Campus Gun Bans Are Still on Solid Ground, Legal Experts Say

June 29, 2010

The U.S. Supreme Court decision on Monday that struck down handgun restrictions imposed by the City of Chicago was seen as a major victory for gun-rights advocates. Higher-education leaders, however, are optimistic that the ruling will not undermine campus bans on firearms.

The immediate effect of the Supreme Court's opinion is that campus gun restrictions are now open to challenge in federal courts, said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the law school at the University of California at Irvine.

But the Supreme Court made clear that an individual's right to bear arms does not undermine state and local government bans in public spaces, such as schools and colleges, said Mr. Chemerinsky, who spoke on a panel at the annual meeting of the National Association of College and University Attorneys that discussed Supreme Court actions affecting higher education.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., quoted the court's 2008 ruling that undid the District of Columbia's handgun ban: "We made it clear in Heller that our holding did not cast doubt on such longstanding regulatory measures as 'prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill,' 'laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings.'"

"We repeat those assurances here," Justice Alito wrote in the opinion released on Monday in the case McDonald v. City of Chicago.

Another speaker on the panel here, William E. Thro, university counsel at Christopher Newport University, said future legal challenges to campus gun bans could make distinctions between institutions that are self-contained and those that are in the midst of suburban or urban settings where public and private spaces are less distinct.

Derek P. Langhauser, general counsel for the Maine Community College System, agreed that most campus bans would survive court challenges because the ruling is meant primarily to safeguard the rights of individuals to protect themselves in their homes.

However, if campuses run into problems defending firearms restrictions, it will be because they cannot point to specific authority from their state government that gives the institution or its governing board the ability to make those restrictions, he said.

One example of that kind of case is playing out in Colorado, where the state's Court of Appeals ruled in April that a lawsuit against gun restrictions on campuses could go forward. A lower court had dismissed the suit in deference to the University of Colorado regents' policy-making authority, but a unanimous three-judge panel of the state appellate court reinstated it, saying the campus ban appeared to violate state weapons law. "Had the legislature intended to exempt universities, it knew how to do so," the panel's opinion states.

The Board of Regents recently voted to appeal that decision to the state's Supreme Court.