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National campus survey finds almost 1 million students carrying weapons

To assess one measure of safety on the nation's college campuses, a team of researchers from Cornell University and Southern Illinois University at Carbondale reviewed student responses to a national survey that asked how often during the past 30 days they carried weapons.

The result was mixed: seven percent of all students, including 11 percent of males and 4 percent of females, responded positively to the question, translating to some 980,000 students nationwide who say they are carrying weapons.

That is a lower percentage than other surveys have revealed for the general population and for high school students, the researchers note, but still presents a problem for campuses, since the weapon-carrying male students also report that they drink more alcohol, engage in binge drinking and substance abuse, and get in more fights and arguments than their unarmed fellow students.

A profile of armed female students was less consistent, showing some increased drug use, but no increase in use of alcohol or in binge drinking.

What do these facts say about safety on campuses?

"The survey results say that college campuses are relatively safer than many surrounding communities, but there are no completely safe havens," said Philip W. Meilman, director of counseling and psychological services at Cornell University Health Services and courtesy professor of Human Development at Cornell. He conducted the study with Cheryl A. Presley, executive director, and Jeffrey R. Cashin, assistant director, of the Core Institute at Southern Illinois. They examined responses to the 1994-95 Core Alcohol and Drug Survey administered on 61 campuses; 26,225 students responded to the question about weapons.

The study is being published in the July issue of the Journal of American College Health.

"When you mix weapons with alcohol, you have a recipe for something bad happening," Meilman said. "There is a higher potential for violent acts."

Presley said the point of the study was to gather baseline data about the extent of the problem of weapons on campus and to educate and inform the higher education community about it.

Weapon carrying seems to be more of a male phenomenon, she added, with these specifics revealed by the survey:

--Armed men drink 62 percent more than other men on an average weekly basis and more of them engage in binge drinking.

--Almost 63 percent of the armed men who engage in binge drinking habits reported fights and arguments, compared with only 21.5 percent of armed men who did not binge.

--Armed men used more tobacco (59 percent versus 43 percent), marijuana (42 percent versus 31 percent), amphetamines (13 percent versus 5 percent) and hallucinogens (13 percent versus 6 percent) than unarmed men.

--Armed men have more negative consequences from their behavior: 68 percent report hangovers, 34 percent report impaired academic performance, 45 percent get into arguments and fights, 54 percent drive while impaired, 25 percent get hurt or injured, and 43 percent encounter criticism for substance abuse, among other consequences.

--Greater numbers of armed men contemplate or attempt suicide: 13 percent (compared to 4 percent) contemplate suicide and 7 percent (compared to 1 percent) attempt it.

The data for armed women was much less conclusive, Meilman said. Armed women reported no differences in use of alcohol or in binge drinking from unarmed women. They report more use of some drugs and a greater percentage of armed women (21 to 14 percent) report impaired academics. Like the armed men, they report more thoughts of suicide (10 percent to 3 percent) and suicide attempts (5 percent to less than one percent). But many less females than males carry weapons.

Weapon-carrying students report more harassment, violence and a greater perception of danger on campus, the study showed. The authors speculate that these students could feel the need to carry weapons in response to their experiences of fear and that the weapons may also embolden them to the point where they feel more confident about placing themselves in risky situations. It is also possible weapons may actually make them more aggressive.

"It seems like there is a real fear factor," Meilman noted. "The data suggests students carry weapons out of fear, but where that fear is coming from, we don't at this point know."

Few if any universities allow unrestricted weapons possession, Presley added, which makes the 11 percent of males admitting to carrying weapons a real problem for campuses.

"Campuses need to highlight those policies for students," she said. "We don't want people to be lulled into a sense of false complacency, thinking there are no weapons on campuses. We're dealing with an interesting subset of college students and we need to learn more about them, and about how they differ from other students."

Meilman said that further analyses need to be conducted to see what is driving the students' need to carry weapons on their campuses. He also recommended that each campus assess what is going on locally and design its own program of prevention.

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Simeon Moss