At least 11 states are considering whether to allow concealed weapons on college campuses this year, the latest chapter in a now seemingly annual legislative debate between gun control advocates and gun rights supporters.
Bills have been introduced, at least once, in almost half the 50 states in the past few years. Despite slow success thus far – just seven states have adopted versions of campus carry laws – gun rights advocates have their eyes on two very large prizes this year: Florida and Texas.
Right now, the odds are starting to stack up in their favour. The Texas bill has passed its Senate and is on its way to its House of Representatives. The version in Florida has passed through two Senate committees and is headed to the Judiciary Committee.
Should the bills make it through their respective legislatures, both would end up on the desks of Republican governors who are sympathetic to the gun lobby.
The arguments made on both sides of the guns on campus issue are fairly played out at this point. Supporters argue that it is a constitutional right and one that will make campuses safer from shooters and other criminals. Opponents – which usually include administrators, faculty members and campus law enforcement – claim the opposite, that more guns on campus will increase the risk of dangerous situations.
Yet for all its familiarity, the idea of guns on campus is relatively novel. Campus carry was largely a non-issue a decade ago, when the University of Utah went to court to defend its autonomy and the related right to stay gun-free. A few years later, Oregon, Mississippi and Wisconsin began explicitly allowing guns on campus.
In all, seven states have laws that allow concealed guns on campus, although the details vary on who can carry where. Twenty states still ban carrying a concealed weapon on a college campus, and 23 states leave the decision up to individual colleges.
“It’s definitely a challenging year, to say the least,” said Andy Pelosi, president of the Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus.
The campaign is prioritising Texas and Florida, with a fair share of attention also going to a bill working its way through Nevada’s state legislature.
In Texas, Pelosi said it is not clear that House Speaker Joe Straus, a Republican from San Antonio, is 100 per cent on board with the bill. Even if the bill isn’t defeated, there is the possibility that opponents will be able to carve out an agreement in which colleges could opt out of the law with an annual vote.
Florida is a different story, because the proposed bill is broader than what Texas is considering, Pelosi said. Both bills would limit the right to carry to those who have a concealed weapons permit, which is already restricted to individuals 21 years and older.
But Texas’ bill doesn’t allow weapons in places that are already prohibited by state law, including grade schools, hospitals, dorms and sporting arenas. Florida’s bill, like Utah’s, has few restrictions. That’s more extreme, Pelosi said, and he’s hoping that will hurt the bill’s chances.
So far this year, bills have failed to advance in four states: South Dakota, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming.
In the eight years since Pelosi has been working on the issue, he has seen the arguments evolve a bit.
There’s always been a steady argument over carrying weapons being a right guaranteed by the US Constitution. But in the beginning, most of the attention was focused on how armed people on campus could thwart a mass shooting. Then there was a shift to highlighting people’s right to self-defence.
“Police can’t stop the crime, only the victim has a chance to stop it,” National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer was quoted in the Herald Tribune as saying during a committee hearing this month for Florida’s bill.
This year, an argument that concealed carry on campus could help stop sexual assaults attracted attention, a suggestion those who study sexual assault on campuses deny.
On the other side, gun control advocates and college associations have focused on what they call a dangerous combination of young adults, alcohol and guns, as well as the risk of suicide.
“It seems as though with many lawmakers, those arguments don’t resonate,” Pelosi said. “So now we have to look at the pocketbook, the fiscal impact.”
Idaho’s campus carry law went into effect in July, and the required metal detectors, employee training and additional staff cost $3.7 million (£2.5 million) for five campuses.
In Florida, the State University System hasn’t put out a cost estimate. The Houston Chronicle reported that the Texas law is estimated to cost up to $47 million over six years for the University of Houston and University of Texas systems to update security, build gun lockers and prepare campus police. Much of the estimate comes from the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center’s University Police Department, which said it would have to spend $22 million.
A spokeswoman for the University of Texas system confirmed those estimates were part of the fiscal notes the campuses provided for the bill. But Students for Concealed Carry, a national group of students, parents and faculty members pushing for concealed weapons, disputes those numbers.
The law doesn’t allow for guns in hospitals, so there’s no reason the system’s medical centres should have to spend millions, according to a post on the group’s website.
The fiscal note that accompanies the Texas version of the law notes that institutions have reported varying cost estimates, but says there’s not a significant fiscal effect.
Advocates also point out that only a small percentage of students would actually be able to carry guns on campus, based on the number of students who are over 21 years old and the proportion of the state’s population that actually have concealed weapons permits. Representatives from Students for Concealed Carry did not respond to emails seeking an interview. The group has a nationwide Empty Holster Protest scheduled for next week, in which students are encouraged to wear empty holsters on campus to protest college policies barring firearms.
After the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the University of Colorado had to comply with the state’s concealed weapon law, the university spent about a year working with faculty so they knew what to anticipate about having concealed weapons in the classroom, said Patrick O’Rourke, the university’s general counsel.
Faculty were particularly concerned about the effect the presence of guns would have to fostering an environment where people feel comfortable debating sensitive issues.
“You can’t allow the change in the law to change the fundamental nature of the institution, which is a place devoted to learning and teaching,” he said.
So far, there haven’t been any issues in classrooms. But a couple years ago, a staff member accidently discharged her gun in a university building and wounded a co-worker, O’Rourke said.
NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education opposes campus carry laws, as do most other associations representing higher education. But President Kevin Kruger said he’s not confident that colleges have any influence on the debate, especially in conservative states.
“I’m not sure that lawmakers are really listening to college administrators on this issue, because if they were, they wouldn’t be enacting it,” he said.
In Florida, every one of the 12 university presidents opposes the law, as do the state’s faculty union and some student government groups. Faculty in Idaho tried to protest enacting the law, and students and faculty in Nevada are starting to organise against a bill there.
In Arkansas, a 2013 law allows faculty with concealed weapon permits to carry guns on campus, but it includes a clause that allows colleges to vote each year on whether they want to opt out. In the two years since, every public and private institution has opted out, according to local media.
Colleges are becoming more of a forum for national political debates, and the gun issue is an example of that, Kruger said.
More campuses are seeing well-funded organisations bring in money and legal resources to interpret university policies, he said. The external influence brings a level of sophistication to the campaigns that’s beyond the student activism of the past.
“I don’t know that there’s much we can do to prevent it, nor should we,” he said. “It’s just a dynamic on campus that’s new.”
US states where concealed carry is permitted, either by court order or law:
Utah (court, 2006)
Oregon (court, 2011)
Mississippi (law, 2011)
Wisconsin (law, 2011)
Colorado (court, 2012)
Kansas (law, 2013)
Arkansas (faculty only, law 2013)
Idaho (law, 2014)
US states where bills involving guns on campus are proposed this year: