New Challenge to Gun Limits on Campuses

Suspension of student at Western Oregon U. leads to calls to end firearms ban at colleges and universities in the state.
February 16, 2009

Many colleges bar people from bringing guns onto campus, but that position continues to be attacked by politicians.

In Utah, the University of Utah in 2007 lost a lengthy legal fight to ban guns from its campus. Now the issue is getting attention in Oregon, following the suspension of a student from Western Oregon University. The student admits to carrying a gun, but notes that he has a concealed weapon permit from the state. The university maintains that state law also gives the public higher education system the right to ban guns from its campuses -- regardless of whether gun owners have a permit. With backing from Republican state legislators, the student says that the permit laws should trump the university's view of the issue.

The student -- Jeffrey L. Maxwell -- could not be reached. But he told the Albany Democrat-Herald that the suspension followed an incident in which campus police were looking for a suspicious person on campus. Before determining that Maxwell, a Marine Corps veteran, was not that person, they asked him if he had any weapons and he answered truthfully that he was carrying a loaded pistol. While the university has declined to discuss the specifics of his punishment, Maxwell has told local reporters that he was suspended until the fall and ordered to undergo a psychological evaluation and to write a paper on obeying the law and the impact of guns on campus.

Oregon's administrative statutes specifically state that guns are barred from public colleges (as well as elementary and secondary schools) unless specifically authorized by institutional officials. A spokeswoman for the Oregon University System said that officials there couldn't comment on Maxwell, but that the system has viewed its gun ban as based directly on Oregon law.

The case become a rallying cry of sorts for gun supporters in Oregon. The Democrat-Herald has invoked Virginia Tech to back Maxwell. "At Virginia Tech and elsewhere, rules like the ones enforced by the university system have not prevented gun violence but left people on campus more vulnerable to mass murderers," said an editorial in the paper.

A letter from Bruce Hanna, Republican leader of the Oregon House of Representatives, to the university system called its policies "out of line" and said that the state's public universities are ignoring the rights of holders of concealed weapons permits.

While much of the publicity in the state has come from critics of the university policies, others defend them.

Shawn Alford, president of Ceasefire Oregon, a group that favors gun control, said that universities "have a right and obligation to keep students and faculty safe." Alford noted that there is a long-standing tradition of heightened regulation of guns in certain places, even if states permit gun possession generally.

For example, in last year's Supreme Court decision striking down a District of Columbia gun control law as violating the Second Amendment, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote: "[N]othing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms."


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