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Students, Guns and Politics

January 28, 2011

To most college administrators, the idea of bringing more guns onto campus makes no sense. Given that campuses see plenty of fights, and plenty of irrational behavior when students are drunk, and are dealing with large populations of students who are adults by a legal standard only, guns pose more dangers, they argue.

Not all students agree, though. And those diverging views are going to get more attention because a flurry of new bills seeking to loosen restrictions on campus weapons policies are hitting legislatures all over the country, bringing the intense national conversation on gun control to colleges. And as the debate reaches a boiling point among politicians, one group of constituents who would be among the most affected -- students -- wants its say, too.

New legislation in Arizona, Texas, Florida, Nebraska, New Mexico and Oklahoma would legalize the "concealed carry" of weapons on college campuses, and many student governments in those states are mobilizing against the bills. Meanwhile, the few other campuses that already allow weapons are waiting to see whether this year marks a real shift in gun policy, or is just another short-lived reaction to a tragedy.

Legislators in about 20 states have proposed such measures since the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, the worst act of gun violence in American history, said Andy Pelosi, director of the Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus, a New York-based project of GunFreeKids.org. None of those bills have succeeded. Last year eight states took up bills, and Pelosi expects to see more -- and more major battles -- this year. Only 25 colleges currently allow concealed campus carry, Pelosi said.

“I do think this kind of issue is -- honestly, since 2007 in particular -- it comes up every once in a while,” said Brad Bohlander, a spokesman for Colorado State University, which rescinded its short-lived ban in May to fall in line with a state court ruling that said the University of Colorado System (which is separate from the Colorado State University System) lacked authority to implement such a policy. (While the University of Colorado Board of Regents is appealing that ruling, its weapons ban is in place on all four of the system's campuses.)

Some Colorado State students are hoping the ruling is upheld by the state supreme court. The student government senate passed a resolution in December 2009 supporting concealed carry on campus, for reasons ranging from self-protection (the most commonly cited among supporters), to research suggesting that concealed carry makes people safer, to constitutional rights. Cooper Anderson, Colorado State student body president, said the debate was heated, but more students came out in support of concealed carry (though, he acknowledged, they may have simply been the more vocal group and not necessarily the largest). “It was one of the most talked-about issues that I’ve seen in my four years in student government,” he said. “The general sentiment on our campus was very pro-concealed carry…. It was very one-sided when we were debating the issue.”

But Bohlander, who has heard from many students, families and others throughout Colorado’s lawsuit and Colorado State’s ban repeal, cautioned against generalizing about student opinion based on that resolution. “There’s a variety of voices and opinions, and I don’t think it would be fair to categorize the student body as one way or another about this issue,” he said. “It is one of those issues that is very polar and divisive.” (After the Colorado State system implemented the ban, the student newspaper, The Rocky Mountain Collegian, came out against it in an editorial, calling the board members “seriously out of touch with their constituents.”)

In Texas, two student groups -- the Young Conservatives of Texas and the Texas College Republicans -- recently joined forces to declare concealed carry their “top priority for the 2011 Texas Legislative Session,” according to Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, a national group with a chapter in Texas. (It is also the organization that sued Colorado over its ban.) Those students are lobbying hard for a bill that would allow licensed carriers to take guns on public state campuses, after a similar bill last year survived a Senate vote but failed to reach the House floor. A University of Idaho student, meanwhile, filed a lawsuit against the college last week, alleging that he was barred from keeping a firearm in his university-owned apartment, the campus newspaper reported.

Tony McDonald, a law student at the University of Texas at Austin and senior vice chairman for Young Conservatives of Texas, said he has seen more students coming out in favor of concealed carry since his group formed after the Virginia Tech shooting. Nearly 45 years after a sniper murdered 16 people from atop the UT Tower administration building, UT had another scare last year, when a gunman fired several shots into the air outside before entering a campus library and killing himself in September. “Thank God it was just him, but that was kind of a light bulb going off for everybody,” McDonald said. “Nobody had any way of protecting themselves.”

Students for Concealed Carry on Campus has been growing since 2007 and now claims about 40,000 supporters nationwide, said the group's president, David Burnett. He said it's "one of the most unfortunate phenomena" that people often become interested in the organization after a shooting occurs. But the group also spreads awareness through tabling and events on campuses, such as the empty holster protest, in which students wear empty holsters on campus to symbolize their defenselessness in the event of an assault.

Last year, students on 130 campuses participated in the protest. According to its website, the group has at least some supporters in every state, but Burnett said support is strongest in states where the National Rifle Association is most active and gun rights and activities are generally valued, like Texas and Kentucky.

The number of concealed carry permit-holders on campuses is not available, but people generally agree that it's relatively small. According to estimates from Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, one of every 100 people nationwide has a permit -- which, of course, doesn't necessarily mean they carry in public. One must be 21 or older to carry on a campus, which wipes out a significant chunk of the student body. Burnett estimates that on campuses in Utah and some in Colorado, where concealed guns are permitted, only 1 to 3 percent of those who are eligible actually carry. By the time a person gets to that point, he said, "you're obviously becoming a responsible student." Those who argue that college students shouldn't carry because of the prevalence of drugs and alcohol are arguing against concealed carry in general because anyone can use a gun irresponsibly, Burnett said.

More than 260 colleges have signed a Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus resolution condemning concealed carry. According to the Colorado State University police department, campus crime has declined since concealed carry was first allowed in 2003, although that may not be a direct result of the policy. Gun lobbyists say otherwise. "Right now the laws are stacking in favor of armed killers, and that's what we want to prevent," Burnett said. "[Colleges] have no practical means of enforcing the gun-free zone. It's an honor policy…. But if I were to have the opportunity to talk to one of these deranged psychopathic killers on campus and tell them that one of their victims was armed, I guarantee you that it would make a difference in their approach."

But not everybody sees it that way. The UT student government passed a resolution this year in support of Texas’ current campus gun ban, and the student government at Texas A&M University introduced a resolution Wednesday, to be voted on in two weeks, that would do the same. Texas A&M student body president Jacob D. Robinson said that in a campuswide election two years ago, the majority of students voted to oppose concealed carry on their campus. But he’s not sure how the upcoming vote will play out. “I can see it going either way,” he said. “Carrying guns is near and dear to students’ hearts.” Yet, he added, “I own two guns but I have zero desire to bring them to school.”

Gun laws vary widely by state. Texas is one of the 24 that ban concealed campus carry. Twenty-three others leave the decision to ban up to individual colleges. Wisconsin and Illinois don't allow concealed carry period, while Utah has a state law prohibiting colleges from implementing bans.

Earlier this month, Ashley Cowie, a Florida State University student, was shot in the chest and killed at an off-campus fraternity party when a 20-year-old student who had been drinking was showing his rifle to Cowie and others and the gun accidentally discharged. As Florida legislators consider a bill that would allow weapons permit-holders to carry on campuses, Cowie's death is informing the debate among students, said Florida State student body president Dustin R. Daniels. "I think a lot of students are just outraged that the state legislature would even consider doing this after that happened," he said. "At the end of the day, essentially it was somebody being irresponsible with a firearm and somebody who died when they shouldn't have. If we are allowed to have concealed carry, there are a million ways that could happen."

Daniels said there's a "sizable minority" of students who favor the legislation, such as the rifle club on campus. He speculated that while there are "definitely" members of fraternities and sororities who own guns "for hunting and things like that," the majority of students are not gun-owners.

At the University of Utah, concealed carry has become an accepted part of life for many, said Brandon Beifuss, opinions editor of the student newspaper, The Daily Utah Chronicle. "I don't think that we have to deal with it too much because it's generally hidden," he said. "Often people said it was uncomfortable, but they also said it was a constitutional right and they're pretty strongly behind it." In a recent poll on the newspaper's website, about 70 percent of voters supported concealed campus carry, while 30 percent opposed it (there were about 300 total votes). Beifuss said the issue is a "perpetual hot topic" on the campus; it is frequently the subject of columns, editorials and letters.

No shooting has ever occurred on a campus that permits guns. According to a report from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, there have been far fewer major shootings on college campuses than on K-12 schools since 1997. Most shootings were carried out by students too young to have a permit, and many of those students stole weapons from their permitted parents.

In Tucson, students at the University of Arizona are still coming to grips with the shooting that occurred less than 10 miles north of the campus. Many concealed carry proponents, including some politicians tied to this session's legislation, say the Tucson shooting was another incident that could have been averted if the victims could have protected themselves. (Notably, a licensed holder who was carrying on the scene opted not to fire but to help tackle the shooter, for fear of injuring the wrong person. Also notable is the fact that survivors of the Virginia Tech rampage have insisted that more guns would not have helped.) Others, of course, say the shooting demonstrates the need for stricter gun laws.

Emily Fritze, student body president at Arizona, said the student government hasn't taken a formal stance on the legislation, but she expects there will be a campus discussion in the near future. She said that in the face of similar legislation that failed last year, she and her peers -- as well as faculty members and the presidents of Arizona, Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University -- declared their opposition to concealed campus carry. And although this year people will use the Tucson tragedy as supporting evidence on both sides of the fence, she ultimately expects a repeat of last year's anti-gun declaration -- though debate will be intense. Many students, some of whom are permit-holders and own guns, do favor concealed carry.

Fritze has a close connection to the Tucson shooting, not only in geographic terms, but also in personal ones: she previously interned for Gabrielle Giffords, the congresswoman who was targeted and critically wounded that day. "To be honest, although I can see some of the validity in the arguments [regarding self-protection] and I recognize and understand people's concern to preserve their Second Amendment rights, I personally do not see guns and having more guns on campus as necessarily the solution," Fritze said. "It, if anything, shifts the burden from campus and public safety officers to students and faculty. I go to a university to learn and discover and participate in getting an education. And although safety is always in the back of your mind somewhere, I think I would prefer to leave the preserving of my safety to public safety officers as opposed to citizens on campus."

 

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