The false conservative media talking point that Umpqua Community College (UCC) was a “gun-free zone” was frequently pushed on CNN and Fox News in the aftermath of an October 1 mass shooting where a gunman killed nine and wounded several others on the Roseburg, Oregon, campus.
Conservative media figures often claim that mass shootings tend to happen in so-called “gun-free zones” in order to advocate for less restrictive gun laws. In reality, most mass shootings occur where firearms are allowed, and a Mother Jones review of mass public shootings over a 30-year period concluded, “In not a single case was the killing stopped by a civilian using a gun. And in other recent (but less lethal) rampages in which armed civilians attempted to intervene, those civilians not only failed to stop the shooter but also were gravely wounded or killed.”
Within the first two hours of breaking news reporting on the UCC shooting, claims that UCC was a “gun-free zone” began to appear on CNN and Fox News. The claim, however, was untrue under any reasonable definition of what a “gun-free zone” could be. According to a Newsweek interview of more than a dozen people connected with UCC, it was “common knowledge” that “many students carried guns” on UCC's campus.
Under Oregon law, individuals with concealed carry permits are allowed to carry guns on the grounds of public colleges and universities. Public colleges and universities can create a policy to not allow guns within campus buildings. UCC did not allow guns in buildings “except as expressly authorized by law or college regulations,” which was apparently interpreted by students as allowing concealed carry with a lawfully issued permit.
As one student explained to Newsweek, “You are allowed to conceal and carry on that campus. It's not a gun-free zone”:
“You are allowed to conceal and carry on that campus,” said Umpqua student and part-time wildland firefighter Jeremy Smith, 24. “It's not a gun-free zone.”
Smith said he would never return to campus without a handgun.
“I'm an avid gun owner,” he said. “I carry, like just about anybody else does.”
Although Oregon state law allows concealed weapons, Umpqua's student handbook says firearms are prohibited on college property “except as expressly authorized by law or college regulations.”
The school includes firearms training in its criminal justice program for people accepted into a Police Reserve Academy. Students use the Roseburg Rod and Gun Club, a short drive from campus, to shoot or get help registering for a concealed-carry permit, an employee there said.
While there were two unarmed security guards at the sprawling campus, several current and former students said legally carrying concealed handguns was not unusual, particularly among the hundreds of military veterans who attend classes and frequent the Student Veterans Center.
News reports also established that there were indeed armed students on campus at the time of the shooting. A student who also happened to be a U.S. military veteran described on MSNBC why he and other veterans he was with decided not to intervene, explaining, “Not knowing where SWAT was on their response time, they wouldn't have known who we were, if we had our guns ready to shoot they could think we were bad guys.”
Despite this plethora of evidence that UCC was not a “gun-free zone,” CNN and Fox News continued to advance the falsehood in the week after the shooting.
According to a review of internal Media Matters video archives of coverage between October 1 and October 6, the “gun-free zone” falsehood as it relates to UCC was mentioned 23 times on Fox News, with just two instances where it was explained that UCC was not a “gun-free zone.” The falsehood appeared 25 times on CNN, with four of those instances being debunked with accurate information.
By contrast, the falsehood was advanced just once on MSNBC without pushback, and in two instances the “gun-free zone” claim was pro-actively debunked without someone first pushing the myth:
Fox News ran 23 segments where it was claimed that UCC was a “gun-free zone.” The claims came from Fox News reporters, hosts, guests and soundbites of GOP presidential candidates making the claim. The claim was debunked in only two cases.
In one of these instances, during the October 1 broadcast of The O'Reilly Factor, guest David Jaques, the publisher of the Roseburg Beacon News, explained “it's not a gun-free zone,” citing a statement from UCC's past president.
False claims about UCC being a “gun-free zone” were not limited to conservative punditry on Fox News. During breaking news coverage of the shooting on October 1, Fox News correspondent and breaking news anchor Trace Gallagher falsely reported, “As we know, and have been reporting, Umpqua Community College is a gun-free zone.”
On October 2, Fox News correspondent William La Jeunesse falsely reported UCC was a “gun-free zone” during several news reports. During the October 2 broadcast of Happening Now, La Jeunesse falsely reported, “This was a gun-free zone.” Later on Outnumbered, La Jeunesse editorialized further, saying, “This was a gun-free zone, so the gunman had no fear of being shot himself by other students.”
CNN ran 25 segments that included claims that UCC was a “gun-free zone,” with claims coming from CNN hosts, guests, and unchallenged soundbites of GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump pushing the falsehood during a speech.
In four instances, other on-air individuals corrected the claim that UCC was a “gun-free zone.”
During the early morning hours of October 2, CNN ran a report several times that erroneously reported UCC was “technically ... a gun-free zone” in a botched attempt to explain Oregon law and UCC policies.
The claim that UCC was a “gun-free zone” was made just once on MSNBC, by co-host Willie Geist during the October 2 broadcast of Morning Joe.
In two other instances, the notion that UCC was a “gun-free zone” was preemptively debunked, once by Mark Kelly, whose wife, then-Congresswoman Gabby Giffords (D-AZ), was wounded in a 2011 mass shooting, and once by MSNBC correspondent Jacob Soboroff who explained, “This was not a so-called gun-free zone” while relaying reports of concealed carry on campus and students who were carrying guns during the shooting.
Media Matters reviewed internal video archives for MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News beginning at 2 P.M. EST on October 1 and ending at 11:59 P.M. EST on October 6, searching for the term “gun-free zone.” Segments that included this term were reviewed to determine whether the claim that UCC was a “gun-free zone” was either advanced, debunked, or both advanced and debunked. Segments that referenced Oregon gun law or UCC gun policy but ultimately concluded that UCC was a “gun-free zone” were coded as “Segments Pushing 'Gun-Free Zones' Myth.”
Chart by Craig Harrington.