In a highly anticipated decision and the second ruling of its kind this academic year, the Colorado Supreme Court on Monday said the University of Colorado’s policy banning guns from campus violated state law.
The ruling follows an Oregon Court of Appeals decision in late September that overturned a longstanding rule of the state university system, which, like Colorado, can no longer ban concealed carry for permit-holders.
While not entirely unexpected, the ruling settles a long-running dispute in which the University of Colorado Board of Regents declared itself an exception to state law in banning guns on its four campuses.
Colorado had been prohibiting guns even after the state’s appeals court ruled in 2010 that the ban violated the statewide Concealed Carry Act, which allows permit-holders to carry weapons in all places except some federal properties, elementary and secondary schools, and in buildings with fixed security checkpoints. After that ruling, Colorado State University repealed its gun ban, but the University of Colorado kept its in place as the Supreme Court considered the case. The policy, adopted in 1994, pre-dated the state law.
“We do expect that the rest of the colleges in Colorado are going to see the handwriting on the wall because of this decision, and will adopt more reasonable policies to comply with the Colorado law, but if not, we might have to consider legal action against them as well,” said David Burnett, communications director for Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, which filed the lawsuit. The Colorado Community College System also opted to allow guns after the 2010 decision, but several institutions still prohibit them, he said. “This is black and white -- there’s no gray area.”
University of Colorado at Boulder President Bruce Benson all but chided the Supreme Court in a statement Monday.
"We are disappointed the Colorado Supreme Court determined that the Board of Regents does not, in this instance, have the constitutional and statutory authority to determine what policies will best promote the health and welfare of the university’s students, faculty, staff and visitors, whose safety is our top priority," Benson said. "The Board of Regents is in the best position to determine how we meet that imperative. We will abide by the ruling and determine how it affects our campuses."
Burnett framed the decision as another victory in the movement toward campus concealed carry. Last summer legislators in Wisconsin and Mississippi passed laws allowing concealed weapons permit-holders to carry guns on campuses, and similar bills could be considered this year in more than a dozen states including Arizona, Georgia and Kansas.
Students shouldn’t be “prosecuted or persecuted” for wanting to be able to protect themselves on campuses, Burnett said, particularly when it’s all but impossible to effectively enforce a gun ban without installing metal detectors at every entrance. His organization also takes issue with the idea that states will allow concealed carry in so many public spaces other than college campuses.
“I think this is yet another rung in the ladder that we’re climbing right now,” Burnett said. “We do expect that other states are going to be looking at this, they’re going to be looking at the trend ... and we do expect to see additional victories in the future.”
More than 200 campuses in six states currently allow concealed carry in some form, Burnett said, be it campuswide or only in certain areas.
Anti-gun activists, meanwhile, lamented the Colorado decision but didn’t cast it as a game-changer.
“Today’s definitely a setback,” said Andy Pelosi, director of the Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus. But, he added, “I don’t know if it’s necessarily a trend.”
Pelosi pointed to a January ruling by the Virginia Supreme Court, which said George Mason University’s ban on guns in buildings and at events is permissible under the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Because the students who brought the Colorado case won it on statutory grounds, the court stopped short of addressing the lawsuit’s claim that the ban violated the Second Amendment. Had it backed concealed campus carry on constitutional grounds, the case could have had a more significant impact on legal precedent.
Pelosi also noted that in Oregon, where the court ruled that the university system could not ban guns across campuses, there is some recourse: the State Board of Higher Education skirted the decision by voting Friday to prohibit them from events and facilities including classrooms, dormitories and other buildings.
While it’s unclear where things will go from here, Pelosi said, Colorado might follow the course of the Oregon state board in fighting back against the ruling, or new legislation could give its Board of Regents the legal authority that the Supreme Court said it lacks.
The court declared in its opinion that the Concealed Carry Act does in fact apply to Colorado’s regents.
“We hold that the [Concealed Carry Act’s] comprehensive statewide purpose, broad language, and narrow exclusions show that the General Assembly intended to divest the Board of Regents of its authority to regulate concealed handgun possession on campus,” the opinion said. “The court concluded that because the CCA prohibits only ‘local governments’ from adopting or enforcing laws contrary to the CCA, and the Board is not a ‘local government,’ the Board was not divested of authority to regulate concealed handgun possession on campus.”
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