Liberty University to build nation’s first on-campus firing range

Liberty University's gun range will be the first on-campus, NRA-compliant facility at a U.S. university or college. (Photo: Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)
Liberty University’s gun range will be the first on-campus, NRA-compliant facility at a U.S. university or college. (Photo: Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

Liberty University is seeking a permit to build an on-campus shooting range, less than a year after the school’s board of trustees also approved a policy that allows students to carry concealed weapons in dorms. According to the proposal, the shooting range would be the first National Rifle Association-approved facility on a U.S. campus.

A proposal filed earlier this week for a special use permit from the Campbell County Planning Commission states that Liberty wants to construct a “nationally recognized, full-scale shooting, training and competition center” on its Lynchburg, Va., campus. The outdoor space will include a pistol range, a rifle range, an instructional area, and a 3-gun competition range, with future plans for an indoor firing range.

“The project was introduced to the NRA during [Executive Vice President] Wayne LaPierre’s visit to campus last spring,” Len Stevens, spokesperson for the university, told Yahoo News. “They have generously offered their expertise to help us develop it.”

According to a Liberty student blog, some 350 U.S. universities participate in some kind of sport shooting, and fewer than 30 of those schools own outdoor shooting facilities off campus. Liberty’s gun range will be the first on-campus facility, and will be available to students, faculty, staff and the general public.

Plans for the new gun range were motivated in part by a growing number of students signing up for Liberty’s handgun safety class, said Stevens. “We’ve had nearly 900 students go through the class since we first started it nearly two years ago,” he said. “The present facility has been deemed antiquated and ill-suited for that number of students by university leadership.”

In some ways, Liberty’s plans for an NRA-compliant shooting facility are the next logical move for the school. Last fall, the school’s stance on guns attracted national headlines when Jerry Falwell Jr., president of the Christian school, encouraged students to get their concealed carry permits in order to defend themselves against what he said was the threat of armed Muslim attacks.

“I’ve always thought that if more people had concealed carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in and killed them,” Falwell told a cheering audience at one of Liberty’s thrice-weekly convocation gatherings.

Critics called the chancellor’s remarks inflammatory and potentially dangerous to students’ safety.

Falwell stood by his comments, although he did point out that there were certain limits to his call to arms. Per Virginia law, students who wish to obtain their concealed carry permit have to be 21 years of age. And per the school’s own rules at the time, no guns were allowed in dormitories.

Just four months later, things looked different.

While Virginia’s age restriction remains in effect, Liberty’s ban on guns in dorm rooms was lifted last spring, after the school’s board of trustees approved a policy change allowing students to keep guns in their dorm rooms.

“We’re making that change at your request,” Falwell announced to students during a convocation last December. Students reportedly requested the change in case they needed to access their guns quickly. Under the old policy, students with gun permits had to keep their weapons in their cars.

“As Liberty built more residence halls, our residents were having to park further from their rooms,” David Corry, general counsel to Liberty, told Yahoo News. Students said they “would feel safer if they didn’t have to leave their weapons locked in their glove compartments when walking from their cars to the residence halls, especially at night,” he said.

In crafting the school’s policy, Corry says Liberty researched about 70 campuses with concealed carry rules on the books. “All had policies in place with no incident,” he said.

Jerry Falwell Jr. is chancellor of Liberty University, the nation’s largest Christian university, and was Donald Trump's most prominent evangelical supporter during the presidential campaign. (Photo: Dave Kaup/Reuters)
Jerry Falwell Jr. is chancellor of Liberty University, the nation’s largest Christian university, and was Donald Trump’s most prominent evangelical supporter during the presidential campaign. (Photo: Dave Kaup/Reuters)

Falwell appeared on “Hannity” last December to defend his controversial position, calling the decision to allow students to carry guns “common sense.” Referencing the Virginia Tech shooting that left 32 people dead, Falwell told host Sean Hannity he always wondered if “just one of those students, one of those faculty members … would have been able to stop that shooter?”

Virginia Tech sits about 90 minutes from Lynchburg.

Responses from people associated with Liberty have been mixed.

One recent graduate of the school’s theater program praised Falwell’s position on Facebook. “I am so proud of him and the heart of Liberty University to honor the Lord, educate thousands, and protect its students,” she wrote, adding that she was thankful that leadership allows students the opportunity to defend themselves.

A Liberty professor who spoke on the condition of anonymity told Yahoo News she did not have a problem with students having guns in her classroom, provided they take the necessary legal steps to obtain them. “Obtaining these through legal means shows me that you are a responsible adult,” she said. “After all, you can defend our nation at age 18. I would trust folks to defend my classroom at age 21.”

Indeed, she added, “I would feel safe with legally armed students in my class.” If a student wished to do her or fellow students harm, “they will try to do harm regardless of any policy to allow them to have a gun.”

But not all Liberty students and professors support the policy. “I do believe people have a right to protect themselves and feel safe,” said one current student, on the condition of anonymity. “But knowing there will be guns in the dorms and classrooms gives me the opposite feeling. Obtaining guns legally doesn’t ensure they will be used that way.”

One professor, who also asked to be kept anonymous, said the idea of “teaching a class full of armed folks is less than thrilling.” He noted that a colleague had expressed their feelings in a quip: “Concealed carry during finals: when student evaluations don’t say enough!”

Corry says it’s important that students feel both comfortable and safe. To that end, Liberty has taken proactive steps to try to maintain calm among the portion of the student body who are uncomfortable with guns. “No one has to have a roommate with a gun in their room if they are uncomfortable with it,” said Corry. “Everyone in a room has to agree for concealed carry to be permitted by a dorm resident and a [gun] safe installed in their room.”

As for the forthcoming shooting facility, Stevens pledges that the school’s “No. 1 consideration in the design process is participant safety.” Trained instructors will manage all aspects of the range, including competition, he said.

Even with these safeguards in place, some remain critical of Liberty’s gun policies — including conservative Christians.

“Frankly, the overall policy is morally reckless,” said Rev. Rob Schenck, president of Faith in Action, a Christian outreach organization based in Washington, D.C. Schenk has been a longtime antiabortion activist, but after the 2013 Navy Yard shooting in Washington, D.C., which left 13 dead, he broadened his efforts to include speaking out against gun violence. Schenck’s evolution on gun rights is the focus of “The Armor of Light,” a documentary produced by Abigail Disney, Walt Disney’s grandniece.

Schenck believes there are “profound implications” to Liberty’s gun policies that he says warrant more thought.

College is still a formative time for young people, he notes, and therefore Liberty should not be “asking them to take on the moral responsibility of [deciding] who to kill and under what circumstances.”

Schenck acknowledges there are many political issues at play in gun debates, and suggests that Liberty is not exempt from some of them. Indeed, he says, allowing guns on campus is “certainly a political statement,” but he questions the wisdom of “sticking it to liberals by putting lethal weapons in young hands.”

Liberty’s moves to incorporate gun culture into campus life are among a number of developments in the past year that have generated controversy. Falwell Jr. was Donald Trump’s first and most prominent campaign supporter in the conservative evangelical community, and in late November he said he had turned down an offer to serve in Trump’s cabinet as secretary of education. The same week, Liberty announced that it had hired Ian McCaw as the school’s new athletic director. McCaw previously served as athletic director for Baylor University before resigning last spring amid allegations that he failed to properly respond to reports of sexual assaults by student athletes, including an alleged gang rape.

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