protection argument. I have more respect for hunting and sportsmanship…. I think the data is pretty clear that you don’t actually become safer for personal protection.”
This Penn junior supports gun–control legislation and identifies as a Democrat. Still, the student asks to be anonymous. He doesn’t want to be “the gun guy” on campus.
On Oct. 4, the Penn’s Department of Public Safety (DPS) announced an unspecified threat to a University “near Philadelphia.” Only hours before, four high school students were arrested in California for plotting to “kill as many people as possible,” caught in the process of acquiring weapons.
Days earlier, Oregon’s Umpqua Community College lost nine lives. The New York Times reported that the Oregon shooter’s mother regularly visited gun ranges, kept several weapons at the house and had been aware of her son’s Asperger's syndrome.
ABC reported that in 2015 alone, there have been 47 school shootings. At this time last year, the number was 50.
Yet few students own guns. According to a 2002 Journal of American College Health study, one of the few that exist, 4.3% of students kept a working firearm at college. Almost half of these students cited protection as their primary reason for owning a gun. Still, most colleges and universities ban weapons on campus.
At any time, there can be up to 118 University–sanctioned firearms at Penn, all semi–automatic weapons carried by University police. But for students, guns are prohibited—a rule that has consistently gone unchallenged in recent years, according to DPS.
School policy states: “University faculty, students, staff, whether working or not and visitors and members of the University community, may not possess or use air rifles, pistols, firearms, weapons, ammunition, gunpowder, fireworks, explosives, gasoline and other dangerous articles and substances in University buildings or on University property.”
A few Penn students have been caught with weapons on campus, though never in a violent context. In the past two decades, DPS estimates there have only been two or three cases. According to DPS, gun violence usually involves individuals unaffiliated with the University. In 2006, Mari Oish, who was a sophomore in Engineering at the time, was shot in a robbery near 38th and Walnut streets. Years later, she began speaking at freshman orientations to share her experience with other students.
Nationwide, University policy cannot regulate student activity off campus. A dwindling but significant number of students still shoot, whether at ranges in Philadelphia or at home. For many at Penn, recreational shooting culture, which can mean anything from outdoor hunting to shooting more powerful weapons in a closed, indoor range, is inherently linked to this gun violence. For others, the realms are completely separate.
Student’s don’t agree on what it means to shoot a gun.
As a private entity, the University is relatively free to regulate the presence of weapons on its own property. Still, the Pennsylvania State Constitution states that “the people have a right to bear arms for the defence of themselves and the state.”
No law specifically bans college students from legally owning guns or pursuing a concealed carry license. If a student lives off campus, that individual can keep a gun in his or her house.
While most recreational shooters at Penn do not own a firearm, it’s not illegal.
In 1927, Betty Funston, a talented sharpshooter, founded and captained the University’s first Women’s Rifle Team. To practice for competitions, the women would meet at Franklin Field; later, they also began to use an indoor range in the arena’s north arcade.
Yet 1967 was the final time The Daily Pennsylvanian reported on a female rifle shooter, according to the Penn Current. By 1955, the University Archives took over what was left of the Old Shooting Gallery, and the University began to lose trace of the organization’s presence on campus.
There are still women on campus who know how to shoot. Olivia Webb, now a junior studying Health and Societies, says she started shooting when she was ten. At age twelve, she took a hunting safety course so she could receive a license. Learning to shoot was a family activity, a way to spend time with her father and grandfather.
“Learning how to shoot can be empowering,” she adds. “I think it’s important for girls to learn certain skills even if they’re typically considered masculine.” Olivia hopes she’ll never have to use a firearm for self–defense, but she believes “it’s important to know how.”
DPS says there’s no way for students to appeal or apply for an exception to the on–campus firearms ban, even for personal safety. But in the past, University policy barring student’s carrying guns have been challenged, even in the Ivy League.
Last year, Dartmouth student Taylor Woolrich made headlines campaigning for on–campus concealed carry. School policy, like those of many universities, does not allow firearms on school property. Woolrich, who was stalked across the country from her home state of California, believed having a gun would make her safer. Taylor visited law enforcement officials, who encouraged her to purchase, and learn how to use, a weapon.
“It’s a terrible thing to be told you have to kill someone,” she said.
Despite multiple attempts to be given an exemption to the campus handguns ban, Dartmouth refused.
Now, some women see concealed carry as the potential solution to a pervasive rape culture, though many, including the national president of sexual assault prevention group One–In–Four, worry that this argument misunderstands how sexual assault occurs.
On Penn’s campus, the debate over gun control, recreational shooting and their social contexts is messy. Few studies analyze gun ownership and gun violence, especially among young people. Some debate whether “firearm incidents” include student suicides. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, more people kill themselves with a firearm than are murdered by one.
Some argue that violence is exacerbated by increased gun ownership; others believe that gun ownership is a form of self–defense and is incentivized by growing violence.
"There is a direct and significant link between recreational gun culture and gun violence to the extent that American society prioritizes inconveniencing gun users as little as possible," says Sean Foley, a senior in the College and President of Penn Democrats. “Those opposed to gun safety regulations argue that new protective procedures would only inconvenience responsible citizens while doing nothing to prevent gun violence; criminals, anti–gun safety opponents insist, would break the laws anyway. This sentiment is as illogical as it is unacceptable. We should prioritize the safety of our communities over the convenience of recreational gun users.”
College Republicans President Will Cassidy, believes that there is a stronger link between mental illness, gang affiliation and gun violence. “Coming from a state—Louisiana—with both a high murder rate and high gun ownership rates, there's a stark divide between recreational hunters and shooters and those who perpetrate the vast majority of gun violence.” He personally favors an assault weapons ban and requiring background checks for online and gun show firearm purchases. “None of these changes tangibly affect recreational gun use.”
And between the political extremes, there is no unanimous opinion.
Dan Kurland is Project Leader of Where's the Love Philadelphia, the gun violence project within PENN ENGAGE, a student think–tank “researching and alleviating socio–economic issues affecting the Philadelphia community.” He believes that change must be directed at the “systematic causes of gun violence at their roots.” For Kurland, gun violence, mental health, socioeconomic disadvantage and education policy intersect.
“I would love to know if recreational shooting is connected to gun violence,” he says.
The University still maintains records of the earliest gun club, originally called The Gun Club, on Penn’s campus, which hint at fun and gossip. Founded in 1883, the group was known for more than its shooting and included a diverse cast of characters. One knew “his ability to shatter not only the stem of a wine glass, but even finger–bowls and tumblers at still greater distances.” Some were members of the Dental School. At one point, there was even a rifle range in the basement of Hutchinson Gym, but it closed decades ago.
Now, the history is relatively forgotten, though the Outdoors Club has become a surrogate outlet for those who seek structured shooting opportunities. Previously, the group has organized trips to outdoor ranges, which provides a significantly different experience from indoor sites. Popular activities include clay pigeon shooting, skeet shooting and sporting clays.
Last year, the group held two trips, which each drew at least fifteen people. Though none for this semester have beens scheduled as of yet, the club’s publicity manager says it’s seen “a fair amount of interest and will most likely be leading a few later this fall. “
According to Athletic Communications Director Michael Mahoney, Penn doesn’t seem to have ever sponsored a varsity rifle program and doesn’t recruit students for shooting. There hasn’t been enough interest, he says, to warrant creating a varsity team.
While the NCAA hosts a rifle championship, no other Ivy League school has a varsity rifle team. The University has also not officially organized any recreational trips.
Penn’s most recent iteration of a recreational shooting social club fell apart in 2013. The group was mostly comprised of seniors, and none of the involved freshman continued to keep the group together. Now, most students who shoot travel in smaller, casual groups or alone. Some don’t even see what local ranges have to offer and wait until they’re back home to practice.
In the past, the libertarian community at Penn has also sponsored trips to ranges.
Yet Korey Gall, who heads Penn for Liberty, says there are no plans for the organization to coordinate a recreational shooting trip. “Is there space for recreational shooting within the libertarian community at Penn?” he asks. “Absolutely, there just doesn't seem to be as strong of an interest in it as there has been.”
Getting to a gun range from Penn is not difficult. Across town at Percy Street is The GUN RANGE, a small, off–the–beaten path building painted white, one of the few places in Philadelphia where one can recreationally shoot. “We are a liberal Northeastern college campus,” one student comments. “A lot of people have never been exposed to gun.”
It’s important to remember that many student recreational shooters don’t own a firearm and simply choose to rent from the range they visit. For THE GUN RANGE, this number is about ninety percent.
Upon entering, visitors are asked to fill out forms and provide ID, standard practice required by federal law. When a newcomer enters the range, a staffer quickly stops and offers a training session to the beginner, which goes over shooting technique and safety.
There are two women in the entire store. One is a member of law enforcement, as indicated by her ID, and is wearing a Green Bay Packers shirt. Another is older and likely on a date.
Behind the main counter, where only employees are permitted, are large, black weapons with large magazine capacities. A beginning college student, however, is more likely to rent a simple pistol. For an hour–long session and safety training, he’ll spend about $90.
A visitor is offered a diverse set of paper targets with various images, no more large poster–sized sheets, available for practice. The simplest are “Bullseye” and “Five Dots.” Another is “’80s Gangster Man.” The less creative can choose the simple “Orange Guy” or “Skeleton.” The most haunting option, perhaps, is “Date Night,” which portrays a ominous cloaked figure in a red mask with a rope and butcher knife.
A nearby cabinet is covered with stickers. One proclaims: “God Bless Our Troops. Specially Our Snipers.” Another is rainbow colored and reads "HONK FOR GAY RIGHTS."
Inside the actual range, a separate area sealed by protective glass and sound–insulation, houses thirteen firing lanes. Bullet casings line the floor—they come in colors, bronze and silver, shining on the dark black ground. Employees, young men with scruffy beards and black t–shirts, quickly sweep the debris away and gossip about Straight Out of Compton. Most of the shooters are older males, white. In 2002, 5.3% of white college students had a gun, compared to only 1.6% of black students.
On the Monday following the DPS warning, and a few weeks after his trip to the range, the anonymous junior sits in an off–campus house, eating freshly–baked brownies at his desk. While working on an assignment, his eyes furrow, thinking about the week before.
“I know having a gun is probably not going to help me, and I’m probably not going to be able to shoot this guy. But still, it’s that feeling of having agency in your surroundings,” he says. “I can understand that feeling.”
Rebecca Heilweil is a sophomore studying History and Journalism. She is a features editor for 34th Street.