• November 29, 2014

Campuses Under Fire

Careers Illustration - Guns on Campus

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

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close Careers Illustration - Guns on Campus

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

Public universities are finding themselves at odds with their own state legislatures as lawmakers in several states propose legislation that would compel colleges to ditch their longstanding bans on firearms on their campuses.

Among the states considering such legislation in recent years—largely unsuccessfully—are Arizona, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, and Texas. Since 2007, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence reports, 60 proposed state laws, in 30 states, pertaining to guns on campus were eventually defeated.

Not all of the proposed laws have failed. Last year Mississippi and Wisconsin enacted legislation permitting concealed weapons under certain conditions. In March, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that all employees and students of the University of Colorado could legally carry handguns on its campuses provided they had valid permits. And the Supreme Court of Kentucky ruled in April that while universities can, in fact, institute firearm bans on a campus, they cannot prohibit guns in cars parked there.

Lawmakers proposing these initiatives typically posit that the U.S. Constitution protects every citizen's right to bear arms, regardless of whether or not that citizen happens to be on a college campus. College and university presidents argue that college campuses traditionally have been secure spaces, where faculty members, staff employees, and students can feel safe and protected from the external world. Those two fundamentally irreconcilable perspectives have pitted some universities against the very lawmakers whose votes finance campus budgets.

A university president said to me recently, "We have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to guns on campus. I'm terrified that our legislature will force us to overturn that policy. The last thing we need here is another Virginia Tech tragedy."

One national organization that has advocated strenuously for guns on campus is Students for Concealed Carry. That special-interest group, which boasts over 40,000 members, has lobbied to overturn campus firearm bans nationwide, arguing that law-abiding citizens have a constitutional right to bring concealed guns on campus.

The oft-repeated rationale for overturning college gun bans is that innocent citizens must be allowed to protect themselves in a situation like the one at Northern Illinois University in 2008, when Steven Phillip Kazmierczak killed five people and injured 21, before committing suicide.

The argument that more guns would lead to safer campuses does not seem to stand up to facts. There is no recorded incident in which a victim—or spectator—of a violent crime on a campus has prevented that crime by brandishing a weapon. In fact, campus police officers report that increasing the number of guns on a campus would increase police problems exponentially, especially in "active shooter" situations.

"My worry is that if our SWAT team enters a building where there is an active shooter, and the good guys have guns as well, we might inadvertently shoot an innocent person," said one police chief.

Existing gun bans have served to limit the total number of firearms on a campus, so that in an emergency situation, law-enforcement officials can distinguish friend from foe.

Supporters of campus gun bans have pointed out that, statistically, college campuses are among the safest public spaces in the nation. Some reports have indicated that the campus homicide rate is about one in one million students. In contrast, colleges have an abysmal record when it comes to suicide, which is 100 times as frequent as homicides. Lifting gun bans, these advocates contend, means that colleges would make firearms readily available to a population of people who are, statistically, much likelier to turn those guns on themselves than on others.

Campus police officials are especially wary of attempts to lift college gun bans. They contend that most gun owners have little or no formal training in the proper use of firearms, and that the sense of security they may feel from having one at their side is misplaced, since they are more likely to injure themselves than prevent a crime.

College administrations have additional concerns. Campus insurance premiums are already costly but are likely to skyrocket if a gun ban is lifted. And legal concerns over liability are murky: Does an institution have a legal obligation to warn campus visitors that students or faculty members may be carrying firearms? If someone is shot by a campus constituent, is the institution liable? Or can campus officials simply blame the state law authorizing guns on the campus? No one is quite clear on how to answer those questions.

Some supporters of gun bans are fighting back. The Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus is urging colleges to sign a resolution opposing legislation that would mandate that they rescind their firearms policies. More than 335 colleges and associations have signed so far.

A related controversial issue is whether campus police officers themselves should be armed. For the past 15 years or so, colleges and universities have debated whether to arm their public-safety officers. Urban campuses in particular have been adamant that they face increased threats from interlopers who wander onto the campus searching for "opportunities." As an administrator on an urban campus some years ago, I was forced to take extra precautions to secure several of our buildings because they were frequently breached by outsiders with ill intent.

While more and more colleges are arming their safety officials, many others are continuing to resist the trend, reasoning that campuses are no place for guns no matter who wields them.

If states continue to enact conflicting legislation concerning guns on campus, the U.S. Supreme Court will eventually have to intervene and issue a ruling on the limits, if any, of the Second Amendment as it applies to higher education. College and university presidents will need guidance as to what restrictions they can reasonably institute in order to ensure campus safety.

Clearly, administrators have to persuade lawmakers to back off. Otherwise intitutions will be forced to come to terms with the realization that they have no special status that protects their campus communities.

Gary A. Olson recently stepped down as provost at Idaho State University, from which he is on leave. His most recent book, "A Creature of Our Own Making: Reflections on Contemporary Academic Life," is forthcoming from SUNY Press. He can be contacted at http://garyaolson.com.

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