In the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Fla., and Trump administration support for arming teachers, debates about the role of guns in schools are taking on a new intensity across communities and in state capitols. But colleges and universities have been facing the controversy, along with the legal realities, for many years.
Utah was the first state to allow residents with concealed weapons permits to carry their guns onto university campuses and into college classrooms. The decision followed a 2006 state Supreme Court ruling that the University of Utah did not have the authority to regulate firearms on its campus, eliminating the school’s decades-old ban on concealed weapons.
The court case wasn’t the university’s first attempt to stop campus carry. In 2001, it sued to keep its concealed gun ban after Utah’s then attorney general issued an opinion that state-funded colleges couldn’t prohibit concealed carry on their campuses. The university won. Then, in 2004, the Utah legislature passed a statute prohibiting state and local entities, including universities, from enforcing a rule that in “any way inhibits or restricts the possession or use of firearms on either public or private property.” The university sued again and wound up on the losing side of the 2006 state Supreme Court case.
“There was real fear about [campus carry],” said Barbara Snyder, vice president for student affairs at the University of Utah, in describing the lead-up to Utah’s campus carry law. “As an institution, we opposed it quite vigorously and made sure that decision makers understood what the impacts could be.... Fortunately, we have not experienced the impacts we feared.”
Nearly 15 years after Utah enacted campus carry, nine states—Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Oregon, Texas, and Wisconsin—have followed suit in passing laws that explicitly allow the concealed carry of weapons on public university and college campuses. Another 16 states prohibit concealed carry on campuses, and 23 states allow universities and colleges to make their own decisions about campus carry. Tennessee law allows full-time public university and college employees with the proper permits to carry concealed weapons in certain campus areas after officially notifying campus police. Last year, the Tennessee legislature considered a bill to extend campus carry to part-time employees, but it didn’t pass.
In Ohio, people with permits can keep their guns locked in cars in campus parking lots. The state’s campus carry law, signed in 2016, also lifted a blanket ban on carrying concealed weapons and left the decision up to individual boards of trustees. To date, only Cedarville University has taken advantage of the new law, changing its rules in 2017 to allow full-time faculty and staff to apply to carry their guns on campus.
Many states have tried and failed to pass campus carry. In some states, such as Florida, campus carry has failed to make it to the governor’s desk despite multiple attempts.
The debate over expanding gun rights on college campuses has been a lightning rod issue across the country in the past five years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). In 2013, at least 19 states introduced legislation to allow concealed carry on campus, followed by 14 states the next year. During the 2018 legislative session, six states tried, but failed, to enact campus carry laws. West Virginia, for example, introduced legislation that would have prohibited governing boards from restricting concealed carry except in certain venues, such as arenas and daycare centers. South Carolina failed to pass a bill to remove all currently excluded locations where a concealed gun can be carried. And New York considered legislation to allow rifles, shotguns, and firearms on college campuses.
While campus carry may be popular in state legislatures, a number of surveys show that a majority of students and faculty don’t support concealed guns at their institutions. For example, a 2013 study of nearly 1,700 students at 15 public Midwestern universities, published in the Journal of American College Health, found that 78 percent were unsupportive of concealed guns on campus. A 2013 survey of nearly 800 faculty found 94 percent were unsupportive of campus carry, and a 2014 survey of more than 400 university and college presidents, found that 95 percent opposed the idea. Such survey numbers, against the backdrop of recent legislative trends, indicate that universities and colleges are often in the delicate position of representing their constituents’ serious concerns about concealed guns while preparing to comply with campus carry laws.
“At the end of the day, this is the law,” said Snyder, who also is an associate professor of educational administration at the University of Utah. “And we’ll abide by the law.”
THE VIEW FROM THE GROUND
Utah law allows concealed carry permit-holders to bring guns anywhere on public university campuses, except into large athletic venues. Concealed guns are allowed in classrooms and dormitories, and the university is not allowed to inquire about who is carrying the firearms.
In getting ready for campus carry, Snyder said clear communication was key. After the law went into effect, the University of Utah added information about campus carry into student orientations and made efforts to inform both students and parents on exactly what the law allowed—and what it didn’t. The school also launched a campaign to educate people on what to do if someone was carrying an exposed weapon. Snyder said the goal was to prevent people from taking action on their own and to encourage them to call campus police instead. She said the school also made it clear that it wouldn’t “turn a blind eye” to people who violated the law by openly carrying guns.
“Communication was the biggest opportunity we had,” Snyder said. “We wanted to make sure everyone felt safe.”
In the early days of the law, Snyder said the University of Utah documented a small handful of minor incidents—such as people carrying their weapons unconcealed—but the campus hasn’t experienced any injuries associated with campus carry. She noted that she is not aware of a campus carry incident that resulted in stifled speech in the classroom, a concern often at the root of lawsuits challenging such measures. Still, she said the idea of concealed weapons at school remains an unpopular one on campus.
“Many of the concerns that we had and many of the things we thought might happen did not happen,” Snyder said. “Does that mean all the members of our community are supportive of this? Absolutely not. In fact, the majority of students, faculty, and staff were not supportive of campus carry, and I’d say that sentiment prevails to this day.”
Clear communication was also key in Colorado, said Ken McConnellogue, vice president for communication at the University of Colorado System. State lawmakers passed a concealed carry law in 2003, without exceptions for higher education. The University of Colorado System (CU) initially kept its ban on concealed guns, citing an opinion by then State Attorney General Ken Salazar that the board of regents, via the state constitution, had the authority to make its own rules on campus carry. In a 2012 lawsuit brought by Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled unanimously against the university’s ban.
Today, people ages 21 and older who are permitted to carry concealed guns can do so on the system’s campuses. Concealed weapons are allowed inside most CU buildings, but not inside sporting venues. Students cannot keep guns in residence halls, with the exception of one hall where they are allowed to keep their permitted guns with them, although McConnellogue said very few students have taken up that offer. Outside of that residence hall, campus police provide gun storage facilities with 24-hour access for those who live in university housing.
The implementation of campus carry was a “smooth one for us,” McConnellogue said. The only related incident in the system to date happened in 2012 when an employee with a concealed carry permit accidentally discharged her gun at work, causing minor injury to a co-worker.
McConnellogue said many in the CU community, including campus police officials, were opposed to concealed carry on campus—and probably still are. But over the years, he said the campus community has come to accept the campus carry law. When the law was still new on campus, university officials made pointed efforts to educate parents, faculty, staff, and students on the new gun rules. Today, he said the issue is “part and parcel” of campus safety education.
“This issue, as it does in society, draws passionate feelings on both sides,” he said. “Personally, [campus carry] worries me, but I think the example of Colorado [shows] that a lot of the fears we heard about when this was first proposed just haven’t played out— which isn’t to say they won’t one day.… Not to minimize the fears, but so far, [they] have been far greater than the reality.”
Georgia is home to one of the country’s newest campus carry laws. Gov. Nathan Deal signed the law in 2017, just a year after vetoing a similar bill. The state’s law allows people with concealed carry permits to carry concealed weapons on public college and university campuses, except in specifically exempted areas such as laboratories, athletic venues, and daycare settings.
In the year since campus carry went into effect, public campuses in Georgia are reporting some confusion over what the law does and does not allow. A July 2018 article in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported numbers from an open-records request showing that since the law has been on the books, the Technical College System of Georgia has documented eight incidents in which a person has brought a gun into an unauthorized location, and the University System of Georgia has reported 15 violations of the law.
Mark D’Alessio, spokesperson for the Technical College System of Georgia, which includes 22 colleges and 85 campuses, confirmed the eight incidents, but said the number does not represent a “significant change” in the occurrence of such incidents when compared with pre-campus carry years. Like his peers in other campus carry states, D’Alessio said communication is a central part of preparations.
“As with any new law, a period of education is required,” he said. “We were proactive in preparing all stakeholders for the law through communications and training prior to the law going into effect. Early communication is key.”
While public universities and colleges bear many of the changes that come with campus carry laws, private schools can feel the impact as well.
“Maybe 10 years ago, there was an assumption these laws would only apply to public institutions, but that’s not true so much today,” said Ray Martinez, president of Independent Colleges and Universities of Texas Inc., which includes 40 four-year independent schools across the state. “Today, on issues like campus carry or campus free speech or open-records laws, we increasingly see legislation in which the intent is to make it applicable to both private and public education institutions.”
The Texas campus carry law, which passed in 2015, actually applies to both public and private institutions, but gives private schools the choice of opting out of campus carry. According to the law, private colleges that want to opt out—and virtually every private school in Texas has done so—must consult with students, staff, and faculty before prohibiting concealed carry and then put up signage around campus alerting people to the rules.
Martinez noted that allowing private schools to opt out of the Texas law wasn’t a given, and gaining inclusion of the provision required a good bit of advocacy. “A top issue for us is protecting institutional autonomy, and we saw this issue very much along those lines,” Martinez said.
Marjorie Hass, now president of Rhodes College in Tennessee, was serving as president of Austin College, a private school in Sherman, Texas, when the state adopted campus carry. In complying with the law’s opt-out rules, Hass met with a variety of groups on campus, including student government, the faculty governance body, and alumni. In every instance, she said, campus constituents supported opting out. In fact, she noted, some of the most passionate supporters of opting out were people with concealed carry permits. She added that in talking with students, their top concern about campus carry wasn’t the threat of violence, but the impact on suicide risk and self-harm.
Trustees played a major role in securing the college’s opt-out language, according to Hass. “When campus carry is under discussion, it’s very important that private institutions be aware that what gets decided can very well have an impact on their campuses,” she said. “In fact, private institutions can sometimes be used as a bargaining chip.… So be focused and organized.”
‘A REALITY WE NOW FACE’
In states where campus carry is brought to legislative floors, universities and colleges have for years found themselves squarely in the middle of the nation’s polarized and highly contentious gun debate.
In the early 2000s, for example, during the initial push to pass campus carry in Utah, Bernard Machen, then president of the University of Utah, spoke out often and forcefully against the idea, arguing that the institution had a right to ban concealed guns. “Classrooms, libraries, dormitories, and cafeterias are no place for lethal weapons,” he told The New York Times in 2002. Newspapers reported that following Machen’s vocal opposition, a state legislative committee unsuccessfully considered a motion to cut his salary. More recently in 2011, the University of Utah re-entered the gun debate, this time arguing against the idea of openly carrying guns on campus.
In the years since Utah’s experience, similar debates and legal battles have broken out across the country. In Florida, for instance, where lawmakers have tried many times to get campus carry on the books, Florida State University (FSU) President John Thrasher has been a longtime and vocal opponent, arguing that campus carry does not make schools safer. Thrasher is currently being sued by the gun rights group Florida Carry over FSU’s rules regarding the types of guns students can keep locked inside vehicles in campus parking lots.
Much of the time, opposition to concealed weapons in higher education zeros in on campus safety and academic freedom—in particular, that more guns don’t result in safer campuses, as proponents often argue, and that concealed weapons have a negative impact on an institution’s core mission of academic inquiry. While the literature on the specific impacts of campus carry is still rather thin, there is some evidence that backs up such safety concerns. For instance, a 2016 paper on firearms on college campuses, published by Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, noted that the data show “no evidence” that right-to-carry laws reduce mass shootings or the number of people shot during such incidents—an important point, as campus carry laws are often proposed to counter incidents like the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting that killed 32 people. The paper also cites research showing that access to firearms “substantially increases suicide risks, especially among adolescents and young adults.” Suicide already is a leading cause of death among younger adults, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
On the academic freedom issue, faculty have been among the most outspoken in their opposition, sometimes taking their concerns to court. Just recently, a group of six Georgia professors lost their lawsuit against the state’s campus carry law, and earlier this year, a federal appeals court rejected a challenge from three professors to Texas’ campus carry law, which went into effect in 2016. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) joined an amicus brief in the Texas fight, arguing that campus carry “law and policy thus implicate concerns at the very core of academic freedom: They compel faculty to alter their pedagogical choices, deprive them of the decision to exclude guns from their classrooms, and censor their protected speech.”
Risa Lieberwitz, general counsel at AAUP and a professor at Cornell University, said the association’s position is that concealed weapons in classrooms interfere with an institution’s mission to facilitate “open and unfettered debate in search of what may be true, but also of what may be debated in the first place.” Legally, in the Texas case, the AAUP amicus argues that not giving professors a choice over whether to allow concealed guns in their classrooms is “an invasion of their First Amendment right to academic freedom.” The amicus offers anecdotal evidence and survey data from professors who say the potential presence of concealed guns in class has a negative impact on how they teach.
“The legal argument isn’t based on the actual use of a gun to shoot somebody,” Lieberwitz said. “The argument is that the injury from this policy is a chilling effect on the academic freedom to teach.”
On a personal level, Lieberwitz said if New York state adopted campus carry, “it would have a chilling effect on me. I might change the topics I address and the examples I give to illustrate legal principles or limit how extensive a classroom debate can get.... It can turn into self-censorship.”
The AAUP isn’t the only professional higher education association to take a stand on campus carry. A number of associations, including AGB, have taken positions opposing such laws. Other groups, such as the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA), have officially come out against campus carry, while, at the same time, helping their members get ready for the reality of related laws. A 2016 NASPA report, Guns on Campus: The Architecture and Momentum of State Policy Action, lays out a national view of campus carry policy and encourages school and policy leaders to consider a number of issues when faced with campus carry, such as how the laws affect the work of campus police and crisis response.
Kevin Kruger, NASPA president, agrees with those who say that considering the typical age of university students and the big influence of alcohol on college life, increasing access to guns on campus is a bad idea. However, in states that do adopt campus carry, he said student affairs professionals are particularly adept at the kind of communication skills needed to make sure the laws are safely implemented.
“All the anecdotal evidence shows that from a law enforcement standpoint, we don’t want an environment where students are armed,” Kruger said. “We don’t believe the accessibility of firearms by untrained individuals in a classroom is a deterrent or would result in stopping some kind of mass shooting—in fact, all evidence points to [campus carry] increasing risks on campus.... But as a [higher education] professional, it’s a reality we now face.”
Of course, more guns at school can be particularly impactful for campus police. The International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators has stated that it does not believe concealed guns make campuses safer, especially in active-shooter situations in which an officer may not be able to distinguish between the perpetrator and other people with firearms.
“If officers have to be concerned about more people with guns on campus, that could have the unintended effect of slowing down an effective response to the bad guy,” said Daniel Dusseau, director of public safety and chief of police at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA). “That’s a real fear.”
In Virginia, a 2011 court case ruled that each public institution can decide on the carrying of concealed weapons, though any restrictions only apply to areas where students are most vulnerable, such as inside buildings, and not to open areas. Two years later, NOVA implemented a new policy allowing concealed carry permit holders to bring their weapons to campus, though the guns must be locked in cars and out of sight. Dusseau said while there was some concern when the policy was first announced, he’s not aware of any related problems or incidents to date.
Dusseau noted that safety had become a priority at the school years before the 2013 policy. Many of its efforts were in response to a 2009 incident in which a student opened fire in a classroom with a high-powered rifle. After the shooting, the six campuses of NOVA centralized their police operations and set up a new 24/7, state-of-the-art dispatch system to speed up response. In addition, Dusseau led a major expansion of community outreach, increasing the number of events from about a dozen a year to 200. The events, which cover topics such as de-escalation and what to do in an active shooting event, not only educate, but also help build relationships and trust between campus police and their communities, he noted. Ideally, such a proactive approach to safety will give the school a big advantage if campus carry ever comes to Virginia, he added.
“Regardless of what the law is, our job is to protect and serve,” Dusseau said. “And that’s what we’ll continue to do.”