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Guns Come to Campuses

October 3, 2011

Universities and anti-gun lobbyists have had many reasons to celebrate this year, with the death or delay of bills in more than a dozen states that would have allowed the concealed carry of weapons on campuses. But it seems the momentum may be shifting.

On Wednesday, the Oregon Court of Appeals overturned a longstanding rule of the state university system that prohibited guns on its campuses, making it legal for concealed carry permit-holders to carry anywhere on public college grounds. Only Utah's state law is as relaxed.

And early this summer, legislators passed laws in Wisconsin and Mississippi that allow anybody with a concealed weapons permit to carry a gun on public campuses. Both statutes were attached to seemingly unrelated bills that did not directly reference colleges, and the legality of the Mississippi measure is being disputed because it conflicts with current law, which prohibits carrying in any public or private school building.

Advocates of concealed carry argue that it is essential to keeping students safe. While campus police officers may protect a college to the extent that they can, license-holders would be able to respond to incidents such as the massacre at Virginia Tech University when officers don't get there in time, they say. Shootings may take place in mere minutes or even seconds, and it often takes police longer than that to arrive on the scene. Proponents also say people have a Second-Amendment right to carry on campuses as they do in most other public places. (Most campus officials dispute just about all of these claims, but many politicians do not.)

It appears that colleges in Mississippi are proceeding as usual until the legal issues are resolved. But the developments are creating major headaches – and safety concerns – at campuses in Wisconsin and Oregon that are doing everything they can to keep their grounds gun-free.

The Oregon University System will decide over the coming weeks whether to appeal the ruling, but in the meantime, its campuses are looking at possible ways to work around the law. For instance, while the colleges can’t issue a blanket ban on concealed carry for permit-holders, they might be able to include clauses in residence hall contracts or football tickets banning guns in dormitory rooms or the football stadium, said Di Saunders, a spokeswoman for the university system. But for now, the colleges are consulting with their legal counsel to figure out what’s permissible.

“We don’t know exactly what we will be doing at this point in terms of policy, but we are starting to research that,” Saunders said. “We are very, very concerned about student safety.”

The lawsuit, filed by the Oregon Firearms Educational Foundation, stemmed from the 2009 suspension of a Western Oregon University student who was a permit-holder and carried a gun on campus.

Saunders said the seven Oregon University System campuses are unanimous in their opposition to the ruling. But campus security officers – none of whom are armed themselves – will still approach any people spotted with a gun to ensure they possess a permit and are non-threatening. (While the campus public safety officers don’t carry guns, the University of Oregon can train its personnel as police officers so they can carry guns, thanks to a state law it backed. The university has not yet decided whether to take that route, though.)

“The same thing stands as has always stood,” Saunders said. “We do have the right to control what happens to our property and the behavior of people on our property if it’s inappropriate.”

In Wisconsin, meanwhile, dozens of colleges are rushing to get the signage in place that will prohibit weapons in campus buildings – one privilege they have under the new law, which takes effect Nov. 1. As long as there is a sign posted at every entrance of every building, permit-holders can legally carry guns, Tasers, billy clubs and most knives on campus grounds, but not indoors. The colleges can also prohibit the weapons at “events” – probably things such as rallies or sports competitions – but some uncertainty remains not only about what constitutes an event, but also about how to place appropriate signage at an event that takes place on, for example, a campus quad that has no designated entrances.

“There is, I still think, confusion, and I think it’ll take a while to sort that out,” said Sue Riesling, police chief at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

The University of Wisconsin System didn’t uniformly oppose the law, but it asked for an exception, so the institutions could have been excluded from the broad legislation that made Wisconsin the 49th state to legalize concealed carry. David F. Giroux, a spokesman for the system, said that while there’s no mandate for each university to post signs, all the campus leaders “are unanimous in their belief that this is the best way to help preserve a safe learning and living environment.”

Giroux said the 26-campus system contains an estimated 12,000 entrances to buildings of all shapes, sizes and materials, making this relatively simple-sounding task a fairly vast undertaking. The universities will also need to make various amendments or changes to documents such as employee handbooks and residence hall contracts, clarifying the conditions under which concealed weapons are permitted.

Madison’s campus police will need to be trained on what the law allows, but that’s a standard annual procedure, Riesling said. Her main concern at this point is getting the word out about the law to staff and students, and making sure they don’t underreact if and when they see a weapon.

“I think people are concerned about what we all are concerned about. People who have some kind of grief or beef or grievance, or something that they don’t think has been properly resolved, the fact that they can bring a gun to campus and keep it in their car is unsettling to supervisors,” Riesling said. “To me, the danger in these concealed carry laws is, when you know all guns are prohibited, if you see one, you call…. It’s the people who don’t have permits who get away with it, because the general public isn’t sure, legal or illegal? And they hesitate to make the call.”

Despite the many successes of the anti-gun lobby this year, the passage of the Wisconsin and Mississippi bills will likely direct some momentum to the other side, said Andy Pelosi, director of the Campaign to Keep Guns off Campus, a New York-based project of GunFreeKids.org.

“I definitely think there were a few setbacks – there’s no question that Wisconsin was a setback,” Pelosi said. “We have to be vigilant…. We definitely don’t take the other side for granted, and I do think that they’ll be emboldened by some of the minor victories this year.”

The 16 technical community college districts in Wisconsin are deciding individually whether to post signs on buildings. Wisconsin Technical College System spokeswoman Morna Foy said she'd heard anecdotally that all the districts were opting to bar weapons from buildings.

However, legal questions remain, Foy said. For instance, if a college does post signs prohibiting weapons, does the building owner assume liability when a shooting occurs anyway? Do mobile classrooms count as buildings? What about the temporary structures that are meant to be burned down for firefighter training? What are the rules for staff and students in classes that take place outside?

Many college officials are talking to their lawyers to sort out these things before making a final call.

“It’s sort of an odd issue, and I don’t know if it will be fully resolved unless it ends up in the courts at some point,” Foy said. “It’s very confusing.”

Like the universities, the technical colleges sought an exception to the legislation.

“Allowing concealed weapons in our buildings and on our premises is problematic for a lot of safety reasons,” Foy said. “We’re basically encouraging people to express their opinion and engage in debate, and have a place where controversy can be explored and discussed. And generally, having weapons in those kind of environments is not considered a good thing.”

Not everyone is worried, though. Danielle Hornett, president of Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College, the 550-student tribal institution in Hayward, Wisconsin, joined the Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus. And while her opposition to the new law hasn’t changed, Hornett believes her students will respect her wishes if she asks them not to carry on campus.

“The whole safety issue is a concern of everybody across campus,” Hornett said. “I personally feel that if a weapon is available, there’s too good a chance that somebody might use it in the heat of the moment and kill somebody, where if the weapon hadn’t been available, it might have been a slugfest or something, but people would still be alive.”

 

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