States investigate easing campus gun control regulations
Legislators in several states are considering legislation that would allow students to carry licensed firearms on campus.
Officials in Texas, Arizona, Tennessee, Michigan, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Florida, Nebraska and Mississippi have proposed the loosening of gun control on college campuses.
This wave of legislation comes in the wake of recent events, including the Tucson shooting in January of this year and the campus shootings at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University in 2007 and 2008, respectively.
“Campus carry” advocates argue that allowing students with licenses to carry concealed weapons on campus would enable them to defend themselves and others in the case of an attack.
According to Andy Pelosi, director of the Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus, an extension of GunFreeKids.org, this argument is not strong enough to justify allowing concealed weapons on campus.
“We don’t think arming students is going to deter the rare campus shootings. We’re not convinced that that deterrent factor is going to come into play,” he said.
John Moynihan, a junior interested in student safety issues, thinks that the proposed legislation could have a basis in long-term foundations.
“It might also be a reaction to anti-gun sentiment that’s been building for about the last four years, about a Democratic president and Congress [potentially] restricting handgun rights and permits. Right before the election, there were a lot of people talking about getting a gun permit before they were restricted further,” Moynihan said.
The right to bear arms is enumerated in the Second Amendment to the Constitution, though its interpretation is much debated. State governments are currently able to restrict these rights in public institutions like universities.
While anti-gun advocates argue that these restrictions are important in a college setting, gun rights advocates by contrast say that college environments are not different enough from the rest of society to merit such policy exceptions.
Increased incidence of high-risk behaviors on college campuses, such as binge drinking and drug use, are commonly cited by anti-gun advocates as reasons to keep weapons off campus. Other factors that might increase risk of gun accidents among college students include high stress, elevated suicide risk and more opportunities for gun theft in a dormitory setting.
According to Washington University Chief of Police Don Strom, college campuses are safer than most other settings.
“Except for some very tragic episodes…the actual incidence of violence on college campuses is very low. College students experience less violence on an annual basis than non-students do. So, as a whole, college campuses are safe environments for students,” Strom said.
Strom thinks that allowing concealed weapons on college campuses is an added risk to students, a sentiment reflected by the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators.
“There are studies that show that bringing guns into a campus environment can actually increase the danger for people on the campus,” Strom said. “I don’t think it complements the culture of a college campus, and I think that frankly, a lot of people on our campus would be particularly furious being in an environment daily where they were wondering if the person next to them was carrying a firearm or not.”
According to Pelosi, students at many of the public universities in the states where this legislation has been proposed are opposed to the changes, which has been shown by student petitions and other demonstrations of activism.
“The legislators also need to be listening to the folks that are running the schools, as well as the students who attend it,” he said.
Pelosi suggests alternate means of making campuses safer, including mental health screenings and higher security measures.
Washington University does not allow concealed handguns to be carried on campus or stored in cars parked on campus. Because of this, students with gun permits who live off campus are unable to carry concealed weapons with them for protection as they walk home.
The University also restricts non-lethal items, allowing pepper spray but not stun guns or tasers. The state of Missouri does not require permits to carry these items.
“The University is constantly looking at those policies and reviewing them, and so I think we’re in a good place,” Strom said.
Moynihan suggested that gun policy reformers should focus on the licensing process, rather than regulations for carrying weapons.
“Presumably, the permit application process weeds out people who are risks anyway. So, if we’re talking about reform, maybe the answer is to loosen these restrictions for people who have permits but tighten the regulation process for obtaining the permit,” Moynihan said. “That would help keep handguns out of the hands of people who might be dangerous but allow everyone else to exercise their constitutional rights.”
Other issues that come into play for universities considering loosening gun restrictions include higher insurance premiums. A stricter process for obtaining permits might also help to mitigate this issue.
Still, many worry that there are too many risks associated with allowing concealed weapons on campus, including accidents and even the potential stifling of academic debate.