Just over 50 Ithaca College students lined the halls of Textor Hall on Nov. 9, silently holding signs displaying names of gun violence victims outside of an event featuring Larry Pratt, a right-wing gun-rights advocate.
Pratt gave a speech titled Firearms are a Human Right. The event was co-sponsored by the Ithaca College Republicans and the Ithaca College chapter of Young Americans for Liberty, a national organization that supports libertarian activism. The Leadership Institute, a conservative nonprofit, funded the event.
Pratt has been criticized in the past for statements he has made on guns. Following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, Pratt said, “The only thing accomplished by gun-free zones is to ensure that mass murderers can slay more before they are finally confronted by someone with a gun.” Pratt is also the founder of English First, a lobbying organization attempting to make English the official language of the United States. Pratt also said he thought the mass shooting at the screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, Colorado, was an inside job, according to a press release by Pratt’s publicist in 2012.
Firearms are a Human Right event
Senior Caleb Slater, president of the Ithaca College Republicans, introduced Pratt. Slater said the group values personal freedoms, which is why they wanted to have a discussion about gun rights.
“Mr. Pratt comes in with over 40 years of experience working in the gun lobby in our nation’s capital,” Slater said. “While our organizations do not necessarily agree with all of Mr. Pratt’s positions, we do see the value in maintaining space for healthy debate and discussion in a place of higher education.”
However, some within the club contested sponsoring Pratt. Sophomore Michael Carinha, club adviser to the president, and senior Jonathan Ripic, vice president, both announced their resignation on the IC Republicans’ blog because they said that while they supported his right to speak, they did not support his content and the organization’s choice to host him at the college.
“The actions of the ICRs appears to us to be headed in a direction that is so fundamentally based on the idea of free speech and controversy that it is willing to support and host presenters who are not in alignment with their own views,” the they wrote.
Pratt began by giving a brief historical and contextual background on the issue of the Second Amendment. He said the right to bear arms is rooted in history and ideology that goes back to before the U.S. was founded. He posed the issue of gun ownership as not only an inalienable right, but as a logical and bipartisan necessity to control government overreach.
“Nowhere else, of my knowledge, is the Second Amendment embedded in the fundamental documents of the country,” Pratt said.
Pratt, executive director emeritus of pro-gun group Gun Owners of America, discussed the weaknesses he sees in modern gun laws. He said background checks and gun-free zones are not only ineffective in keeping firearms out of the hands of criminals, but serve no purpose other than to limit the ability of law-abiding citizens to protect themselves.
Pratt cited background checks, in particular, as an unnecessary invasion of privacy due to what he considers the extensive amount of personal information that the government requires from prospective gun owners.
“I don’t think it is a big stretch to think that maybe government officials misuse their power with the information they have in their control,” Pratt said. “Gun Owners of America has felt all along that it is a serious mistake to give the very employees of ‘we the people’ the power to tell to us what are the terms of how we can exercise these fundamental liberties that are recognized and protected in our Bill of Rights.”
Pratt also said that he thinks that gun violence is caused by insufficient social structures in families, not the availability of guns. Pratt alleged that there has been a dismantling of family dynamics over the last few decades and said this, as well as the presence of a mental health crisis, has given way to today’s violence.
“I honestly don’t think you can say that the crime problem we have in this country is related to the availability of firearms,” said Pratt. “It is more so these other social factors.”
Most of the event was dedicated to a question-and-answer forum. Topics ranged from questions about gun laws, background checks and gun violence in America.
Junior Lauren Kleiman said that after researching Pratt and his pro-gun agenda, she was surprised that someone with his political views would come to the historically liberal college.She said she was excited to challenge those who supported gun restrictions.
“I didn’t know who he was,” Kleiman said. “I am just excited to be here and join these awesome people who don’t believe that owning a gun is a human right.”
Jamie Arnold, a staff member of BoltWorks Tactical Firearms, a Dryden-based firearms store, attended the event with a number of his colleagues. He said he was surprised at how well-mediated the discussion was and that conversation ensued without people being rude and disrespectful to one another. Arnold praised the event’s moderator, Scott Thomson, assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies.
“It’s an emotional and polarizing issue,” Arnold said. “I thank the Ithaca College Republicans, I thank the college, and I thank Mr. Thomson for keeping a semblance of control.”
Junior Lucas Veca, president of the Ithaca College Young Americans for Liberty, said he thought the questions asked were thought-provoking, which is exactly what the group was looking to get out of the event, and he said he hopes this will stem further opportunities for debate.
“I’m very happy with the way the event went,” Veca said. “The protesters were respectful and did not try to stop the event, which was greatly appreciated. … I hope people learned something from the event and that they are more willing to participate in more healthy conversations in the future.”
Approximately 55 students and faculty members gathered first at the Textor Ball, then in the Textor building hallway, to protest Pratt’s event. Student protesters silently held signs with the names of shooting victims and handed out fact sheets about gun violence outside of the entrance to the event to attendees and passersby. They held a subsequent teach-in in Williams 323.
Pratt’s speech comes four days after the most recent mass shooting in the U.S. in Sutherland Springs, Texas, when a shooter killed 26 people.
Junior Anna Gardner and senior Natalie Shanklin organized the teach-in with faculty members Jonathan Ablard, associated professor in the Department of History, and Chris Holmes, associate professor in Department of English. Holmes introduced himself by saying he has conducted research on gun violence and gun culture in America and teaches a freshman seminar on the topic. Students, faculty members and members of the administration were present.
“It has been four days since the last mass shooting in the United States, and I don’t think there has been enough time to respect those that have died in Las Vegas, let alone more mass shootings,” Gardner said. “I just wanted people going into this event to see these and really think for a second about what guns have the capacity to do in this country.”
With Pratt on campus and the counter-demonstration, security was heightened. More than 15 officers from the college, the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office and the New York State Police were present. The college would not disclose how many were there to patrol the event overall or how much it cost for the security.
Colleges around the country have been facing protests and riots when they scheduled right-wing writers, speakers and politicians with opinions that strongly differ from those of some of the college’s students.
David Maley, senior associate director of media relations, said the Office of Public Safety and Emergency Management worked with the organizers of the event as well as the organizers of the protest on a security plan to provide a safe environment for everyone. He said he thought the events promoted the exchange of ideas that the college endorses.
The teach-in was predominantly student-led with the faculty members and organizers acting as moderators. A seven-minute video from vox.com was played at the opening, giving statistics about gun violence in America. Following the video, participants started a dialogue about gun violence and the solutions to ending it. The organizers established three rules: first, that each speaker could talk for two minutes; second, that there was no interrupting; and third, that all comments were to be respectful.
Other students gave opinions on solutions to gun violence. Gun regulations were a large topic of discussion, with students bringing up the systems for gun regulation in countries like Australia, South Korea and Japan. Other participants talked about the need for greater dialogue inclusive of all views, the need to curb gun lobbies like the National Rifle Association and its intervention in politics, and the need to have greater accountability for elected officials.
Junior Charlotte Hadley spoke about her background as a public and community health major and asserted that gun violence should be treated like an infectious disease.
“As an infectious disease, I think it’s important to recognize that within communities, we can build those, ‘vaccinations’ among kids at the community level through education and realize that there are multiple problems like video games and visual violence,” Hadley said.
Senior Liz Alexander spoke about her background coming from a rural community in Vermont and said she owns a hunting rifle herself, but is pro–gun control. Alexander said she was pleased the event took place separate from Pratt’s speech.
“I’m glad that we were in this space,” Alexander said. “I think it produced a better, more balanced conversation in that we got to be in charge of speaking time and making sure things stayed respectful rather than having a sort of fiery, impassioned debate, which is what I imagine would have happened in Textor.”
John Exner, who helped organize the Pratt event, is the New York State Chair for Young Americans for Liberty and goes to Cayuga Community College. He responded to ideas from a libertarian standpoint.
“We should all be willing, as Americans, to come together and have an open dialogue about important issues like gun control and gun rights,” Exner said. “The conversation was generally very good, I think that people spoke very rationally and from the mind and the heart, and I look forward to future conversations with students from Ithaca College.”
CORRECTION: The article previously mischaracterized John Exner as a conservative. It has been corrected to state that his views are libertarian.