Dartmouth Political Union Sponsors Gun Debate

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A Parkland survivor and a Libertarian hold a dialogue at Dartmouth.

DPU forum at Dartmouth
Gun violence prevention activist David Hogg, left, speaks during a Dartmouth Political Union debate Wednesday evening with former Libertarian vice presidential candidate Spike Cohen, right. The DPU forum was moderated by Grayling Peterson ’24. (Photo by Ben Joel ’27)

The ongoing argument about how to address the persistence of gun violence in the United States was front and center Wednesday in a debate sponsored by the student-run Dartmouth Political Union.

About 100 people attended the debate in Filene Auditorium, which was part of Dartmouth Dialogues, and more than 25,000 had watched the livestream by Thursday afternoon, as Spike Cohen, a Libertarian vice presidential candidate in the 2020 election, and David Hogg, a survivor of the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., that killed 17 staff and students, debated the issue of gun safety, gun rights, and the Second Amendment.

According to the Pew Research Center, 48,830 people died from gun-related injuries in the U.S in 2021, the most recent year for which complete data is available. Suicides accounted for 54% of gun-related deaths in 2021, while homicides accounted for 43% of gun-related deaths. Some 132 people die daily from gun-related injuries, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and guns are the leading cause of death of children in this country, the Kaiser Family Foundation has reported. 

“There’s never been an instance in our country’s history where we just accepted something like that, especially an issue as important as that, and I refuse to accept that that is the country that we live in,” Hogg said, alluding to the U.S. having one of the highest levels of gun violence among high-income nations.

“I don’t think anyone in here wants another Parkland or another Uvalde,” Cohen said. “I’m glad neither of us got into the bad-faith tactic of accusing the other of wanting some terrible thing to happen because clearly we don’t. We just disagree on how we get there.”

The nonpartisan DPU has held a number of such events over the past year, including a Democracy Summit series and a forum on the Israel-Hamas war.

The frank exchange of views is a proud hallmark of the Dartmouth Political Union, DPU President Emerit Jessica Chiriboga ’24 said at the start of the forum. The DPU “believes that advancing the robust exchange of ideas is the responsibility of institutions of higher education and a free and open democratic society. At Dartmouth, students have historically led this charge,” she said. 

Issues under discussion included the Second Amendment and the Constitutional right to bear arms; red-flag laws for people who may pose a risk to themselves or others, background checks and manufacturer liability; whether there should be a ban on assault weapons; establishing a national gun registry; and how to address mental health, given that some mass shooters display signs of acute psychological distress and aggression before training their weapons on others.

For Hogg, who grew up shooting at a gun range with his father, an FBI agent, the first step is not necessarily gun legislation but gathering more data, he said. He would like to see more research from agencies such as the CDC and the National Institute for Health about which gun laws and violence-intervention programs are most effective. Such research has been consistently stymied by gun manufacturers, the NRA, and legislators sympathetic to the NRA.

Cohen said that recent data shows that the murder rate in the U.S. is going down. (FBI crime statistics estimated that in 2022 murder and non-negligent manslaughter decreased by 6.1% from 2021.)

He also noted that significant safety improvements in gun mechanisms and storage, as well as greater access to training, have reduced the number of gun accidents. He said that the main reason that the gun violence rate is going up is because the rate of suicide by gun is increasing. But that, Cohen said, is not a “gun problem. It is a suicide problem.” 

Cohen asserted that stricter gun laws do not necessarily correlate to lower crime or gun death rates or decreased gun deaths, and that to infringe upon the Second Amendment’s guarantee of the right to bear arms would be to infringe on citizens’ liberties.

“I feel pretty darn safe here and (New Hampshire) is where someone is most likely to have guns. I’m not saying guns in and of themselves make us safer; I’m saying that by trying to centrally plan who has guns, we’re taking them away largely from peaceful law-abiding people, which means the only people left with guns are the ones who don’t care what the laws are, and that doesn’t make us any safer,” Cohen said. 

Hogg countered that the U.S. now has one of the highest levels of gun violence among high-income nations, and leads the world in school shootings. “Why are these tragedies more frequent in the United States, and what should be done to protect American children? You’re probably not going to be surprised by my answer—it’s the guns.” 

He has heard the arguments that gun laws don’t work because criminals don’t obey them. “There’s so much nuance that that talking point leaves out.” Hogg supports what he views as common-sense steps to help reduce the levels of gun violence, such as background checks and red-flag laws, and a national gun registry.

The audience included a mix of proponents of tighter gun laws and others who were skeptical that gun control laws would do much to reduce the rate of gun-related deaths, and who spoke for their Second Amendment rights. One man attended wearing an empty holster. (The possession of any weapon on Dartmouth property is prohibited without the explicit written authorization of the director of the Department of Safety and Security, with exceptions for police or military personnel engaged in official duties.)

During the Q&A, Weare, N.H., resident Lily Tang Williams, a Chinese-American immigrant, said that as many as 60 million Chinese were starved to death or were murdered when Mao Zedong was in power and asked Hogg whether he could guarantee her that the American government would never be tyrannical. 

When Hogg said that he could not guarantee that any government would not be tyrannical, Williams, who is running as a Republican for the U.S. House in New Hampshire’s 2nd Congressional District, said, “Well then, the debate on gun control is over, because I will never give up my guns.” 

Casey Bertocchi ’26 observed that while Hanover skews liberal, the event showed that there were “a lot more conservative and centrist people who live in the area.” She was particularly interested in how Americans in 2024 interpret the Second Amendment, which was ratified in 1791.

A DPU poll of those in attendance conducted at the end of the evening found that out of 41 responses, some 53% believed that gun ownership decreased safety while 47% believed it increased safety. On the question of whether respondents favored stricter gun laws, almost 71% said yes, while 29% said no.


If you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or use the online chat at 988lifeline.org/chat/.

Mental health support is available through Dartmouth 24/7 for students, faculty, and staff. Any Dartmouth student experiencing a mental health crisis can call the Counseling Center at 603-646-9442.

Nicola Smith