Along with books, laptop and cell phone, there is something else that Jeremy Clark thinks is essential to bring to class: his gun.
The Villanova University law student said the sickening spate of campus shootings, from Virginia Tech to Northern Illinois University, left him feeling vulnerable without his Glock 9mm semiautomatic handgun.
"If I'm in a classroom where a shooting is taking place, I'd like a chance to be able to defend myself," said the 29-year-old Army veteran from Bethlehem, Pa., who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But Villanova, like nearly all colleges and universities nationwide, bans firearms on campus. A new group, called Students for Concealed Carry on Campus (SCCC), would like to change that, arguing that concealed-carry permit holders should be able to bring weapons to school to defend themselves and their classmates against a deranged killer.
The group, which sprang up after the Virginia Tech massacre, claims to have 16,000 members at 500 campuses nationwide, including Pennsylvania State and West Chester Universities, with every incident drawing in more frightened students, faculty and parents. With a click of a Facebook account, anyone can sign up.
"We got more than 1,000 new members after the [NIU] shooting," said Stephen Feltoon, a national director of SCCC and a recent Miami University graduate.
In April, supporters plan to wear empty holsters to class during a day of protest.
Clark said the Illinois shooting - in which a former student killed six and wounded 15 in a classroom on Feb. 14 - made him realize that the safety measures instituted by schools after the Virgina Tech massacre weren't working.
"There's only so much they can do," said Clark, who joined SCCC after that incident. "If I'm licensed to carry a gun in this state, why can't I carry it here?"
Guns laws vary greatly from state to state, with only one state, Utah, permitting concealed-carry on campus. New Jersey forbids guns at all schools while Pennsylvania's ban is limited to elementary and secondary schools.
Restricting firearms at colleges doesn't make them safer, advocates say. In fact, they add, criminals will likely target schools because they know they are gun-free zones.
"It's the same reason we wear seat belts - we just don't know when something is going to happen," said Ken Stanton, a 30-year-old graduate student at Virginia Tech, where a gunman slaughtered 33 people in April 2007.
Colleges don't see it that way.
"At first blush, this might appear to some to be a good idea, but I think most of us in the field would agree it is not," said David Tedjeske, director of public safety at Villanova, which has had two recent gun incidents. In November, someone fired several shots in the air after a late-night altercation outside the student center, and last year a gunman shot at police just off college grounds, triggering a massive manhunt and campus lockdown.
The idea of loaded guns in beer-soaked frat houses isn't as farfetched as it seems. At least 13 states are considering some form of legislation allowing concealed-carry on campus, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures.
The University of Utah's gun ban was struck down by the state Supreme Court in 2006, though it is fighting to reinstate it in the federal courts. But the state legislature is considering a bill that would allow weapons to be carried openly at public universities.
"The feedback we've received from faculty and students is that the last thing they want is to have someone openly carrying a gun in a classroom or through the halls or on campus," said university spokeswoman Coralie Alder.
Critics say there are many reasons why guns and colleges don't mix.
"The more guns you put on campus, the more likely they are going to be misused," said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Trained police officers only hit their targets 20 percent of the time in emergency situations, he said. Not only is it unlikely that a student or teacher would be able to save the day, police responding to the scene could not tell the good guys from the bad guys.
There's also a danger of guns getting lost, stolen or misused.
"Someone gets drunk, upset, angry with a girlfriend - and all of a sudden there's a gun in the mix, and you've got more problems than you're solving," he said.
The International Association of Campus Law Enforcement does not endorse concealed-carry on campus, noting the potential for accidents or misuse.
"I would dispute anyone who says there's evidence to suggest that having students carrying guns on campus make our campuses safer," said Steven J. Healy, police chief and public safety director at Princeton University and past president of the group.
In fact, research shows that making it easier to allow people to carry concealed weapons in public does not reduce violent crime, said Jon Vernick, codirector of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. And guns in the home increase the risk of suicide or homicide, he said.
The SCCC maintains that gun owners in general are law-abiding and careful with their weapons. Most partying goes on off-campus where guns are already permitted.
"In all my years interacting with students who are legal gun owners, never once has a firearm been brought out inappropriately," said Matthew Cross, 24, a concealed-carry advocate at West Chester University, where he is a graduate history student.
Rachel Blumenfeld, 23, of Wilmington, a law student at Villanova, got a .380 semiautomatic handgun last year after being stalked by an abusive boyfriend. She would like to bring it school because he has threatened to follow her there, she said.
A fellow law student, Peter Caltagirone, 25, said he used to support gun control, but now feels that allowing guns on campus will deter attacks.
"In light of the changing nature of the world," he said, "I think it's a necessary protective measure."
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