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DAYTON, Ohio — Joe Smith believes the 9mm handgun he carries is the reason he and his family are alive.

Last September, a man threatened to kill Smith, his wife and their toddler in a mall parking lot. The man said he had a gun, so Smith, 24, drew his and immediately his aggressor fled.

But Smith is not allowed to carry that gun when he attends classes at Ohio State University, where he is president of Buckeyes for Concealed Carry on Campus. And he feels Ohio’s ban on guns on college campuses puts him and others at risk, especially in situations such as his mall encounter. “Whoever has the firearm wins the struggle for power,” he said. “Thank God he didn’t have a firearm and I did.”

College campuses across the country have been at the center of the debate over where people should have the legal right to carry concealed weapons since a student at Virginia Tech University shot and killed 32 people and injured 17 others in 2007. Just more than a year later, a gunman at Northern Illinois University killed five people in a lecture hall. And last April, a former student of a small religious college in California took seven lives.

Now, talks are beginning again with a renewed sense of urgency after the Dec. 14 tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut that claimed the lives of 20 first-graders and six adults and the July 20 shooting at the Aurora Century 16 Cinema in Colorado that killed 12 people.

Ohio is one of 21 states that ban concealed carry at institutions of higher education, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Ohio lawmakers are not presently considering any changes to that rule, but Arkansas, Georgia, Montana, Nevada and Texas are working to change their laws to allow weapons on campuses.

Arguments are made on both sides of the issue: Opponents to concealed carry say college campuses are among the safest places students can be, with their own police forces to protect students, faculty and others. Proponents say gun-free areas only guarantee that criminals will be the only ones armed.

After the Virginia Tech shooting, the response nationwide ultimately was to tighten gun controls and institute other security measures, including systems to quickly notify students in case of emergencies. When the debate came into the national spotlight again after the Sandy Hook shooting, more than 300 U.S. college presidents signed a letter to U.S. lawmakers opposing concealed carry on campuses.

Kettering College President Charles Scriven, who was among 14 Ohio college presidents to sign the letter, said he fears guns on campus would increase the likelihood of accidents or violent confrontations among students, especially if alcohol is involved. He said he fears it would increase the rate of effective suicides by college students.

“I’m doubtful that the presence of guns on campus would have a salutary effect,” said Scriven, whose school of 981 students is considering an active shooter drill later this year.