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Lobbying, But Looking Ahead

March 4, 2011

College administrators in the 15 states where pending bills would legalize concealed carry of weapons on campuses are not only running out of time to plead their case to politicians, they’re also being faced with the possibility that legislators simply don’t care about their concerns -- at least, not enough to vote down the bills.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in Texas, where, despite condemnation of the legislation by numerous college presidents, system chancellors, and governing boards, more than half the House of Representatives is backing one of three bills that would allow concealed carry permit-holders over 21 to bring guns to campuses. They and other politicians say these laws would make campuses safer and help prevent campus shootings like the one that killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007 (survivors of campus shootings often say otherwise).

It seems almost certain that the bill will move on to the Senate, which approved a similar one last session that later died in the House (Republicans held the majority then, too, though by a much slimmer margin than now). That makes for a grim outlook for colleges opposing guns on campus. And while most continue to lobby against the legislation, experts in campus security and risk management -- along with a few, but not most, college leaders contacted by Inside Higher Ed -- have recognized the likelihood of passage and are moving on to the next step: figuring out what they’ll do if and when their fear becomes a reality.

“My guess is that people on some of these campuses are starting to think about it, and I think it will become a more public discussion, but I think a lot of the energy has been put into ... educating the legislature about the dangers of what they’re trying to do,” said Darby Dickerson, dean of the Stetson University College of Law. Dickerson recently published a white paper about guns on campus. “Some people at this critical moment don’t want to turn the conversation to the next level, because it almost signals defeat.”

But some are quietly planning for the worst even as they continue working the Capitol. Bruce H. Leslie, chancellor of the five-campus Alamo Community Colleges System, whose Board of Trustees last month approved a resolution opposing all three bills, said the political support for the bills makes him “doubtful” that legislators are listening to the colleges’ concerns – including the Alamo trustees' counterproposal that individual institutions be able to opt out of concealed carry law.

Leslie is already considering questions of training for police, faculty and staff; modifying institutional policies and procedures (though the specifics are unclear at this point, changing the weapons policy is an obvious one); ensuring that people with guns are permit-holders; and protecting the safety of high school students and younger children who often visit Alamo campuses for competitions, dual-credit programs and other events. “There’s just a lot for us to have to think about and we’re just beginning to have those conversations,” Leslie said.

At the University of Utah, in the only state that prohibits colleges from banning the concealed carry of weapons, a spokesman said that the only adjustment in campus operations has been to allow students in university housing to request a roommate who doesn’t have a concealed weapons permit (and no such requests have come in, he said). However, Utah's website warns people on the campus that it is “very possible” that they will see someone with a weapon, and they are “encouraged” to call University Police and report the person, whom an officer would then locate to ensure that the gun was being carried legally.

That’s only one example of how concealed carry can drain colleges’ manpower and resources -- not to mention affect campus safety. “There’s a slew of challenges,” said Gary Margolis, managing partner at Margolis, Healy & Associates, a firm that consults with schools and colleges on safety and security.

Among those problems: accounting for the presence of loaded weapons in an environment rife with alcohol, drugs and young people; depending on police to decide in a split second which shooter is the good guy; considering the ways in which concealed guns could deter students or faculty from engaging in debate on contentious topics in a classroom setting; storing weapons (which in some cases could be used in a crime); and handling unattended weapons (ihn Utah, an employee once left his gun in a campus bathroom).

The list goes on. Margolis, a former campus police chief at the University of Vermont, has spoken with many colleges about the issue and testified against state legislation similar to Texas'. He said he hasn’t encountered any college administrations that support such bills.

On Wednesday in Oklahoma, a House committee approved a bill that would allow faculty members and administrators to carry guns, despite the chancellor of the Oklahoma State System of Higher Education saying that all 25 college and university presidents opposed it. That bill now awaits a vote on the House floor.

At Texas A&M University, a campuswide survey this week found that students oppose concealed campus carry 57 percent to 43 percent, with 13,624 votes tallied. (Students in states nationwide that are considering concealed campus carry legislation have similarly divided opinions.) The primary concern for the president there -- as it is for many others -- is the potential for confusion among police responding to an emergency situation.

“I think we must all be mindful that law enforcement professionals are highly trained to appropriately respond to threats and violent acts,” A&M President R. Bowen Loftin said in a statement to Inside Higher Ed. “In the heat of a gun battle, how does a police officer quickly discern that one person is actually a law-abiding citizen trying to help and someone else is a ‘bad guy’ trying to hurt?... I worry about putting our campus police, as well as our students, faculty and staff, in a very difficult and dangerous position.”

University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco G. Cigarroa seconded that concern, and expressed others as well. Cigarroa, who has solicited the opinions of students, university presidents and police, is wary of allowing weapons among young people who are separated from their families and friends, often living away from home and experiencing new emotions and mindsets -- difficult situations for first-time college students who, as incoming freshmen, reported record-low emotional health last year.

“University life is not exactly an environment that’s stress-free,” he said. “My input to the legislature is that I’ve got significant concerns about concealed handguns, and that I don’t see them making campuses safer.”

As for the assertion that more guns will deter campus shootings, many experts take issue with that. “When you allow more guns on campus, the injuries and deaths you’re going to see primarily are going to be from negligent and reckless conduct [like the recent accidental death of a Florida State University student] and increased suicides,” Dickerson said. “You’re not going to see an increase in Loughners,” she said, referring to the former community college student who critically injured U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and killed six others in a Tucson shooting last month.

And while it’s generally not the first concern that presidents mention, there’s a major requirement to addressing many of these issues (and a valuable one, at that): money. “It’s essentially, in some ways, an unfunded mandate,” Dickerson said. “Colleges and universities are essentially going to have to enforce the laws.”

And they’re not happy about it.

“I’m just trying to get people to think about, why would we do something like this, and why just higher education? It essentially changes a significant part of our culture, and you let a small number of people kind of change the landscape forever,” said Eric Reno, president of Northeast Lakeview College, one of the Alamo Colleges. “I would hope we would know what is best, and I hope they would take that into consideration.”

 

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