Liberty University's 'champions for Christ' praise guns in dorms
Gospel and guns intersect at world's largest Christian college
At Liberty University, where college life follows a "Christ-like" code and students feel free to carry concealed guns to class, no place better reflects attitudes about campus safety than the dining hall.
Among the prayer groups reciting grace, hungry young evangelicals, looking to save their seats while they go get food, observe a curious ritual: They pull out their wallets and phones, leave their valuables on a table, then walk away.
Call it an act of faith.
"Oh yeah, we do that all the time," says Grayson Guffey, a 22-year-old senior at the conservative college set beneath the Blue Ridge Mountains of Lynchburg, Va. "It's like, yeah, let me throw my wallet with this $100 bill down to save this seat."
Theft is evidently not a big concern here at Liberty, the world's largest Christian university with some 14,000 undergraduates.
But terrorism and campus shootings are.
University President Jerry Falwell Jr., who commands a rock-star status here, made that clear on Dec. 4 when he vowed to end the ban on keeping firearms in dorms as a red-blooded stand against would-be terrorists.
"Let's teach them a lesson if they ever show up here," Falwell told a cheering audience of thousands during a spiritual mega-gathering of students.
His address in the Vines Centre called attention to the San Bernardino shootings this month, in which 14 people were murdered in an ISIS-inspired massacre. Falwell, the son of the late televangelist Jerry Falwell Sr., then invoked the "good guys with guns" scenario of heroic self-defence.
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Liberty's firearms policy permits properly licensed students and faculty to carry concealed weapons in university buildings. They can also store their guns in their cars.
If "more good people" arm themselves with "what I've got in my back pocket right now," Falwell suggested, "then we could end those Muslims" before a possible terrorist attack.
Supporters in the cavernous venue chanted "Jerry," and some stood to applaud the reference to his concealed firearm.
"Is it illegal to pull it out?" Falwell teased.
Among the young conservatives hooting in the audience was Terrance Polk, a 19-year-old sophomore living in The Hill, a student residence where Lamborghini and Bob Marley posters share wall-space with Ben Carson swag and inspirational Bible verses.
The aviation student is still two years shy of being old enough to carry a concealed firearm, but he's eager to exercise his Second Amendment rights.
"I'm definitely supportive of Jerry's decision. Because anything can happen," Polk said, picking at an acoustic guitar in his fifth-floor room.
"Knowing that we can have concealed-carry even in the dorms, on campus and even in the classrooms, it makes you feel safer in case anybody comes in to attack the school," he said.
Around campus, with its pastoral lawns and Christmas carols piped out from loudspeakers along University Boulevard, talk of guns in dorms was met with wide support. About 200 people reportedly attended Liberty's largest-ever gun safety class last week, following Falwell's call for more people to exercise their Second Amendment rights.
Gioanni Galan, a 19-year-old nursing student, is considering signing up for free firearms training through the Liberty University Police Department. But her roommate disagrees with the dorm proposal, worrying that tempers could flare in some suites and end in gunfire.
Galan sees things differently. Asked why she would need a firearm for protection when she feels safe enough at school, she said it's not a matter of arming herself against the LU community.
"There's people that hate Liberty, that hate that we stand for loving Christ," she said. "The campus is open. People can get into here easily. So anyone outside of Liberty can come into the campus and hurt someone."
'Turning your dorm into an armoury'
Carey French, a 21-year-old senior from Richmond, is already prepared. She keeps her weapon — a .22-calibre pistol — nearby.
"It's either in my car or next to my bed," she said. "I'll go to places at night to get gas, and it's good to know I have it right there if I need it."
The proposal to expand gun allowances to the school's residence halls came from concerned students themselves, Falwell explained during convocation.
How that might work is a question Scott Schafer has been asking himself. Will students be allowed to sleep with "guns under their pillows"? Will residence advisers, housing staff and campus police keep tabs on who lives on campus with a conceal carry permit?
The idea of keeping a locked gun safe on each floor has come up.
"But then you're turning your dorm into an armoury," the 21-year-old history major said. "I'm not down for that."
Several supporters of the Second Amendment were also bothered by how Falwell articulated his proposal for allowing guns into campus housing.
The phrase "end those Muslims" was likely just an impassioned Falwell slipping up in an off-the-cuff moment, some students offered, noting that not everyone is a believer at America's premier Christian university. (Falwell later clarified he meant to say "terrorists.")
Several people pointed out Liberty has welcomed students of many faiths, including Muslims.
"That irritated me because for the Muslims that do go to school, [Falwell's statement] could have damaged our witness," Schafer said, referring to a spiritual lapse in expressing love for all. "We're here to make champions for Christ."
Lacroy Nixon, a junior studying mechanical engineering, called Falwell's gaffe "an eyebrow-raiser."
"He could have used a lot of other words. I was like, wow, he just said that."
As the Falwell clip circulated online, 22-year-old Jonathan Ryckman found his social media feeds bursting with comments from incredulous friends studying elsewhere.
Ryckman, a Canadian from London, Ont., has deflected comments about attending "a crazy redneck school" from friends back home.
"They won't think about the actual culture and the way that America is set up politically. They'll just think, 'Oh my gosh, you're allowing guns into a college dorm. That's a horrible idea,'" he said. "They think they'll just shoot guns in the air and ride eagles to school and they're all about 'Merica. It's just stereotypes."
It's unclear how many residents would actually keep weapons in their dorms once the firearms policy goes into effect. Many students noted that by the time they're 21 and legally able to obtain concealed-carry permits, most will have moved off campus anyway.
At the Lynchburg Arms and Indoor Shooting Range, where Liberty students regularly attend target practice, store manager Maynard Lawhorne said LU officers have privately expressed reservations about broadening campus firearms rules.
Lawhorne is proud to see young people exercising their Second Amendment rights. But even he wonders whether "good guys with guns" is always a best-case scenario. He imagines an active shooter situation in a crowded convocation.
"Somebody comes in, starts shooting. Everybody's going to pull a gun out. Now the police show up. There's going to be a whole lot of guns out," he said.
"Now, who's the bad guy?"