A new policy at the University of Colorado (CU) will establish a separate dorm for students with concealed-carry gun permits at the Boulder and Colorado Springs campuses. This follows a March 6, 2012 state Supreme Court decision that struck down the university’s ban of guns on campus, the most recent salvo in the ongoing battle between the state university and the state’s powerful gun lobby.
This decision raises important questions about campus safety. I am not just referring to the deeply disturbing frequency of campus violence, including the nation’s most deadly school massacre at Virginia Tech in 2007. Rather, I am referring to the safety issues that might arise in the context of the usual activities that go on in the close quarters of a college dorm. Alcohol and drug use, academic stress, love triangles: the freedom from parental supervision and new independence that many young college students experience in college dorms creates an “anything can happen” environment that already presents significant safety issues on college campuses. In such a potentially volatile atmosphere, should students old enough to hold gun permits really be allowed to live on campus with their guns?
The Legal History
Colorado has long been a battleground over the right to carry guns on campus, and the conflict has a long and tangled history. It started at another school, Colorado State University (CSU) in February 2010, when the university board unanimously voted to ban all firearms on campus and not just in the residence halls, which had already been gun-free. This drew the ire of students, parents, and university regents, who argued that gun bans on campus actually increased crime on campus. The student senate voted against the ban, citing the Virginia Tech massacre as an example of why students should be allowed to carry weapons on campus for self- protection. A Republican state legislator also proposed a bill that would nullify the ban. In response, CSU’s board issued the following public statement:
“We respect that there are many differing opinions on this issue, but members of the CSU System Board believe this is a reasonable and responsible step to manage risks and reduce the threat of potential harm to students and other persons on our campuses.”
The university’s position was partly based on information from the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, which argues that “concealed weapons do not reduce violence” and that “having concealed weapons on campus increases the chances of accidental discharge at student parties or gatherings and guns being used to solve disputes. Police responding to an incident involving an active shooter may not be able to distinguish between the shooter and others with firearms.”
Subsequent court rulings decided in favor of the gun-rights advocates, and students at CSU are currently allowed to carry their weapons everywhere on campus. This victory galvanized gun rights groups such as the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners club (RMGO), which began to pursue similar campus gun bans in Colorado, resulting in a new legal tug-of-war over campus gun rights, spearheaded by RMGO and a student organization that supports gun rights, and the state’s flagship university, the University of Colorado. This was resolved by the state Supreme Court’s decision that CU students are legally entitled to carry their guns under the state’s 2003 Concealed Carry Act, which means that students at the University of Colorado, which has residential campuses at Boulder and Colorado Springs, can now carry weapons on campus.
Potential Problems of Guns on Campus
Now the University of Colorado has decided to create a unique living environment for their students with concealed weapons. The Denver Post refers to this as “segregation”: students over the age of 21 who have concealed carry permits will now have to live in specified dorms off the main campus if they want access to their guns. This does not seem like segregation: students with concealed carry permits can live in regular dorms as long as they do not have their weapons there. Instead, they have the option to take advantage of the school’s gun storage program with the police. At the Colorado Springs campus, students with the permits can live in upperclassmen dorms and must have the permission of their roommate(s).
While it looks as if the university has crafted a thoughtful response to the state’s Supreme Court decision, there are many potential problems with allowing students to possess their guns while living in the university’s dorms:
- State law is not the only relevant law on a campus, which usually receives some form of federal funding whether it is public or private. Students with concealed-carry permits are not the only students with rights. The students who do not have such permits, and who do not have guns, have a right to live in a gun-free environment. It seems patently unfair for a student to be forced to live with dorm-mates who keeps guns in their rooms. A campus is also a workplace: staff and faculty have a federal right to work in an environment free of violence and intimidation.These can easily be construed as constitutional arguments against guns anywhere on campus.
- Guns are not necessarily the best choice for self-defense. In response to Liberty University’s decision to allow guns on campus, Vietnam veteran and gun-owner Charles Ervin pointed out that the argument that guns are necessary on campus for self-defense is faulty because “weapons, and specifically guns, are not made for defense although they can be a deterrent if properly applied” and “guns on campus only provide more firepower to those who are willing to put their lives at risk. Seasoned police veterans will tell you, and it’s one of the mainstays for ‘carrying.’ You can’t brandish a weapon: If you pull it, it does you no good unless you use it. If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it and it end up being used on you … or someone else.”
- Not everyone with a permit is trained, rational, and mature. As a professor, I have dealt with students who have had PTSD breakdowns in my class, drunk and drugged students, and students with severe anger disorders. I am very grateful that they did not have ready access to guns in my workplace. Also, what effect will guns have on campus dialogue, social interaction, and community if those who are unstable are allowed to have their guns? It may create a culture of fear and anxiety that could be incredibly damaging to the spirit of free inquiry. As one writer argued in USA Today, “To believe that armed students and professor might stop campus crime is an alluring idea. But the tiny chance that someone with a gun might be in the right place – and have the necessary skill and nerve – to deter a criminal or an insane shooter isn’t worth risking the way everyday gun carrying could change the atmosphere in classes and dorms, or the unintended dangers it would bring.”
- Campuses do not have the same fire and police resources of the average city. Yes, stress, love triangles and alcohol and drug use certainly occur all over the place, not just a college campus, and definitely in areas of high population concentration like cities. But all of this makes campuses very different from the average social environment. Also, the residents of any given apartment building have not been self-selected as a gun-carrying population. The concentration of guns in a relatively small area may stretch the resources of campus safety administrators.
In the midst of the controversy, university officials and judges may not have taken such concerns into account, especially the rights of those who oppose guns on campus. Though gun-rights advocates may argue that the government that governs least governs best, and therefore gun control regulations are not democratic, we must also remember that the principle of liberty is based on the idea that individuals have rights so long as they do not infringe upon the rights of others-including those who wish to live in a gun-free environment. This issue has yet to be resolved in the national gun-rights debate, so it’s unlikely that campus policies will magically resolve it. For now, the gun-friendly dorm remains an experiment.
What do you think of this issue? Should students with gun permits be allowed to live on campus with their guns?