The state of Kansas recently made dramatic changes to campus safety policy based upon the belief that students are safer with more guns in the classroom. By requiring public colleges and universities to allow concealed weapons on their campuses, state lawmakers echoed recent legislative action in Texas, where some university administrators counseled faculty to avoid potentially upsetting topics to avoid sparking violence.1 Kansas State Senator Forrest Knox tells NPR’s Sam Zeff, “When a gun is in a school and harm is meant, there is only one thing that is going to stop that, and that is another gun.”2
I wanted to test this theory, so I crunched the numbers. I am confident that I can demonstrate that more guns can theoretically prevent gun violence but — as you will see — only at the expense of the solar system itself.
While the armed vigilante narrative is seductive, I immediately saw that the possibility of human error made this an unacceptable compromise: the gold standard for safety would be no guns at all, since that would make gun violence literally impossible. To get anywhere near that level of security, I needed to get creative.
Adding a few more guns wouldn’t suffice, since a consistent body of research shows that gun ownership tends to increase one’s risk of homicide and firearm-related suicide.3 Assuming the Kansas legislature is correct, I really had to commit to this idea. I decided to see what would happen if I filled a hypothetical classroom to the brim with guns, thereby assuring that none could be fired.
First, I selected my hypothetical concealed weapon, the Glock 19 9mm handgun. According to the manufacturer, its compact format “is ideal for concealed carry.”4 If I square off the dimensions provided, each paperback-sized gun has a volume of 7.125×10^-4 cubic meters and a mass of .855 kg when loaded.5 Now, I need to estimate the volume of an average college classroom in the state of Kansas.
According to standards published by my local school district, I should provision for a minimum of 30 square feet (2.79 square meters) per pupil in a senior high school classroom.6 Kansas’s building regulations suggest we can assume ceilings of at least 7 feet, 6 inches, or 2.29 meters (at least for preschools and child care centers, which serve a more diminutive population).7 Since I am only seeking a rough estimate, these dimensions serve as my baseline for the college classroom. If I assume an average class size of 25 students, likely a conservative number based on 2014 U.S. News data for the University of Kansas, our classroom has a volume of 159.73 cubic meters.8
All we need to do, then, is cram each classroom with guns like a gumball machine.
I calculate that each classroom would hold at least 224,178 compact handguns, which would represent a total mass of 191,673 kg — roughly equivalent to 175 1996 Toyota Corollas. Based on building code guidelines provided by the Texas A&M University architecture program, we should expect our school’s floor to support a uniformly distributed load of 40 pounds per square foot, or approximately 1.92kN/m^2.9 Since our hypothetical classroom has 69.75 m^2 of floor space, this leaves us with a minimum of 26.9kN/m^2, or more than 14 times the load that the floor should be designed to hold. Even first-floor classrooms are unlikely to cut it, since we remain at least 460% over design specifications. I have also declined to include any furniture (or students) in my calculations.
Although I’ve nearly solved the problem by stuffing each classroom with so many guns that they are unlikely to be used, this is no guarantee of success. After all, it’s still theoretically possible that seismic activity or students shifting under the enormous pile of (no longer) concealed weapons could trigger an accidental discharge. The inevitable collapse of the school may also present a safety risk.
A truly secure solution requires even more guns. How many guns are necessary to remove even the most remote statistical risk of gun violence? The answer: 6.98×10^30 guns. If we gather this many guns in one place, I can personally guarantee that no one will be affected by gun violence.
A collection of guns on this scale would need to have approximately 5.97×10^30 kg of mass, or the equivalent of three suns.10 If I divide this number by the mass of each individual gun, I reach my genuinely astronomical total of 6.9790649×10^30 guns (for reference, that’s 6979064900000000000000000000000). We would have to find and convert at least three comparable solar systems into handguns to make this work, but I’ll leave that to the engineers.
While theories vary, three solar masses would be a reasonable guess for the minimum mass necessary to trigger the formation of a black hole.11 At that point, the probability of a gun going off is as close as we can get to zero, since everything we have ever known will be extended into a stream of particles and drawn irresistibly into the singularity. There, surely, gun violence will be the least of our problems.
Based on my calculations, a proven path to campus safety requires us to collect 6.98×10^30 handguns or avoid making them a part of college life. We can either muster the political will necessary to change our nation’s approach to firearms, or we can play it safe and feed our solar system into the abyss.
3 Linda L. Dalhberg, Robin M. Ikeda, and Marcie-jo Kresnow, “Guns in the Home and Risk of a Violent Death in the Home: Findings from a National Study,” American Journal of Epidemiology 160, no. 10: 929-936, doi: 10.1093/aje/kwh309.
5 For simplicity’s sake, my calculations assume that each gun is a rectangular box. I estimate that the gun’s shape would allow about 20–40% additional guns per classroom, depending on their arrangement.
6 Kansas State Department of Public Instruction, Long-Range Facility Plans for Unified School District No. 373 Newton, Kansas,. 10. Topeka, KS, 1967.
7 “REGULATIONS FOR PRESCHOOLS AND CHILDCARE CENTERS (K.A.R. 28-4-420),” Kansas Department of Health and Environment, last modified February 26, 1990.
11 Robert Naeye and Rob Gutro, “NASA Scientists Identify Smallest Known Black Hole,” NASA, last modified April 1, 2008.