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Gun Fight

April 17, 2009

Legislation that would allow guns on college campuses is moving forward in Texas and Missouri, but the history of other such fights suggests the issue won't be put to rest with the passage of a bill.

University officials in Utah allowed concealed weapons on campus only after protracted battles in court and the Legislature. As for Colorado, the fight over firearms continues to this day. Well after the passage of a 2003 law that many argue allows for guns on college campuses, most universities have yet to lift bans.

In contrast to the University of Colorado System, which is fighting in court to uphold its gun ban, Colorado State University's main campus in Fort Collins no longer explicitly prohibits anyone with a concealed weapons permit from bringing a gun on campus. While Colorado State technically allows weapons on campus, university officials haven’t publicized that fact, and they’re conspicuously ambivalent about the decision.

“It’s hard to be comfortable about any of it,” said Anne Hudgens, the university’s dean of students. “We’re not in a comfortable position.”

Proponents of guns on campus suggest that armed students, faculty and staff would help deter or thwart campus shootings. On the other side of the debate are many law enforcement experts and gun control advocates, who say that allowing concealed weapons on campus is tantamount to throwing gasoline on the fire of campus violence and student suicide.

Fifteen states allow colleges to decide whether to allow guns on public college campuses, and only Utah explicitly prohibits campus gun bans, according to Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, a grassroots group pushing colleges to permit weapons. By most estimates, there are fewer than a dozen public institutions that allow students, faculty and staff to carry concealed weapons.

Colorado State Policy “Vague”

When Colorado lawmakers passed a concealed weapons law in 2003, they voted to exempt elementary and secondary school grounds and a number of other facilities. Higher education institutions, however, were notably absent from the exemption list. Confronted with that fact, Colorado State officials agreed -- very quietly -- that they had to allow guns on campus for those with permits.

“We did not take the position that we were going to advertise that it was OK to bring a concealed weapon,” Hudgens said.

But others have done the advertising for Colorado State. Members of a growing movement advocating guns on campus routinely cite Colorado State as one of a handful of universities that have, in the advocates’ view, done the right thing. These advocates note that concerns about lifting bans have not been realized at the university, where there haven’t been incidents of shootings or gun thefts since the ban was lifted.

While Colorado State officials acknowledge that legally carried weapons are now permitted on campus, the university made no changes to its student code of conduct to reflect the change. The code still maintains that a firearm, “even if legally possessed,” cannot be used “in a manner that harms, threatens, or causes fear to others.”

Hudgens says the policy leaves an admittedly small window for licensed gun owners to bring firearms to campus, but they can do so only as long as they don’t use them in a way that violates the

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“College boys love things that go boom, and there is a direct and geometric relationship between the amount of beer they’ve had and the amount they like boom. You give them a six pack and boom gets really attractive; that’s a problem.” -- Chris Kelly, Missouri legislator

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code. The policy is just vague enough, however, to cause confusion, according to Richard Eykholt, chair of the university’s Faculty Council.

“My concern is that it’s unclear enough,” said Eykholt, an associate professor of physics. “I think it puts the student in the awkward position of having to make a call.”

Agreeing that the policy is overly vague, the Faculty Council passed a resolution in the fall asking that it be revisited. While clarity of language was the council’s stated goal, Eykholt readily concedes there are a number of faculty who’d like the discussions to lead toward refining or simply reversing the university’s not-so-clearly stated weapons policy.

“I think there are faculty that would like to restrict things more,” he said. “I doubt that many people want an outright ban.”

As for Eykholt personally, he says “there may well be people who have a valid need to have a concealed weapon.” Even so, Eykholt expresses doubts that the presence of concealed weapons on campus would be useful in thwarting a mass shooting, as some advocates argue.

“I hate to think of somebody in the classroom shooting and then other people in the classroom starting shooting,” he said. “A classroom is pretty crowded. I’m not quite sure a gun battle is going to make things any better.”

Even so, students and faculty with proper licensure should have an opportunity to defend themselves if they’re attacked, according to Michael Guzman, president of Students for Concealed Carry on Campus. Any policy that prohibits concealed weapons on campus gives criminals an opening to exploit, he said.

“They are given a government guarantee that when they go to these places their victims will be unarmed and unable to defend themselves,” said Guzman, a senior at Texas State University.

Court Battle in Colorado

Looming over the debate in Colorado about guns on campus is a continuing lawsuit. The University of Colorado’s gun ban has the backing of an attorney general’s opinion issued in 2003, but a suit filed in late 2008 by students and alumni says the university’s ban violates current state law.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are being represented on a pro bono basis by the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose stated aims include supporting “individual liberty” and “limited and ethical government.” Jim Manley, a lawyer for the foundation, says his clients are merely asking the University of Colorado to follow the law.

“The reason that Colorado State allows concealed carry is because when the Legislature changed the law in 2003, they made it clear that concealed carry permits were valid on university campuses,” Manley said. “CSU is simply following the state law. That’s why we’re suing UC, to force them to recognize the state law.”

University of Colorado officials see the matter differently, contending weapons policy is an issue that rightfully rests with the Constitutionally appointed regents. The regents enacted a policy in 1994, stating that the possession of firearms on campus is “inconsistent with the academic mission of the university, and in fact, seriously undermines it.”

“Those who brought the lawsuit, we believe they are not interpreting the law correctly and that they don’t understand the role of our Board of Regents, which is [outlined] in the Constitution,” said Ken McConnellogue, spokesman for the University of Colorado System.

The system’s position is backed by a 2003 opinion written by Ken Salazar, the state’s former attorney generally who now serves as U.S. secretary of the interior. In his opinion, Salazar argued that the 2003 legislation did not override the regents’ authority to set university policies. To do so, the Legislature would have needed to have “expressly” limited the regents’ powers with regard to weapons policy, and the law doesn’t do that, Salazar wrote.

The University of Colorado has filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, and Colorado State officials say they’re hoping the conclusion of the case will provide clarity on the law as they consider revisiting their own policy and conduct code.

Legislation in Texas, Missouri

As the debate over guns on campus continues to unfold in Colorado, two other state legislatures are now grappling with the issue. In both Texas and Missouri, the fight is heating up. On Thursday -- a date chosen to coincide with the two-year anniversary of the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech -- protesters took to the Capitol in Texas opposing legislation that would allow guns on campuses.

Among the protesters was John Woods, a graduate of Virginia Tech who dated a woman killed in the shootings. Woods says he’s unconvinced that the presence of concealed weapons on campus would have helped change anything on that fateful day two years ago when Seung-Hui Cho gunned down 32 people before killing himself.

“I have the advantage or disadvantage of having talked to a number of survivors about their experiences,” said Woods, now a graduate student studying molecular biology at the University of Texas at Austin. “Every one said the same thing: It happened too quickly; guns wouldn’t have helped.”

Larry Hincker, associate vice president for university relations at Virginia Tech, agrees. University officials were outspoken in their opposition to failed legislation in Virginia that would have allowed guns on college campuses, and Hincker says no one in the university administration ever seriously considered supporting such a law.

“I think it’s really important for people to understand the mindset of the Virginia Tech campus in the wake of April 2007,” he said. “The notion -- after what happened to our campus -- of other people walking around with guns on their hips in the classroom was one that I don’t think anyone mentally could get their heads wrapped around.”

While the movement to bring guns to college campuses may be growing, advocates have had little success. Legislation allowing concealed weapons at colleges was introduced in 17 states last year, and none of the bills passed.

The poor track record of passage has not deterred Rep. Brian Munzlinger, a Republican from Williamstown, Mo., who sponsored that state's campus gun bill this session. Munzlinger, who said he was approached by students who supported changing the law, says having guns on campus would serve as a deterrent for shooters -- even though they’re often suicidal.

“If you want to look at where mayhem occurs, it’s where you have gun free zones,” Munzlinger said.

Munzlinger’s view is not shared by Chris Kelly, a Democrat from Columbia, Mo., who opposes the bill. Kelly says the legislation, supported by pro-gun lobbyists, is a “test vote” to see which lawmakers are most gun friendly.

“The gun lobby is huge in Missouri,” Kelly said, “and the gun lobby cannot quit while it’s ahead. The gun lobby needs ever more extreme regulation every year.”

Munzlinger has taken campaign contributions from pro-gun groups like the National Rifle Association, but says “I’m also a member of those groups.”

Kelly bases his opposition partly on experiences as a judge in Columbia, home to the University of Missouri's flagship campus, among other colleges. After witnessing the prevalence of alcohol among college students, Kelly says he’s worried about adding guns to the mix.

“College boys love things that go boom, and there is a direct and geometric relationship between the amount of beer they’ve had and the amount they like boom,” he said. “You give them a six pack and boom gets really attractive; that’s a problem."

That opposition is shared by Gary Forsee, president of the University of Missouri System.

“Missouri’s college students should be allowed to learn and exchange ideas in an environment free from the threat of concealed guns,” he said in a statement. “It is hard to imagine that such a proposal could gain support given the magnitude of gun-related tragedies experienced on college campuses across the country.”

Jack Watring, chief of police at Missouri’s Columbia campus, is also concerned about the legislation. Far from helping in a campus shooting situation, Watring says armed students and employees would make a crisis even more complex.

“I’m responding as a police officer to a shooting [in a large auditorium],” he imagined. “How do we know who is the good guy and who is the bad guy?”

 

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