In 1824, at a meeting of the governing board of the University of Virginia—a board that included founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and James Madison—members decided to prohibit weapons on campus. The specific minutes from that 1824 meeting say “no student shall, within the precincts of the University, introduce, keep or use any spirituous or vinous liquors, keep or use weapons or arms of any kind…”
Almost 200 years later, those words are finding new relevance as a growing number of universities and colleges face the prospect and reality of laws allowing campus carry, a term coined after the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech. Last year in Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal pointed to those founding fathers to explain his veto of a state campus carry law, saying their words “should not only dispel any vestige of constitutional privilege but should illustrate that having college campuses free of weapons has great historical precedent.” Hank Huckaby, then-chancellor of the University System of Georgia (USG), also came out strongly against the 2016 proposal, saying, “The bottom line—we oppose this legislation.”
Fast forward less than a year and a revised campus carry proposal that included exceptions for sensitive campus locations was back on Georgia’s legislative floor, eventually gaining the governor’s signature on May 4. The new law, which went into effect this summer, permits anyone properly licensed in the state to carry a concealed handgun to do so at Georgia’s public colleges and universities. The campus carry law includes exceptions for specific areas such as student residences, properties used for sporting events, childcare centers, faculty offices, and rooms being used for disciplinary proceedings. Unlike some other state campus carry laws, the one in Georgia does not give individual institutions any discretion in further limiting guns on campus.
To prepare for campus carry, USG released implementation guidelines for its campuses, provided additional training for campus police officers, and reached out to various campus communities at forums and workshops and through online communications. In guidelines for implementing the new law, USG Chancellor Steve Wrigley wrote, “I understand that many of you have strong feelings about this bill. Yet, whether you opposed or supported the legislation, it will soon be state law, and I respectfully ask everyone to exercise patience, understanding, and respect as we implement it.”
Of course, Georgia isn’t alone. Across the country, universities and colleges are finding themselves at the center of the national debate about gun rights and public safety. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, campus carry laws began picking up speed in the wake of a spate of campus shootings in the past decade, most notably the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech that killed 32 people.
Today, 10 states—Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Oregon, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin—have laws allowing eligible individuals to carry concealed weapons on campuses. Other states allow universities and colleges to make that decision as individual institutions. Tennessee allows properly licensed faculty to bring concealed guns on campus, but the law doesn’t extend to students. Many more states allow concealed guns to be kept locked in vehicles in campus parking lots. In a couple of cases, campus carry happened through the courts, not the legislature. For example, in 2011, the Oregon Court of Appeals overturned Oregon University System’s ban on guns, effectively allowing concealed-carry permit holders to bring guns on campus.
In Arkansas, the state’s new campus carry law technically went into effect in September 2017. However, JoAnn Maxey, general counsel for the University of Arkansas (UA) System, said officials don’t expect anyone to be legally equipped to carry on campus before 2018. That’s because Arkansas’ law is somewhat unique, requiring concealed-carry permit holders to get an additional eight hours of training before they can legally bring their concealed guns on campus. Maxey said it’s likely state police officials won’t finish drafting “enhanced” permit requirements until later this year. While the specifics are still being hammered out, Maxey said she expects “enhanced” training to include active shooter education. More specifically, the training would emphasize the importance of standing down and not interfering with law enforcement in such a situation.
The Arkansas law does put some restrictions on campus carry. For example, while a student can carry a concealed gun inside a UA dorm, he or she can’t store a gun in a dorm. The law will also bar concealed guns from athletic events, sensitive medical facilities, and any high school buildings located on a UA campus. UA will not be privy to who or how many people on campus have an enhanced carry permit.
Maxey said a big part of getting ready for campus carry has been keeping communication lines open with staff, faculty, students, and parents, and ensuring all parties that campus safety is still a priority.
“It’s fair to say that there are parents who are concerned,” she said. “I think any parent would be concerned about the fact that folks will be able to carry guns into dorms and classrooms.”
AN EMOTIONAL PUBLIC POLICY DEBATE
In the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, that took the lives of 20 children, Lawrence Schall, president of Oglethorpe University, and Elizabeth Kiss, president of Agnes Scott College, released an open letter urging stronger gun safety laws. Among its recommendations, the letter, which eventually gained the signatures of more than 400 university and college presidents nationwide, called on policymakers to oppose laws allowing guns on campuses and in classrooms.
For Kiss, the Newtown shooting was a “pivotal point, emotionally.”
“Throughout our history, our American democracy has had to figure out where we draw the line,” she said. “Choice is important, but it’s not unlimited. What good public policy seeks to do is figure out how to strike a balance between individual freedom and public safety.” Because Agnes Scott College is a private institution, it’s not subject to Georgia’s new campus carry law. Kiss said Agnes Scott will continue to ban guns on its campus.
From Kiss’s perspective, much of the reaction to school shootings falls into two camps: those who believe such shootings necessitate the relaxation of campus gun rules and those who see it as a reason to pursue ways to reduce and prevent gun violence. Of course, universities are in a tricky position because their livelihoods are so intertwined with state policy and funding. But Kiss believes it makes perfect sense for universities and colleges—where innovative research is often an overarching mission— to frame gun violence as a public health problem with science-driven solutions. For example, earlier this year, a study published in Pediatrics and using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that nearly 1,300 U.S. children die from and nearly 5,800 are treated for gunshot wounds every year. The researchers said the findings “underscore the need for scientifically sound solutions.”
But as Kiss pointed out, even though CDC collects data on gun-related injuries, policy and funding barriers have essentially stopped the agency from conducting any research into gun violence and possible interventions.
“As educators, we’re committed to evidence- based solutions to public issues,” she said. “So the notion that the nation’s leading public health agency is prevented from looking at this issue is deeply troubling to me.”
For colleges that must implement a new campus carry law, Kiss, also a member of the Duke University board of trustees, said trustees can play a significant role, especially when it comes to understanding, preparing for, and mitigating risk. Trustees, she said, can help leverage discussions about campus carry to address broader safety issues related to gun violence, such as access to student mental health and suicide prevention services.
“Trustees have a critical role in risk management and in helping institutions be strategic about the risks they may face, whether it be health and safety, financial, or reputational,” she said. “All the risks that campuses need to be savvy about—[trustees] can help [officials] take a proactive and strategic approach.”
Calculating any additional safety risk that comes with campus carry is not cut and dried. Campus carry laws are still relatively young and their impact is not fully explored. On campus gun violence in general, a 2016 report from the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City found that college gun violence nationwide grew from 12 incidents during the 2010–11 school year to almost 30 during the 2015–16 school year. The report reviewed 190 incidents at 142 colleges in which at least one person was intentionally shot, excluding the shooter, on the campus of a two- or four-year college, as well as incidents happening within two miles of campus. The increase was “most profound,” the report stated, in states that expanded gun access.
Michael Newbern, a student at Ohio State University and assistant director of public relations for the advocacy group Students for Concealed Carry, said the organization doesn’t take the position that campus carry can prevent mass shootings, but sees it as a matter of personal choice.
“Right now, our ability to choose how to defend ourselves is being taken away from us,” said Newbern, also director of Ohio Students for Concealed Carry. “If I’m licensed to carry a concealed gun into a park, I should be able to carry it onto a college campus.”
Newbern said top priorities for Students for Concealed Carry are to support the introduction of campus carry legislation, provide related education, and support state-level chapters in their advocacy work. The group has also been instrumental in the courts. In 2012, the group worked with Mountain States Legal Foundation to support a lawsuit that successfully overturned the University of Colorado gun ban, and earlier this year, a judge ruled that Students for Concealed Carry Foundation, Inc.—with Newbern listed as the plaintiff—has standing to challenge Ohio State University’s ban on keeping guns in vehicles in campus parking lots. Last year, Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed legislation allowing universities and colleges to opt into campus carry, but very few have taken up the offer.
Newbern said fears of campus carry “are usually not rooted in reality,” adding that in states with years of campus carry experience, there is “no evidence that free speech has been stifled.” He said Students for Concealed Carry does work with groups to help educate students about safe behavior and less-lethal means of self-defense. “A firearm is not a magic talisman, and we make no claim to that,” he said.
“The reason we keep winning is that the data show [opponents’] arguments are invalid,” Newbern said.
Andy Pelosi, executive director of the Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus, which works with colleges and universities to oppose campus carry, disagrees. The organization formed in 2008 after a shooting at Northern Illinois University left five people dead. With the Illinois incident coming less than a year after the Virginia Tech shooting, Pelosi said he and other advocates were concerned that gun rights advocates would start pushing hard to position campus carry laws as a solution to such incidents. At the time, Utah was the only state that allowed concealed guns on campus.
Since then, Pelosi said, the push for campus carry has quickly gained momentum. In 2017, campus carry legislation was introduced in 17 states, passing in Georgia and Arkansas.
“There are some students who want this, but it’s really the gun lobby behind this from the get-go,” Pelosi said. “The vast majority of surveys show that faculty are against it and a solid majority of students are against it.”
Pelosi also pushed back against the notion that no harm has come from campus carry or that campus carry can be a crime deterrent. He pointed to a study published this year in the Journal of Applied Research for the Association of Florida Colleges that analyzed federal crime data. The study found that on campuses where concealed guns are allowed, crime related to sexual assault rose after implementation of the law and remained stable for murder, robbery, and aggravated assault. Pelosi emphasized that he is not linking concealed-carry licensees with sexual assault; however, he said the findings do undercut the deterrent argument.
The Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus also compiles incidents that have occurred in campus carry states, mainly gleaned from news reports. The events include a 2012 incident at the University of Colorado–Denver in which a staff member with a concealed-carry permit accidentally shot herself; a 2016 incident at Tarleton State University in Texas in which a permit holder accidentally discharged a gun in a dorm; and a 2017 incident at Utah Valley University in which a permit holder accidentally discharged his gun in his book bag.
“What about the safety of others who don’t want to be around weapons,” Pelosi asked. “Don’t their rights matter?”
READYING FOR THE REALITY OF CAMPUS CARRY
Perhaps few campus officials face the practical realities of campus carry as much as campus police.
“As the chief law enforcement officer of my community, potentially having more guns on my campus could complicate my ability to bring order to chaos,” said Alexander D. Casas, chief of police at Florida International University (FIU) in Miami- Dade County.
Florida lawmakers have considered campus carry legislation a number of times, but the measure has yet to pass. Today, the state still prohibits weapons on campuses; however, in 2013, a court ruled that universities could not prohibit students with legal firearms from securely storing guns in their cars in campus parking lots. Casas said that because FIU is located in such a large metropolitan area, his force acts and trains like any other police department, including multiple tactical and firearms training sessions each year. Knowing there may be firearms in campus parking lots hasn’t changed that, he said.
In his six years on the job, Casas could only remember two arrests related to bringing a gun to campus, both occurring before the court ruling. If campus carry were to become law—which Casas predicts eventually will happen—he believes it could complicate police response efforts.
“Then, if I respond to an incident, it’s not just me and the perpetrator with guns—it’s me, the perpetrator, and other Samaritans,” he said. “That’s not a political statement about agreeing or disagreeing [with campus carry]. It’s just how it would impact my ability to do my job.”
The International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA) has strongly opposed campus carry laws, according to its executive director, Sue Riseling, who added that the association’s board will be discussing the issue again this fall. Riseling said that while most gun owners are responsible, college campuses are distinct environments with unique living conditions, “copious” amounts of alcohol and other substances, and thousands of young people newly on their own and within the age range when the initial onset of some forms of mental illness is particularly high.
“We don’t believe it is a wise practice to allow concealed carry on college campuses,” Riseling said. “There’s a lot going on in the campus environment and that’s one of the reasons we’ve really tried to counsel caution in moving toward these concealedcarry situations.”
Riseling said her association has been gathering information from members who’ve already gone through campus carry implementation to help others better prepare for the possibility. Sharing such experiences, she said, can help administrators determine possible exceptions to campus carry, such as labs with dangerous chemicals; devise enhanced training for officers and dispatchers; and estimate additional financial costs.
For instance, Riseling was police chief at the University of Wisconsin–Madison when state lawmakers legalized concealed carry throughout the state, but allowed universities to exclude concealed guns from their buildings. That meant all 26 University of Wisconsin campuses had to place signage banning concealed guns at the entrance to every single building, which meant creating and placing thousands of signs. Riseling said it’s one example of the financial costs a university could incur.
“I don’t believe legislators are considering all these concerns,” Riseling added. “That said, once the law passes, IACLEA members are going to follow the law.”
Whether and how campus carry will complicate one’s ability to do his or her job often comes up in campus carry debates, both in campus police stations and in the classroom. After Texas adopted a campus carry law in 2015, three University of Texas (UT) at Austin professors sued to overturn the law, arguing that concealed weapons in classrooms would chill free speech and make it harder to discuss sometimes polarizing and divisive topics. The suit failed, and the law went into effect Aug. 1, 2016.
The Texas campus carry law is somewhat unique in that it gives individual institutions some discretion in implementing the law, according to David Daniel, deputy chancellor of the UT System. Institutions, with input from students, faculty, parents, and other stakeholders, can create reasonable exemptions to campus carry, as long as the exemptions don’t add up to essentially banning legally concealed guns altogether.
“We wanted to follow the law, be safe, and do it in a way that let people go about their normal business as best as we could,” Daniel said. “We did not want to disrupt the normal work of the campuses in terms of education, research, and patient care.”
In preparing for Texas campus carry, Daniel said each UT campus designated a point person responsible for coordinating discussions and developing exclusion zones for concealed guns. On one campus that point person was a criminology professor, on another the chief of police or the dean of student affairs. Each campus held open meetings and set up a process to collect feedback. In essence, each UT campus devised its own rules for campus carry, with none banning legally concealed guns from classrooms and all banning guns from childcare centers, labs with dangerous chemicals, and patient care facilities.
Daniel said trustees do have a role in arguing that campus carry is implemented in a “reasonable way,” adding that the Texas experience shows that empowering campuses with some authority over where concealed guns are allowed can work.
“The law rolled out a year ago and it’s been very quiet,” he said. “We had hoped everybody would go about their business without fretting too much, and our goal of creating an environment where everyone could continue their work seems to have been realized reasonably well.”